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Does MMA Need Masters Divisions?
In it's earliest days, MMA and luta livre was an open-weight, open-rank landscape where you fought anyone, with very few (if any) limitations. As time went on and sanctioning became a bigger issue, we introduced weight classes, amateur ranks, and a host of limits to make sure that matchmaking was as fair as possible. Still, there exists one big advantage in MMA that never gets brought up: age. While most martial artists are in their athletic primes, other older fighters still have a desire to compete and push themselves. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has an answer for this already; the masters division.
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This weekend, Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz will walk into the cage for their third fight, with Chuck having won the previous two. The big difference in this fight is that both fighters are much older and instead of fighting for a world championship, they are far away from any rankings service. Chuck is 48 years old, hasn't fought in eight years, hasn't won a fight since 2007 against Wanderlei Silva, and ended up retired because of knock out and concussion concerns (which do not heal with time like a tissue injury may).
Ortiz, on the other hand, is 43 and has been relatively active. Despite retiring after his last fight (for the third time), he's making a quick turnaround and comeback (for the third time). In the time Chuck has been away, he has fought nine times, with a 4-5 record, but he does currently enjoy a 3-1 run in his last four contests. Both men walk into this Saturday's Golden Boy MMA main event as veterans trying to capture a win over a rival one last time, and while a lot of people are trying to say why they should retire, another answer does exist.
BJJ masters divisions have helped grow and develop BJJ tournaments in a huge way, by letting those who come to jiu-jitsu later in life still be able to go out and fight hard in a fair way. Getting a blue belt in his 30's or 40's who trains a few times a week while juggling a family and job, going into a match against a 20-year-old who has been training for years and just focuses on being an athlete can be a big mismatch! So, anyone 19 and older may enter the adult division, but if you are over 30, you can choose to enter the "masters" divisions, which let you compete against people roughly your age. Masters 1 is for 30-34, Masters 2 serves 35-39, Masters 3 is 40-44, and so on. So, you are now fighting people that are similar in age, weight, and rank, and this lets the jiu-jitsu knowledge be one of the most important keys to victory, not just athleticism.
So how would an MMA masters division work? Remember that there already does exist a commission that could put this into place any time they choose, but it is unlikely that the nations commissions will uniformly make a sweeping change like this anytime soon. Instead, likely a promotion would offer it to their fighters, as they start to see their performances suffer from age, or see them more hampered by injury, or as a way to sign a retired attraction back to the organization. Just like how Masters divisions have shorter fights, Masters MMA fighters could see a variety of rule changes, like not allowing elbows, or having shorter rounds, longer breaks, and a possible change to the gloves.
These divisions tend to be a little smaller, and the champions of a masters bracket won't always get the same attention as the champion of an adult bracket, but this division of athletes has let a lot of people grow their BJJ and become closer to the community through competition. As athletes come to MMA, and as our modern athletes age, being able to give them a way to compete that is safe for them, their opponent, and their body is a great way for the sport to keep offering something for everyone.
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