MMA Fighters Who Started Late: We Name 17 Popular Combatants

UFC

Last Updated on August 3, 2022

Many MMA fighters who started late are among the top fighters in MMA history.

Do you know the story of fighters like Randy Couture, Conor McGregor, and Mark Hunt?

That's what we'll talk about today. 

These phenomenal martial art fighters joined the spot in their late 20s to early 30s and became legends. Some enjoyed a series of wins since their debut fights, and we'll mention them below.

17 UFC Fighters Who Started Late

MMA welcomes fighters regardless of their age or sporting background, and that's why there are boxers, wrestlers, and former footballers in the UFC Hall of Fame. 

Let's see when some of the oldest UFC fighters joined the sport.

1. Colby Covington

Colby Covington
Colby Covington

He was 26 when he fought Anying Wang at the UFC Fight Night 48 and won his debut with The Ultimate Fighting Championship via a technical knockout. His MMA record is impressive, with 17 wins out of 20 matches by the start of 2022.

The UFC welterweight division ranks Colby Covington as number 1 since mid-2021.

2. Conor Mcgregor

Conor Mcgregor
Conor Mcgregor

It's impossible to talk about UFC without mentioning Conor Mcgregor, a former UFC and Cage Warriors champion, ranked ninth among UFC lightweight fighters in 2021.

He began martial art training at 18 years, and his debut in the UFC came at the start of 2013. Mcgregor was 25 years old then. This first fight was against Marcus Brimage, and Mcgregor won by a knockout in the first round. 

He enjoyed a series of wins for three years until Nate Diaz challenged him in 2016. Not ready to give in, McGregor won the rematch a few months later at UFC 202, an event with one of the highest pay-per-view buyrates in UFC history.

3. Matt Mitrione

Matt Mitrione
Matt Mitrione

Matt's sporting career goes beyond mixed martial arts as he also played in the National Football League. No one could believe he was left-handed because of the high right-hand knockouts he gave famous MMA fighters like Kevin Ferguson and Roy Nelson.

When he first showed up in MMA circles, it was in the 10th season of The Ultimate Fighter, and he was 31 years old.

He had 23 MMA matches and won 13, including Bellator 194 against Roy Nelson and UFC 119 when he defeated Joey Beltran through a unanimous decision.

4. Rich Franklin

Rich Franklin
Rich Franklin

Franklin's first UFC fight was in 2003 before he turned 30.

It led to a series of wins from UFC 42 To UFC 20 in 2004. The following year, he faced Ken Shamrock and defeated him in a TKO during The Ultimate Fighter 1 Finale. The same year, he won the UFC Middleweight Championship against Evan Tanner, whom he had defeated at UFC 42.

Rich Franklin had many back-to-back wins. His first loss was to Lyoto Machida in 2003 due to a series of front kicks and punches. No fighter took the former down again until 2006 when Anderson Silva gave him a knockout at UFC 64. 

The two met again at Cincinnati, Ohio for UFC 77. Anderson Silva already knew how to take Rich Franklin down because the former gave him a technical knockout.

Franklin's last UFC fights were in 2012, starting with the UFC Fight Night 147 held in Brazil, which had other fighters like Jorge Masvidal and Molly McCann in different divisions. After that UFC 147 win against Wanderlei Silva, he lost to Cung Le at UFC on Fuel held in China.

Overall, his record in 37 matches is extraordinary, with 29 wins, seven losses, and one no-contest.

5. Ronda Rousey

Ronda Rousey before joining the WWF

She switched from judo to MMA after winning a medal in the Summer Olympics in 2008. She was 24 years old, so she's one of the female UFC fighters that started late.

Ronda Rousey participated in the first female fight at UFC 157 in 2013 and won against Liz Carmouche via armbar submission, a method that makes up most of her victories. She's been a UFC Hall of Famer since 2018 and was the only woman listed in the top 20 wealthiest mixed martial artists at the start of 2022.

Rousey has six title defenses, the most acquired by a female UFC fighter.

6. Chuck Liddell

Chuck Liddell
Chuck Liddell

Chuck Liddell is a UFC Hall of Famer with 23 fights in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. 

He was 29 years old when he had his first UFC fight, which puts him on the list of UFC fighters who started late.

Liddell holds a purple belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu. Fans call him “The Iceman,” a name his trainer gave him because of Liddell's calm composure before a fight. His wins were against opponents like Kevin Randleman and Tito Ortiz. 

One of his most famous UFC fights was at UFC 43 in 2003, facing Randy Couture. He lost but later won against Couture at UFC 52 and UFC 57 via knockout. It must have been one unforgettable knockout because Couture announced he was leaving mixed martial arts on that third UFC fight night in 2006.

7. Daniel Cormier

Daniel Cormier
Daniel Cormier

Cormier was 30 years old when he debuted as an MMA fighter after competing in the 2008 Olympics.

He'd have his first UFC almost four years later by taking on Frank Mir in 2013. A unanimous decision ruled in his favor in that fight.

Cormier's opponents in his career as a UFC fighter include Jon Jones, Stipe Miocic, and Anthony Johnson. His most controversial UFC fight was his rematch against Jon Jones at UFC 214 held in Anaheim, California, in 2014. 

After Jones gave him a knockout in the third round and secured a second win, a teary-eyed Daniel Cormier sounded disappointed as he spoke to podcaster and UFC commentator Joe Rogan. It was the second defeat for the 38-year-old, and he had lost to Jon Jones on both occasions. 

Later, Jones tested positive in a drug test for a sample taken before that fight. Hence, the bout result became a no-contest, thereby giving back the championship title to Daniel Cormier.

8. Greg Hardy

Greg Hardy
Greg Hardy

Hardy joined combat sports after a football career with the Carolina Panthers and Dallas Cowboys. He was 28 when he made this career change and had his amateur fight against Joe Hawkins the following year, in 2017.

His first UFC fight came when he turned 31 years. It was against Allen Crowder, and it ended with a disqualification for hitting Crowder while he was down. Hardy's last fight at UFC was at the start of 2022, and it sealed his series of defeats since 2020.

9. Kevin Ferguson

Kevin Ferguson
Kevin Ferguson

“Kimbo Slice” was under Bellator MMA for one and a half years before he died in June 2016. Ferguson started MMA training in 2005, though he was more interested in street boxing before martial arts. His MMA debut was two years later against Ray Mercer.

The current UFC president, Dana White, challenged Kevin Ferguson to join The Ultimate Fighter show on TV if he wanted to compete in UFC. White sweetened the deal by creating a UFC show with heavyweights. 

However, Ferguson wouldn't stay long in UFC because when he lost in the second round of his heavyweight debut at UFC 13 via a technical knockout, White suggested Ferguson would be leaving the UFC. His departure materialized the following day after less than a year in UFC.

10. Brock Lesnar

Brock Lesnar vs Frank Mir P2

Did you know he's also called Edward? Did you know that he also played professional football? He eventually joined the WWE later in his career and had memorable bouts with famous professional wrestlers like Roman Reigns and Seth Rollins, to name a few! Lesnar has such an impressive record in the sporting world. 

His first MMA fight was in 2007, about a month before his 30th birthday. He joined UFC the following year and had a debut fight against Frank Mir. Lesnar's large hands had him wearing 4XL gloves when the two met. He lost but got a contract as he had a one-fight contract before. 

This was where he faced Randy Couture at UFC 91 a few months later, got a TKO, and won the UFC heavyweight championship.

11. Demetrious Johnson

Demetrious Johnson
Demetrious Johnson

Demetrious Johnson joined UFC at 24 years after launching his MMA career about three years earlier. He was among the players transferred from World Extreme Cagefighting when it merged with UFC in 2010.

His debut UFC event was a fight against Norifumi Yamamoto at UFC 126. That was in 2011, and he defeated the Japanese fighter via unanimous decision. He started in the bantamweight division and moved to flyweight in 2012.

12. Randy Couture

Randy Couture
Randy Couture

Randall Duane Couture won the UFC heavyweight title thrice and was a two-time light heavyweight champion. In total, he scooped six UFC titles. His record in UFC reads long as a champion who started wrestling in middle school.

Couture, “The Natural,” had his first UFC fight at 34 years.

That was in 1997, in a debut fight against Tony Hame, who was almost 100 pounds heavier. He later faced Vitor Belfort, a UFC 12 Heavyweight Tournament Champion with a boxing and Brazilian jiu jitsu style, and won.

Even in his 40s, he was still making headlines in UFC fights. He faced Tito Ortiz at 40, and a unanimous decision crowned him the undisputed UFC champion in the light heavyweight division. He defended his title two years later in a rematch against Vitor Belfort, whom he had defeated in 1997.

13. Dan Henderson

Dan Henderson
Dan Henderson

He joined MMA at 27 years when he debuted at the Brazil Open Tournament in 1997. He won that match, and it was the start of a 20-year career that earned him 32 wins out of 47 MMA matches. 

He's the UFC 17 Middleweight Tournament Championship, and he played in four divisions during his career. His retirement fight at UFC 204 was before his 46th birthday, and he lost to Michael Bisping in a unanimous decision. 

By that year, he was recording a pattern of wins and losses instead of his previous series of minimal to no losses. One such sequential loss is the UFC London loss to Quinton Jackson in 2007, followed by another loss to Anderson Silva at UFC 82.

14. Francis Ngannou

Francis Ngannou
Francis Ngannou

It's impressive that he became 2021's UFC Heavyweight Champion after joining MMA eight years earlier though his initial plan was to be a professional boxer like his idol Mike Tyson.

His UFC debut was in 2015 in a fight against another debutant, Luis Henrique. He was 29 years old, and he gave Henrique a knockout in the second round.

This Cameroonian has met various opponents, including Junior dos Santos, Stipe Miocic, Cain Velasquez, and Derrick Lewis. 

The fight his fans can't forget is the UFC 218 fight against Alistair Overeem in 2017. He took Overeem out in the first round, and the knockout made headlines in MMA circles. It even earned this professional MMA fighter an eight-fight contract.

15. Yoel Romero Palacio

Yoel Romero Palacio
Yoel Romero Palacio

This former freestyle wrestler had his debut MMA fight at 32 years, after training under MMA and kickboxing coaches for four years since 2008.

Opponents know him as a fierce left-handed fighter who perseveres attacks before delivering counterstrikes. He wins by knockouts and punches, thanks to his boxing skills.

He's met opponents like Israel Adesanya, Paulo Costa, and Robert Whittaker. However, he lost these matches by unanimous or split decision. The fights he's won are against Luke Rockhold, Chris Weidman, and Lyoto Machida.

Palacio signed a deal with Bellator MMA in 2020 to compete in the light heavyweight division.

16. Holly Holm

Holly Holm
Holly Holm

Holm's moniker is The Preacher's Daughter because her father is a preacher. She began her sporting career in aerobics before switching to boxing and kickboxing. 

By the time she joined MMA, she was an accomplished boxer at 30 years old. Her first mixed martial arts ended in a TKO, taking down her opponent with a series of leg kicks.

Her UFC contract came four three years later, in 2014. She then proceeded to earn her most renowned title, the UFC Women's Bantamweight Champion, by facing Ronda Rousey at UFC 193. 

Her high kicks sent Rousey to hospital. Even her hometown in New Mexico declared November “Holly Holm Month” in celebration. She's fought other UFC greats like Marion Reneau, Miesha Tate, and Amanda Nunes.

17. Mark Richard Hunt

Mark Richard Hunt
Mark Richard Hunt

He joined one of the UFC fighters that started late at 36 years old. Some of his famous fights were against Stipe Miocic, Antonio Silva, and Frank Mir. He even faced Brock Lesnar in 2016, two years before his last UFC fight. 

Lesnar had already declared he'd be leaving MMA the year before, but the WWE allowed him to meet Hunt at UFC 200. Hunt lost, but Lesnar's violation of an anti-doping policy overturned the unanimous decision to a no-contest later.

Overall, those are some of the top fighters in UFC's history.


Frequently Asked Questions

At what age do most MMA fighters start?

Most fighters start in their teens to early 20s. It gives them time to train and take on a few opponents before they are ready for signing by organizations like UFC or Bellator. 

Plus, it gives them time to decide which martial art to choose as there are different disciplines, from judo to kickboxing and freestyle wrestling.

Can you be too old to start MMA?

Some take on MMA for self-defense and fitness rather than a professional sport, so age doesn't matter.

If you want to compete professionally, then you'd have to be between 21 and 34 for UFC to sign you in The Ultimate Fighter.

The International Sport Combat Federation (ISCF) also has a few requirements for fighters over 40 years. Before competing in their tournaments, you have to prove you were an active player before turning 40 and have a trainer with a verifiable professional record because ISCF doesn't allow self-trained fighters over 40 years.

Who is the youngest UFC fighter?

MMA Junkie lists Zhu Rong as the youngest. He was born in 2000 and started his MMA career at 16 years. His UFC debut was in 2021 at 21 years.

At what age do Fighters peak?

Fighters reach their career peak between 22 and 27 years. However, since most join UFC later in life, the peak age in the Ultimate Fighting Championship is in the late 20s to mid-30s.


Conclusion

If there's a sport that proves age is only a number, it's MMA. Some fighters, such as Randy Couture, started in their 30s and made UFC headlines. This proves there's no age limit in the combat sports world.

The fighters we discussed above had successful careers in other sports, from wrestling to football, before they switched to MMA. Others, such as Francis Ngannou, were into other sports but ended up in mixed martial arts.

Which fighter's story did you like the most? Write your comments below.

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