The higher you rise in the UFC, the harder you fall.
In the lives of most popular athletes, there comes a time when success, accolades, praise and fanfare slowly start to fade away. The fight business can be as punishing as it can be rewarding once fighters are on the wane.
We often see UFC fighters reach the pinnacle of success and then, slowly, start to lose the focus, skills and work ethic that brought them to the top in the first place. Why does this happen? Is it just complacency? Or is it the law of nature? With time, fighters age, and their instincts drop, and their bodies don't allow them to do the things they did at the peak of their abilities.
Sometimes, it's just a case of lack of hunger. You could have achieved so much that it gets difficult for you to train with the same hunger and intensity you used to train with when you had nothing. The fancy cars, the expensive watches and the top-floor lifestyle can sometimes veil the harsh reality of life.
There will always be guys younger, hungrier and more motivated than you when you're at the top. They are working to live the life that you have. It's not easy to carry a target on your back. And it's very easy to lose focus on what you set out to do and take things easy.
That's when the rude shock of a defeat is around the corner. Once that happens, the very fans cheering your name in the past will doubt your abilities. If you're not careful, the glitz, the glamour, the money and the glory can all slip away very quickly. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you can't get it back.
Let's take a look at some great fighters who achieved a lot in the UFC but are now well past their best days in the promotion.
5 brilliant UFC fighters who are past their prime
Before his fight against Justin Gaethje at UFC 249 last year, Tony Ferguson was one of the most feared lightweights in the promotion. A couple of fights later, in 2021, most of the top contenders were actively calling 'El Cucuy' out because they believe now is the best time to fight him.
Heading into the fight against Gaethje with an incredible 12 fight win streak, Ferguson was just one win away from fighting for the UFC lightweight title against Khabib Nurmagomedov. However, it looks like Gaethje didn't get the script. He destroyed Ferguson in the fight, winning it via TKO in the fifth round.
It was then Charles Oliveira's turn to dominate Ferguson at UFC 256. Oliveira almost ripped Ferguson's arm off in the fight. With back-to-back losses, Ferguson's back is against the wall and he desperately needs to win to stay relevant in the title picture, but can he?
At 37, Ferguson isn't getting any younger and the beating he took in his last two fights is bound to take a toll on him. Before these two fights, Ferguson had never been dominated so badly in a fight. With the inflow of serious talent in the already talent-rich 155 lbs division, it will be extremely difficult for Ferguson to earn himself a shot at the UFC lightweight title again.
Dominick Cruz was once hailed as the greatest bantamweight fighter to have ever stepped inside the octagon. However, since his four-year hiatus from the sport after losing the UFC bantamweight title to Cody Garbrandt in 2016, Cruz's peak has probably passed him by.
At UFC 249 last year, Cruz returned to challenge Henry Cejudo for the UFC bantamweight title. Cruz looked light on his feet in the beginning but he wasn't prepared for the leg-kicking onslaught Cejudo was about to unleash on him. The damage to the legs negated Cruz's swift movement and allowed Cejudo to pick up a TKO victory over the former champ.
At UFC 259, Dominick Cruz will take on up-and-coming prospect Casey Kenny. The fact that a future Hall-of-Famer like Cruz is fighting on the prelims of a blockbuster pay-per-view speaks volumes about whether he is past his prime.
3) Jose Aldo
Jose Aldo was one of the most dominant champions in UFC history. Aldo was undefeated for over a decade, winning 18 straight fights until UFC 194 in December 2015. The Brazilian is also regarded by many as the greatest featherweight in UFC history.
Despite all his success, Aldo will forever be haunted by that one loss to Conor McGregor at UFC 194, where got slept in just 13 seconds. While McGregor laughed his way to the bank after the fight, Aldo was stunned from suffering one of the most mentally jarring losses in his life. That too, against the man he despised more than anyone else in the featherweight division at the time.
Those who have followed the Brazilian closely know that although he recaptured the title when it was vacated, Aldo was never the same beast that he once was before fighting McGregor. Maybe it's the mind games that got to him after all but we'll never know for sure.
Aldo is now plying his trade in the bantamweight division and picked up a win against Marlon Vera after losing to Petr Yan on his debut in the division.
Former UFC lightweight champion Frankie Edgar is another veteran fighter who is evidently past his prime and could soon hang up his gloves. Edgar has just two wins in his last six fights in the promotion and has no realistic chances of ever challenging for the title again.
In his last fight, he was violently knocked out by surging bantamweight contender Cory Sandhagen. Out of his last four defeats, three of them came by way of TKO/KO. At 39, maybe it's time this future Hall-of-Famer starts seriously considering walking away from the fight game.
1) Conor McGregor
The most popular name on this list and probably the latest addition to it as well is Conor McGregor. The Irishman came, he saw and he conquered almost everything there was to be conquered in the world of combat sports.
McGregor became the first-ever simultaneous two-division champion in UFC history. He transcended the sport by boxing Floyd Mayweather for a $100 million payday, has his own whisky business, and is a regular feature on the Forbes richest athletes list.
His fall from grace was equally shocking as the Irishman got involved in multiple controversies outside of the cage before getting smashed by arch-rival Khabib Nurmagomedov in 2018.
Is Conor still the same fighter he used to be? While many might disagree that McGregor's prime has passed him by, it's a fact that the Irishman is 1-2 in the lightweight division and has won just one fight since 2018. McGregor's inactivity also seems to be a big problem, something the Irishman himself admitted to after the recent loss to Dustin Poirier at UFC 257.
In the rematch against Poirier, McGregor looked a little rusty despite having his moments in the fight. His boxing-heavy approach didn't benefit him much and the usual in-and-out linear movement was also missing from his game. He had no answer for Poirier's leg kicks and didn't come up with one of his own until his lead leg was completely dead.
McGregor may take some time to adjust to the new era of fighters and those who have remained active in his absence. Only time will tell if the Irishman can once again wear the lightweight strap but at the moment, it looks unlikely.