- Brett Okamoto, ESPN Staff Writer
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If the current landscape of UFC champions is any indicator of the future, 30 might be the new 40 in mixed martial arts.
The average age of today’s UFC titleholder is just under 29 years old. That number drops significantly if you remove old man Anderson Silva, 37, from the equation.
Keep in mind that’s how old these guys are right now. If you look at the average age of each champ when he won the title, it drops to an even 26.
That’s right, 26 years old. That doesn’t mean the 30-somethings on the UFC roster can’t or won’t win a belt, but it might mean we probably shouldn’t refer to any fighter 26-and-older as a “prospect.”
The reason I bring it up is because four lightweights are scheduled to compete at UFC 155 who are under the age of 30. All have shown flashes of elite-level talent, but none have fought for a UFC title.
Melvin Guillard, Jamie Varner, Jim Miller and Joe Lauzon -- they definitely have time. You could argue none have peaked yet. Still, considering the trend of younger UFC champs, the best time for them to start a title run is probably now.
Do any of them have a title run in them? Let’s discuss their chances.
Melvin Guillard, 29, record 30-11-2
We’re all pretty familiar with Guillard’s strengths and weaknesses, so I’ll spare you any talk about his athleticism. He is 1-3 in his past four fights -- a train wreck compared to the five-fight win streak that preceded it.
It’s worth noting how the losses went, though. In the NFL, you hear stats about how a team is 4-8 but hasn’t suffered a loss by more than a touchdown. That’s kind of Guillard during this skid. He was never dominated. He is reckless, which cost him against Lauzon (he basically ran into a counter left) and Miller (taken down off an ill-advised flying knee). Against Donald Cerrone, Guillard's lack of confidence in that fight was obvious, but he still nearly pulled it off when Cerrone got off to a bad start.
Guillard’s problems are all mental. Yes, he needs to improve his submission defense, but more importantly, he needs to settle down and fight smart. Aggression is part of what makes him successful, but against better competition, you can’t sprint around the cage throwing haymakers and expect to win consistently.
It is interesting that of the four lightweights I'm talking about, Guillard is probably the most naturally talented, but by the end of the year, he might be 0-3 against the field.
Joe Lauzon, 28, record 22-7
There’s a lot to like about Lauzon, but of the four, his chances of winning it all are undoubtedly the worst. Historically, submission specialists just don’t become UFC champions. Champs have a ground game, but you don’t see many of them rely on it as much as Lauzon would have to. Frank Mir is probably the best example, and he won the belt eight years ago with wins over Tank Abbott, Wes Sims and Tim Sylvia.
Does anyone else think Lauzon won’t lose much sleep over this, though? His style will probably never earn him win gold, but it has seen him win eight "Fight Night" bonuses in his last eight fights -- five submissions of the night and three fights of the night. That’s crazy. That’s $445,000 in disclosed bonus money. Compare that to flying to Japan to get his head kicked by Anthony Pettis at UFC 144, where he probably made around $24,000. At some point, wouldn’t you say, “You know, Donald Cerrone sounds fun, but I think I’d rather shoulderlock Curt Warburton again”?
Jim Miller, 29, record 21-4
He is undersized for the division, but if Frankie Edgar could do it, Miller can do it, right? Well, Miller has a different style than Edgar, and it’s one that doesn’t translate as well into fighting bigger guys.
Miller fights as if he is the bigger man. He doesn’t dance on his toes. He plods forward. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it shouldn’t surprise you that all his UFC losses came to bigger guys with more horsepower: Nate Diaz, Benson Henderson and Gray Maynard.
A wild card to win the belt, Miller has the pound-for-pound skills, toughness and intelligence to become a champ. What it will ultimately depend on is whether he can modify his game when he runs into those bad matchups. It will go against the way he typically fights, but you can’t outbully a Maynard or Henderson, so Miller will have to develop more of a finesse game.
Jamie Varner, 28, record (20-7-1)
The source of what remains one of my all-time favorite MMA quotes: “I caught the top of his hard head, and next thing I know, my hand’s broke, my foot’s broke, and I’m getting kicked in the nuts -- a lot.”
Those were Varner’s words following a split draw to Kamal Shalorus at WEC 49 in June 2010. Shalorus seemed to target Varner’s jewels the entire fight with kicks and had a point deducted in the second round (and could have easily been deducted again in the third). Varner broke his hand and foot but outfought Shalorus in the eyes of just about everyone watching only to end up with a draw.
I reflect on that fight because it was the sort of humbling experience Varner actually needed. He won the WEC belt at age 23, and while there were never rumors of him not training, his swagger grew to a level that appeared to be self-damaging. The Shalorus draw was followed by back-to-back losses that ended with Varner not signing with the UFC after the WEC dissolved.
After he knocked out Edson Barboza at UFC 146, Varner turned to reporters on press row and said, “I’m back.” Physically speaking, I don’t think he was ever really gone, but he is in a good spot mentally -- confident, but not to the point he thinks a fight is over before it starts.
Varner is well-rounded and an underrated wrestler and can be difficult to hit cleanly. His toughest matchups will be against athletic lightweights with good submission skills who aren’t easily outwrestled (Pettis, Diaz).