We all like to hear an underdog story. And no less than from one of our favorite MMA fighters.
There’s something special about seeing a latecomer decide to put down the shovel and pick up the gloves, mainly when it seems like they’d already been past their prime!
In this article, I will tell you about many MMA fighters who started late yet went on to achieve incredible success in the fight business.
Let’s get stuck in.
16. Francis Ngannou (26)
We have to start with Francis Ngannou, who became the new reigning UFC Heavy Champion in 2021.
Francis began his MMA training at 26, which seems pretty young, but as time goes on, fighters are starting younger every day.
One of the biggest guys to compete in the octagon, Francis has hands that could likely drop anyone on the planet, not just inside the cage.
Francis first pursued his dream of Boxing when he moved to France from his native Cameroon to escape homelessness.
But when he arrived, he found his options for Boxing limited. Most Boxers start much younger and aim to have a long career with dozens of wins to have great and lucrative career.
In mixed martial arts, there are fewer rules around age. You’ve got the same options as anyone as long as you can show up in the cage and beat up your opponent.
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15. Daniel Cormier (30)
While well-known for commentating UFC main events alongside Joe Rogan, “DC” was a previous UFC Heavyweight Champion.
Daniel came from a high-level wrestling background, having competed in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics.
Health complications resulted in Daniel putting Olympic wrestling behind him, and he moved his sights to the fight game.
He joined the American Kickboxing Academy, learned MMA striking techniques, and expanded his wrestling ability with fight grappling and submissions.
DC is one of several MMA fighters who started in their 30s appearing on this list!
Daniel was 30 years old by the time he started MMA fighting professionally. He’s one of those UFC fighters who started late yet became a global name and legend in the organization.
He went on to win another seven fights before being beaten twice in a row by Stipe Miocic.
It seems like Daniel Cormier has all but retired these days from the fight, but I still love to see and hear him for every big UFC event and hope it will continue for years to come.
14. Chuck Liddell (29)
Chuck is one of the greats, and he’s a UFC Hall of Famer who made his debut in the UFC when he was 29 years old.
Chuck became the UFC Light Heavyweight Champion in his career and had some of the most sizzling performances against his rivals Randy Couture and Tito Ortiz.
At the peak of his career, Chuck won his title and defended it four times before being beaten by Quinton Jackson at UFC 71. His record dropped after that, winning only 1 of 6 before retiring.
Even though Chuck joined the UFC in his late twenties, he already had a wealth of martial arts experience. His grandfather taught him Boxing from a young age, and Chuck studied Kenpo Karate from 12 (eventually becoming a Kenpo black belt).
Chuck excelled as a high school sportsman, a linebacker for the football team, and a proficient wrestler during his teen years.
As an amateur fighter, Chuck gained a kickboxing record of 20 wins and just two losses before reaching the UFC.
13. Junior Dos Santos (21)
Junior is another OG on this list and previously UFC Heavyweight Champion.
He’s beaten other significant names like Stipe Miocic, Frank Mir, and the guy he grabbed the belt from originally; Cain Velasquez.
Junior began training mixed martial arts aged 21 and quickly became proficient in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
He continued adding Boxing and striking to his abilities shortly after and committed fully to MMA fighting. An MMA fighter that started late but still managed to reach incredible heights.
He’s one of those guys that has an inspiring story, trying to support his family from the young age of 10 years old.
Junior has a story similar to many other mixed martial artists who had to fight to survive from a young age. That strength translated well into actual fighting with a degree of mental willpower most people can’t equal.
What’s most interesting about Junior is that he was fighting in the UFC as late as 2020.
The UFC released him only after being defeated by the up-and-coming (and likely to be a new champion) Frenchman, Ciryl Gane.
12. Matt Mitrione (28)
Matt “Meathead” Mitrione is a Heavyweight fighter with bouts as recent as 2021 in Bellator, while also having 14 UFC fights between 2009-2016.
During his UFC days, he had notable victories against Kevin “Kimbo Slice” Ferguson and Derrick Lewis.
Matt only committed to MMA training at the age of 28.
Still, he had some experience with Karate growing up because of his hyperactivity. Matt did very well as a defensive line for the football team and fought in Toughman Contests for amateur boxers during high school.
His football career took off in the early 2000s, and he had stints for the New York Giants, San Francisco 49ers, and Minnesota Vikings.
He turned to mixed martial arts, likely due to a recurring Achilles injury, the birth of his first child, and on recommendation from a friend.
Matt ended up on The Ultimate Fighter 10 TV series. He essentially went in to help promote his new sports nutrition company.
But, after reaching the quarter-finals of the show, his passion for MMA took hold, and he has said that he owes a lot to the sport.
11. Brock Lesnar (29)
Perhaps best known for his WWE wrestling career, Brock decided to take to mixed martial arts training at the late-ish age of 29, back in 2006.
He started his MMA training at Minnesota Martial Arts Academy under Greg Nelson. Likely where he could convert a lot of his physical attributes into striking with force and grappling control, a couple of features would help him much later on.
Brock jumped into his first professional MMA fight in “K1 HERO’s” within a year of starting his fight training.
And then, in 2008, he was invited to compete at UFC 81 “Breaking Point” against Frank Mir – which he lost due to submission.
It’s likely around that same time that Brock founded his own MMA gym after moving out to the rural areas of Alexandra, Minnesota. He named it “Death Clutch Gym” and continued his mixed martial arts training there for the rest of his UFC career.
There has been plenty of rumors coming out of Brock’s MMA training days that often sound pretty odd. He would only participate in sparring without punches to his face, only ever allowing body shots.
When you own the gym, you get to call the shots – literally. Brock must have wanted to ensure that his action-man face was perfect for the cameras come event time.
Lesnar followed up from his first defeat with a demolishing of Heath Herring at UFC 87. In that fight, he shattered Heath’s orbital socket and won boldly. It was likely the first time he caught the eye of the current heavy champ, Randy Couture.
At UFC 91, Brock fought the legendary Randy Couture and won. It sparked a frenzy for Brock’s stock and helped him secure many fights in the UFC that made big bucks.
His appeal brought in some of the most significant pay-per-view buys for a Heavyweight. He amassed over a million buys for multiple events when Brock led the card, including UFC 91, UFC 100, and UFC 200.
10. Kimbo Slice (31)
Kimbo’s real name is Kevin Ferguson, and he had his first climb to fame for being one of the first viral street fighters on the internet in the early 2000s.
He converted his punching talents to mixed martial arts when he was 31.
After working as a bouncer and bodyguard, Kimbo jumped into street fighting and quickly became infamous because of his daunting figure and knockout power.
I remember watching those viral videos in my teen years, watching Kimbo walk into a backyard BBQ, whip off his shirt and throw it to the floor, raise his hands and call out the name of his opponent. He’d then often knock them out in a few blows, and it’d all be over.
Kevin Ferguson’s popularity on the internet made him a juicy target for MMA promoters. In 2007, he landed his first pro fight with EliteXC.
After a few fights there, Kimbo’s big shot came in as he appeared on UFC’s The Ultimate Fighter against Houston Alexander. He then had one more official bout with the UFC at UFC 113, sadly losing out to Matt Mitrione (another late-starter on this list).
After that loss, Kimbo had a couple more bouts over at Bellator. Sadly, Kevin passed away in 2016. But he’ll always remain one of the founders of fight entertainment, in my book.
9. Yoel Romero (31)
Yoel is an absolute animal in the cage and has taken on a handsome collection of other heavy-hitters at the Middleweight division of the UFC like Paulo Costa, Luke Rockhold, and even Israel Adesanya.
Romero’s sporting background came from wrestling at an Olympic level, achieving gold at world wrestling competitions and silver at the Olympics.
Yoel was 31 years old when he took his physical abilities to the octagon.
He had an impressive fight record from his first 13 fights, winning 12 and losing just once and most of those fights in the UFC.
But Yoel was eventually released by the UFC after suffering four losses from five fights; Robert Whittaker (twice), Paulo Costa, and Israel Adesanya.
8. Randy Couture (34)
Randy is one of the MMA legends of UFC and the sport overall.
He began his MMA career at 34 years old.
It seems that Randy had a unique ability to make great successes of whatever he put his attention on. Before starting his MMA career, he was a sergeant of the US Army and a Greco-Roman wrestler.
His MMA nickname was even “The Natural.” Likely because he could quickly adapt to the sport and bring in his unique skillset.
Randy’s physical abilities and experience enabled him to define some of the most significant victories and records of all time in the UFC across his 10-year MMA career.
Randy fought his entire career in the UFC. Between 1997 at UFC 13 and 2011 at UFC 192, he had an incredible 14 years in the fight game.
During those years, Randy Couture was the Heavyweight champion three times, the Light-Heavyweight champion twice, and remains the oldest winner of a championship belt in UFC history.
Even people who aren’t fans of our phenomenal sport would surely gawp at this man’s career. Someone who can achieve anything they put their mind to at his age, like Randy Couture, is an inspiration for us all.
7. Mark Hunt (36)
The Super Samoan, Mark Hunt, started MMA training at age 36!
But Mark did have considerable training in K-1 kickboxing, even reaching champion status at the K-1 World Grand Prix in 2001.
He eventually took his sights on the mixed martial arts world, starting at Pride FC in 2004. In 2010 he reached the UFC, fighting (and losing) against Sean McCorkle.
Mark even had a wrestling appearance in 2007 with a Japanese promotion called Hustle.
Mark Hunt’s mixed martial arts record (13W 14L) wasn’t the greatest, but he had a long career across all fighting sports. I’d say he’s still an inspiring motivation to get stuck into MMA, no matter what age.
If Mark’s story makes you wonder when did UFC fighters start training?
The answer is that UFC fighters started training at many different ages, including those in their late 30s. Ultimately, a fighter’s success depends on their commitment to learning and overcoming challenges, not necessarily anything to do with their actual age.
6. Shane Carwin (30)
Shane was an all-American Heavyweight competitor that began his MMA journey at aged 30.
Despite starting late in the sport, he went on an impressive 12 fight win-streak when he turned Pro.
Eventually, though, Carwin’s winning streak was broken by Brock Lesnar at UFC 116. He lost a second time against Junior dos Santos and ended his MMA Pro career in 2011.
In 6 years of competing, Shane crafted a handsome record for himself, beating other big names on this list like Frank Mir.
5. Greg Hardy (28)
Greg took to mixed martial arts when he was 28 years old. Before that, he had an impressive career as a football player in the NFL.
He joined up with American Top Team and began his training. After just a few months, he went into his first fights at the amateur level and won multiple times.
Hardy appeared on Dana White’s The Contender Series TV show. After securing two technical knockout wins, he signed his deal with the UFC.
Greg has only been a part of the UFC for a few years but has competed against more prominent names in the Heavyweight division like Alexander Volkov and Tai Tuivasa.
His record so far hasn’t been perfect, but Greg shows that he always tries to improve on his weak points and puts on a hell of a show whenever he enters the cage.
4. Holly Holm (29)
Holly is known as “The Preacher’s Daughter” and started in MMA at 29.
Holly is still competing in the UFC and has been fighting professionally for over 10 years. She has notable wins against Ronda Rousey, Meagan Anderson, and Irene Aldana.
Although Holly started in MMA late, she had a strong background in boxing and kickboxing competitions. With those skills, Holly can devastate opponents with her striking.
Many of her professional wins in MMA are knockouts from the same combination: Head Kick & Punches. Any opponent of hers always has to watch out for that big lead head kick.
Even the Judo expert Ronda Rousey knew the Holm signature head kick was coming, but she still got knocked out with it!
3. Rich Franklin (24)
Rich “Ace” Franklin started MMA training at the age of 24. At the same time, he was still balancing his career as a teacher.
Most fighters in this list had some athletic background, but Franklin is an exception. When he decided to learn mixed martial arts, he started to learn Karate and submission grappling in his twenties.
From a lot of dedication to learning, Rich finally went Pro in 1999 at the WEF promotion. He bounced around different promotions until eventually reaching the UFC at UFC 10 against Yan Pellerin.
Rich went on to have an incredible career over 13 years. He fought against big names in the game like Anderson Silva, Ken Shamrock, and Chuck Lidell.
2. Travis Browne (26)
Travis “Hapa” Browne had a background as a prominent High school basketball player, with his clear height advantage at 6ft 7 in tall.
But at 26 years old, Travis decided to turn his physical talents to the world of mixed martial arts.
After a long win streak in other promotions, Travis reached the UFC in 2010.
Toward his career, Browne’s performances had lost much of the heavy-hitting impact from his best years.
He beat some big names in the UFC during his best moments, like Matt Mitrione and Alistair Overeem. He eventually retired in 2017.
1. Jimi Manuwa (28)
“Poster Boy” Manuwa turned Pro at 28 years old.
The Englishman burst into his MMA career with an 11-fight win streak across promotions such as UCMMA and BAMMA.
He then signed a deal with the UFC in 2012 and continued his winning streak for another 3 fights before the Swede, Alexander Gustafsson, stepped in to end it at UFC Fight Night 37.
Jimi’s career spanned over 10 years, and he fought as late as 2019 in the UFC. Who knows, if he had started MMA earlier in his life, he could have gone on to have an even better record and longer career.
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Joe Bloom is the lead author and editor of MMA Hive. Joe has been a passionate mixed martial artist in training since 2019, having studied Boxing and Muay Thai at BaliMMA and Soma Fight Club, as well as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu with RitualsJJ.