Did you realize Shane Carwin was 36? I knew he was slightly longer in the tooth than, say, Cain Velasquez, but I didn't realize he's likely at the tail end of his ability to compete athletically. No one, including Carwin, knows exactly when his athletic gifts, talent and skill won't be able to cut it anymore at this level. Perhaps I'm exaggerating or fast-forwarding the impending demise of his professional athletic career. Still, at 36 and coming off a long layoff due to invasive neck surgery, the odds have to be stacked against him as he replaces the ill Brock Lesnar against Junior dos Santos at UFC 131.
Ben Fowlkes caught up with the talented heavyweight to get a sense of where his head is at, where his abilities are and what's changed since the loss to Lesnar at UFC 116 and the subsequent surgery. To wit:
It's a good thing, too, because at 36 years old he knows he can't wait forever. The neck surgery gave him back full feeling in his right arm for the first time in a long time, but it was also the third surgery in his five-year career. The deep scar that runs up the inside of his left arm is a reminder of another, and after having his nose temporarily moved to the side of his face by Gabriel Gonzaga let's just say he appreciates the value of facial symmetry more than ever these days.
"It gets a little harder to come back from injuries and surgeries as you get older," he says. "I still want to jump back in there like a 22-year-old."
The good part about the first loss of his career is that it forced Carwin to change some aspects of his training. Instead of trying to blow himself up into a 280-pound beast with the help of creatine and power-lifting, he hired Grudge Training Center nutritionist Josh Ford and slimmed back down to the 250's. That's where he feels better, he says, and where he'll stay if he can "stay away from the chips."
I'd agree that's a good weight for him to maintain. It likely doesn't come with much of a compromise in punching power and probably provides a boost in speed. I'd also guess that the loss in weight will generally boost his conditioning as he won't have to lug around an thirty pounds of muscle that starve for oxygen. He'll need that famous power plus speed and lasting conditioning to be a proper challenge to dos Santos.
Still, it's been almost a year since he competed. He's got to be at the end or already past his athletic prime. His body, as he readily admits, is in need of much more attentiveness and repair than it once was. On the one hand, Carwin's previous opponent in Jon Olav Einemo was a perfect "tune up" in that he was a serious challenge, but also a very winnable fight on the comeback trail from inactivity. The dos Santos fight, while certainly winnable, is significantly more difficult as few would argue even with stylistic considerations that Einemo is a stiffer challenge.
On the other hand, the clock is ticking for Carwin, and ticking loudly. This opportunity is an excellent chance for Carwin to put his career on the fast track. However, if the opportunity goes sour, it's fair to surmise Carwin's chances of reclaiming the title, a title shot or even a number-one contender's match drop dramatically. A loss to Einemo would've done the same thing, so a loss to dos Santos is actually a better loss to have.
But the point is that the stakes for Carwin have been raised without him having the opportunity to get his feet back under him. Fighters coming back from surgery on long layoffs often need a fight or two to get themselves going. That's fine if you're Anthony Pettis and 23 years old. That's significantly more problematic for Carwin at 36.
It should be noted Carwin did the right thing, though. It's now or never for him. Why not take the opportunity? With his clubbing power and potentially improved speed, he can easily puts dos Santos' lights out. That'd put him right back in the running of the top dogs in the division.
There's no shame in losing to dos Santos, but my mind is stuck on Carwin's age. I recognize it's almost an arbitrary distinction. There are no hard and fast rules about being 36, but our inclination that performance of any athlete might be compromised when they hit that milestone is not an idle one.
I'm curious to see how Carwin looks in June. Maybe this is all hand wringing over nothing. I do wonder, though, if he can recapture the place he had heading into UFC 116. Were the pre-UFC 116 moments the peak of Carwin's career? I hadn't given it much thought until reading this piece. Maybe they were. He's got a chance to write a new future at UFC 131, but he has to know his ability to participate in this sport is dwindling. Lesnar's illness was more than a lucky break to get back on track. It may have been the lucky break to get Carwin back on track for the very last time in his career.