I heard that Ip Man felt he peaked as a fighter when he was 50 years old.
The reason why he peaked then is interesting for our approach to fighting.
When you are young, you can muscle things and make them work. This is why the fighters in the UFC are all young men. They are take a bunch of unrelated disciplines (wrestling, boxing, muay thai, ju jitsu) and make them work together through the sheer force of their youth and conditioning.
Male muscular strength peaks around 35. I think endurance peaks much earlier. As you age and lose physical strength, as a fighter, you are forced to replace that declining youthful strength with skill in the form of structure and other qualities. Skill has to take the place of muscle.
There is a laundry list of skills which make up a good fighting system: structure, timing, proper organization of the hands, aggression, forward pressure, turning, stable footwork, and so on. As you develop these, you can not only keep up with the young fighters who still have their youthful powers, you can get ahead of them. You can do things that seem like magic to people who haven’t developed them yet.
These capabilities can allow you to dominate the kids who still have their youthful flexibility and muscle power but don’t have the skills yet.
Martial prowess is a race between knowledge and age. A trained 60 year old may beat an untrained 25 year old.
Ip Man’s story is interesting to me because it underlines the difference between training like a UFC fighter and training in a complete system like Wing Chun.
You need to train structure and timing and the more subtle capacities and refuse to give in to your impulse to muscle fighting situations. If you muscle it, that will work now, but not later, when your body ages.
The whole point of learning a system like Wing Chun is that if you learn the refinements, like structure and timing and positioning and so on, it will still work when you are old, Even when you are very old. Even after you have passed your peak, you may be competitive against much younger fighters.