In my last article, I introduced you to some of the basics of MMA wagering, including how to read a betting line and how to convert that line into a percentage. This article builds on that foundation, so if you missed it, check out the first issue of FIGHT! or the MMA Wagering Guide on UFCjunkie.com. It’s important to understand how to convert a line into a percentage, because that percentage – the probability a fighter is going to win or lose – is the cornerstone of MMA wagering.
Everything starts with setting my own line for a fight, thus setting my own winning percentage. I then compare my own percentage to the percentage the sports books are setting. By identifying and betting significant differences, I build value in the long run.
I compare percentages instead of raw lines because it is easier and more accurate. A smaller gap between closer lines can actually represent a larger edge! Compare lines of -400 vs. -450 and -160 vs. -190. The percentage gap is more than double for -160 vs. -190, though it may seem smaller just looking at the lines.
The comparison of lines isn’t hard. The hard part is setting your own line. Fortunately, getting started setting a line is easy: simply start doing it. Write down your own line for a fight card, ideally before you see the odds makers’ lines. I recommend you start with a percentage, but you should convert it to a betting line so you’re familiar with both.
Use the market lines to check your work. Note the places where you are far off the market and consider why. Did you overlook a factor, or have you identified value? The first time you make your own lines, you’ll likely fi nd you’re way off. But you’ll be surprised at how quickly you get closer as you gain experience.
Even more valuable feedback is to watch for any “line movements.” If the market lines move (going from -200 to -220 for example), do they move in your direction or away? If lines are repeatedly moving your direction (you set a line of -250, the market opens at -200 but moves to -220), that’s a good indication you are on the right track. If you’re consistently off in the wrong direction, then you know you need to rethink your approach.
Of course, you can’t use a small sample size like one fight card and have a high degree of confidence in your ability to pick winners. But you have to start somewhere.
You can also check your work by grading your line against the actual fight. However, don’t fall into the trap of being too results oriented. Just because a coin lands on heads doesn’t mean the probability wasn’t 50% for tails. Try to evaluate your line based on the whole fight, not just the results.
Explaining the full process for setting your own line isn’t something I can cover in a few hundred words. But I can show you some details on my own process to get you started. So let’s look at some of the factors involved in building our own line for Serra vs. Hughes at UFC 79.
I like to break down a variety of factors when setting my own line. First I draft a bit of a “scouting report” on each fighter, most of which ends up being published in Performify’s Picks on UFCjunkie.com. I start by looking at a fighter’s record, focusing on recent fights. I’m mostly looking at who they fought, how they won or lost, and if the fights were close or clearcut. We all know the maxim “styles make fights,” so I like to break down some additional details on each fighter’s style and tendencies. I also watch a lot of tape. It’s not uncommon for me to watch every fight I can find of a fighter before setting my own line.
With this background information on both fighters, I try to project each fighter’s prospective game plan based on their strengths and weaknesses. I also try to identify unknowns – factors I realize I can’t know – and weigh them, such as the likelihood of existing injury, or questions about a fighter’s conditioning. Finally, I consider public perception; is one fighter overrated or underrated by the general public?
Here’s an excerpt of a scouting report on Matt Hughes, which should give you some insight to factors I consider important in evaluating a fighter.
Matt Hughes (41-5 MMA, 15-3 UFC): One of the most dominant fighters in UFC history. Was tested twice in 2006, and at 34 may be nearing the end of a hall of fame career. A dominant wrestler, he usually sets up submissions or strikes through wrestling and ground control. 22% of wins go to decision. Has shown too much tendency lately to want to stand and strike, and has paid the price with one devastating loss and one near-loss in the last year. Despite a career of dominance, some questions remain about his submission defense; three losses by submission (Penn and Hallman x2), and was nearly submitted again by Penn at UFC 63.
Last fight: defeated Chris Lytle by unanimous decision (30-27) at UFC 68 (March 2007). Used a conservative game plan: takedowns, strong ground control, no significant offense behind it.
Also consider common opponents. If the fighters haven’t fought each other before, have they both fought the same person? Have they each fought different third parties who have faced each other? In our example of Hughes vs. Serra, we have several. Both have fought BJ Penn, Chris Lytle, and Georges St. Pierre. Hughes was most recently defeated by
Common opponents are definitely still something you should consider, but go back to the maxim “styles make fights.” Just because Fighter A defeats Fighter B who defeats Fighter C, that doesn’t always mean Fighter A will easily defeat Fighter C.
In this case, I think the common opponent of Lytle is more telling. Serra barely won a split decision over Lytle at The Ultimate Fighter 4 finale less than a year ago, where Hughes recently won a decisive (if conservative) unanimous decision.
A casual fan might feel that it is easy to say Hughes should win this fight over Serra. I certainly would say Hughes should be a significant favorite to regain his title. However, there is a big difference between identifying someone you think “should win” and someone who is actually a good bet as a heavy favorite. I would set the line for Hughes around 80%, or -400. We’ll see what the market says…