It’s tempting to think of MMA stats as footnotes to the chaos of combat, but the numbers are more than trivia—they answer questions, predict outcomes, and reveal trends.
Despite how imminent defeat seems to be in an MMA fight, victory is never far away. According to MMA statistics and analysis system Fight Metric, Anderson Silva had been pummeled under 320 of Chael Sonnen’s strikes when “The Spider” latched on a fight ending triangle. The ever present possibility of a win against all odds is one of the most compelling attributes of the MMA. It would be comparable to Major League Baseball posting a sign in the outfield and instituting a rule that says if a player hits the sign, his team wins the game regardless of the inning or the score. But statistically, those sorts of victories almost never happen.
Rami Genauer of Fight Metric, which provides official stats for the UFC, and Bob Canobbio, founder of Compustrike, which provides the statistics source for Strikeforce and HDNet Fights, are two guys at the forefront of MMA stats. To them, it’s all in the numbers, and here are five things the numbers show.
5. If you want to be the champ, practice your sprawl
A European coach asked Genauer to look at his statistics and figure out the relative importance of wrestling among UFC welterweights. “Is it really important, or is it really, really important?” the coach asked. It turns out that wrestling distinguishes the welterweight elite more than any other division. Across the spectrum, superior takedown defense is the greatest corollary to victory.
“When you look at the all-time leaders in takedown defense percentages, it’s a who’s who of UFC champions,” Genauer says. Georges St-Pierre and former champions Andrei Arlovski and Lyoto Machida each defend more than 80% of their opponents’ takedown attempts. In fact, according to FightMetric’s data, the only champion to hold a belt in the UFC who failed to defend takedowns less than half the time was, ironically, former Welterweight Champ Matt Serra.
4. Power strikes win fights
Fighters who land the most power strikes tend to win their fights, according to Compustrike data. “It’s rare that a fighter gets out-struck but dominates in submissions and takedowns and wins the fight,” Canobbio says. A fighter assumes a demonstrable advantage after landing 20 power strikes more than their opponent—anywhere up to 50 constitutes a sound beating.
Fights with a difference of more than 50 power strikes between fighters are rare. Typically, the fight will have been stopped by then, Genauer adds. The biggest beatdown occurred at UFC 39, when, according to FightMetric, Tim Sylvia clubbed “Cabbage” Correira with 155 significant strikes in fewer than seven minutes of fighting, while Correira connected with just 26. (Notably, Cabbage was never knocked down in the course of the fight.)
3. Pick your dogs carefully
Depending on the odds at the sportsbook, lucky bets on underdogs can turn spare change into a mortgage payment. A survey of roughly 1,900 fights in the Fight Metric database revealed the favored fighter winning 69.2% of the time. But all underdogs are not created equal. Favorites with odds of -1000 or better win 93.8% of the time, and the win percentages decrease as the odds even out. “By the time you get to the closest fights, you’re looking at just 3% better than a coin flip,” Genauer says.
2. Don’t use stats to fill out a scorecard
Statistics might seem like a perfect cure for incompetent judging. However, instead of gauging vague notions like “cage generalship,” for example, solid statistics follow clearly defined criteria and replace gut feelings with by-the-numbers evidence. But neither Genauer nor Canobbio is comfortable with statistics deciding winners from losers. “It’s going to be difficult to use any statistics in judging unless you’re willing to concede to a fair number of draws,” Genauer says. “You have to be willing to accept that there are going to be some fights that are too close to call, and when that happens, you can’t just pick the guy who you think is closer.”
Additionally, statistics gatherers enjoy luxuries that judges don’t have. For example, Fight Metric uses replays and slow-motion video to tally strikes in high-speed exchanges, and Compustrike devotes a scorer per fighter to tally activity. But there might be room to use stats as an aid for judges, Canobbio says. “I wouldn’t want it to be the be-all, end-all, but I wouldn’t be against a judge having a look at the screen.”
1. They’re called “come-from behind wins” for a reason
The battles back from the brink of defeat are the fights that grab the headlines, including Brock Lesnar absorbing 61 strikes from Shane Carwin before cinching an arm-triangle, Mike Russow eating 51 strikes before knocking Todd Duffee out in the third frame, and Silva’s eleventh-hour toppling of Sonnen. But these are outliers. Genauer says in the more than the 160-event history of the UFC, these are the only fights where a fighter has come back from a deficit of 30 or more power strikes to win by stoppage—less than a tenth of a percent of the total number of fights the organization has promoted.
Even in the anything-can-happen atmosphere of an MMA fight, statistics tend to give accurate predictions of how a fight will play out, and statistically, a fighter who’s winning tends to be the fighter who wins. “But there are occasional surprises,” Genauer says. “It is those surprises that make the fights worth watching.”