The scientific realities of reach.
In addition to weight and height, reach is one of the most basic anthropometric characteristics of fighters, deserving placement on any Tale of the Tape. It’s also one of the few aspects a fighter can’t change. Unlike speed, technique, endurance, and even muscle mass, no one improves their reach except by facing shorter-armed opponents. And while we use the term “reach advantage” routinely in combat sports, it’s time we go deeper into how it works. FightMetric, the official providers of UFC statistics, recently ran a contest analyzing reach data. Generating a considerable positive response from keyboard warriors, the contest’s results were pretty – clear longer reach correlates with higher probability of winning. Case closed? Almost.
First, a quick review. For the nearly 1,000 fights with complete information, and excluding draws, no contests, etc., there is no significant advantage with a longer reach. At this high level view, longer fighters won only 46% of total fights. But not all reach advantages are created equal. By bucketing fights in terms of varying reach differentials, we see a new pattern form. While we’re at it, we should also consider weight class, as the last edition of Fight Science (April issue) clearly demonstrated that heavier fighters are much more likely to win by strikes. Digging even deeper, we can also segment fights by the percentage of time the fighters were in a standing, distance striking position, as this also would presumably accentuate any reach differential. And finally, we should also be interested in whether a reach advantage drives finishes by strikes.
Longer reach correlates with more wins. But we can now also confirm that for heavier fighters or fights that remain predominantly in a standing position, the effect is pronounced. For fights ending in strikes, reach is again a good predictor of success, though often these fights end in a ground position.
WHY IT WORKS
Range is critical in striking, and a reach differential between opponents creates a perimeter zone where a longer fighter can land strikes, while their shorter opponent cannot. The longer fighter should be able to land jabs with their leading hand more easily than opponents, so we ran the numbers to be sure.
While we’re at it, we also know the knockout potential of longer arms in striking is higher due to a longer runway of acceleration, an effect that is boosted if the punch is an uppercut or hook. With these particular strikes, the lever-like action of the arm swinging around a fixed axis (the shoulder) is accentuated by a longer radius from the body. The target of the punch (the chin) also has a larger lever effect responding to these types of strikes, making the head snap more violently on impact. Therefore, a long armed hook is more likely to cause a knockout than a shorter one. So even if rangier fighters are mainly working their jab, their power strikes should cause more knockdowns and knockouts.
By isolating fights where there was a significant reach differential (greater than 2 inches), we analyzed standup head strikes to see if fighters really were utilizing their reach advantage. The results show increased accuracy of both jabs and power strikes, but more notably, a much higher volume of jabs by longer strikers. And clearly, we also see a much higher rate of knockdowns when range is utilized, emphatically demonstrated by heavyweight fights that are standup slugfests. So longer fighters have indeed been using their jab effectively, and even though they’re throwing the same number of power strikes, they’re landing with increased accuracy and causing more knockdowns.
Looking at the heavier weight classes only, let’s check which fighters have a large reach compared to the average for their weight class. Again, we’ve focused here just on UFC fighters, but each one listed here commands a reach at least 3.5 in. greater than their peer average:
• Heavyweights average a 76.5 in. reach, which partially explains the success of Shane Carwin (80 in.), Brock Lesnar (81 in.), and Cheik Kongo (82 in.). But we should also keep an eye on Matt Mitrione (82 in.) and Stefan Struve (83 in.).
• Light heavyweights average 75.5 in., so watch out for Stephan Bonnar (79 in.), Phil Davis (79 in.), Cyrille Diabate (79 in.), and Jon Jones (84.5 in.).
• Averaging a 73 in. reach, rangy middleweights include Mike Swick (77 in.), Gerald Harris (77.5 in.), Anderson Silva (77.5 in.) and Kendall Grove (79 in.).