General George S. Patton famously warned that “fatigue makes cowards of us all.” It’s a powerful insight, and one that is absolutely relevant in sports. It’s pretty hard to impose your will on someone else when you’re exhausted, or worse, prevent them from imposing their will on you. Let’s take a closer look at conditioning in the UFC, and see how competition has changed over the years.
FIT FOR THE UFC
Stories of fighters walking from the bar stool to the Octagon are the legends of yesteryear. The modern mixed martial artist is more likely to be a full-time fighter, on a strict diet, and generally, a much better athlete than the cage fighters of the 1990s. The data suggests that this new school of fighters has picked up the pace of action in the Octagon.
The UFC, via FightMetric, tracks significant strikes as all strikes attempted from a standing distance position, plus all power strikes (as opposed to jabs) in the clinch or on the ground. It is the common denominator for offensive output by a fighter. Since 2007, UFC fighters average 6.8 significant strikes per minute (SSpM) of fight time. Again, this is not just while standing, but also from dominant clinch and ground positions. Significant strikes do damage, score knockdowns, set up submissions, and cause referees to jump in for the save. Significant strikes generally define the action in a fight, and fighter output by this metric has changed drastically since the early years of the UFC.
Through the 1990s, UFC fighters attempted only an average of 2.8 significant strikes per minute. Then, averages for UFC fighters more than doubled since the early years to 6.8 SSpM. Modern UFC fighters also score more knockdowns, and they throw a slightly higher percentage of power strikes than the old guard, further suggesting greater endurance. In terms of accuracy, however, only approximately 40 percent of significant strikes land on target. This rate has not changed much over the years, as fighters improved simultaneously on both offense and defense. However, the pattern is clear. Competition is a strong force, and as the sport has grown and evolved, MMA athletes have stepped up their game and their overall level of fitness to bring a better-conditioned product into the Octagon.
THE LIMITS OF ENDURANCE
But let’s not all high-five the conditioning coaches just yet, because there are still limits to stamina and performance in the Octagon. One key factor that changes with fatigue is a fighter’s ability to secure submissions. With few exceptions, the success rate of submissions drops substantially in the third round. Accounting for the fact that submission attempts occur at a reduced rate in later rounds, it’s still true that the success rate of these attempts is much lower. It’s not a small effect—third round attempts have barely half the overall success rate of submission attempts in the first two rounds. Grapplers be warned.
Of the most common UFC submission types, most have been much harder to secure in the third round. The most obvious reasons are fatigue and sweat, which make holding an opponent much more difficult. The lone exception is the leg triangle choke, which notably, does not require arm muscles to sustain the lock. Legs have greater strength and endurance than arms, so this pattern isn’t surprising. The lesson is: when you’re gassed, go for the leg triangle.
Certainly, slipperiness of fighters later in fights definitely makes shoulder and leg locks more difficult. Many of these submissions have success rates that drop to 0 percent in rounds three and beyond. But even pure position holds, like the rear naked choke, are harder to keep locked for the necessary duration to elicit the tap. Fatigue is very likely a root cause, which makes Jon Jones’ recent fourth-round Americana submission of Vitor Belfort that much more impressive.
Flexing muscles for long holds is harder with fatigue, and knowing this could change a fighter’s strategy mid-fi ght. Even an exhausted fighter can still throw a haymaker that downs their opponent. Knockdown rates don’t decline much in later rounds, proving that fighters remain dangerous in their striking, still able to summon their fast twitch muscles for sporadic bursts. Grappling specialists are most likely to secure submissions in the first two rounds of fights, but they remain dangerous with their legs from guard in later rounds. Fighters may change their offensive tactics in later rounds knowing that, for example, chances of locking up a guillotine choke is less than 10 percent, or that top game submissions will become impossible, and it’s better to stand and trade in the third.
JUDGES FAVOR THE FIT
Research into success variables has shown that he who strikes more wins decisions. Judges are only human, and when a flurry of exchanges occurs, it’s hard to tell who landed more strikes. While judging how hard or accurate strikes are is difficult, it’s plainly obvious to notice one fighter significantly outpacing the other. Perhaps this falls under “cage control,” but there’s no question that when a fight goes to the scorecards, it’s usually the fighter with more attempted strikes who wins, even if he didn’t land more than his opponent.
This is another reason top fighters have to be in excellent condition. Champions are rarely overly muscled; instead their physiques are leaner. Muscular bodies are much harder to fuel with energy and oxygen, and elite level conditioning is necessary to remain effective, not just through three rounds, but potentially five. With titles on the line, every bit of advantage counts. A good gas tank means a fighter can win rounds and perhaps secure a late round submission on an exhausted opponent.
UFC’S BEST GAS TANKS
Some guys are just full of energy. Here are the Top 10 UFC fighters in terms of average significant striking pace, who can also stay on the gas into the third round.
BACK TO THE GYM
Unfortunately, not all fighters are full of action or can maintain pace. Here are a few that start off well below average in significant striking pace, and still decline through the fight.
WHAT DID WE LEARN?
Although not perfect, significant strike activity is a good measure of a fighter’s pace and stamina.
UFC fighters have steadily improved their conditioning and offensive output over the years.
Modern fighters maintain their pace throughout rounds better than early MMA fighters.
Smaller fighters actually increase their output into the third round, while middleweights and larger fighters decrease slightly.
While UFC fighters maintain pace, submission success rates decline in later rounds.
High striking output is the key to winning decisions on the judges’ cards.