Heavy Hitters – Deconstructing the UFC’s Most Dangerous Strikers

// Data provided by Reed Kuhn at fightnomics.com / @fightnomics

Of all the exhilarating things that can happen inside an MMA cage, a fighter dropping an opponent to the floor with a single strike is perhaps the most iconic. The fundamental physics and biology of a strong and well-placed strike to the head will trump the strength of beast, the heart of a warrior, and even a lifetime of training. But who is truly the best knockout artist in MMA history? The punch-for-punch, pound-for-pound most dangerous striker? To answer the question, let’s deconstruct the ingredients of striking, and see what we might learn about how fighters land on the highlight reel, for glory or for shame.image desc

This analysis is not about counting career totals. If we look at just the list of fighters who have scored 10 or more distance knockdowns (as opposed to clinch or ground) in the UFC/Strikeforce/WEC, we see some familiar names, and more than a couple of champions.

While these records are interesting, knockdowns and knockouts are biased toward career longevity and skewed toward heavier fighters. So this isn’t the answer. But we can also measure accuracy to correct for career length, looking for fighters with the best power head-striking accuracy as a measure of their skill. Swing as you might, when standing at a distance, only about 25 percent of head strikes will actually land on target. Once a strike is initiated, a more accurate fighter will be more likely to hit his target, and therefore has a better chance of knocking out his opponent. These guys may not overwhelm with flurries, but once they swing, they hit. And that’s a sign of an effective striker.

Here are the five most accurate strikers with at least 150 attempted power head strikes in the UFC.

image descThis is definitely another impressive list of highly skilled fighters, with even some overlap of names. But just being accurate doesn’t imply doing damage. So let’s create a new measure to determine the most dangerous striker. This qualifies as a “thought experiment,” but by using numbers intelligently, we should be able to look past the single-metric record holders to make a quantifiable claim as to who the most dangerous striker on the planet really is.

In theory, if a fighter wants to maximize the chances of knocking down an opponent, he should throw a lot of strikes, land them as often as possible, and throw them as hard as possible. The chances of scoring a knockdown then can be incrementally improved by boosting any combination of volume, accuracy, and power. These are the basic metrics that drive striking damage, which we will measure by distance knockdowns. In order to determine the most effective striker, we’ll need to account for these variables properly.

First, we’ll need to consider striking volume. This variable requires some corrective action, as a fighter who unloads hundreds of strikes should eventually hurt their opponent, no matter how inaccurate or ineffective their strikes may be. We don’t want to reward volume, instead, we want to adjust for it. So we’re going to divide knockdowns by the number of strikes it takes to accomplish it. The fewer strikes per knockdown, the more effective and/or skilled the striker.image desc Accuracy is implicit in this calculation, as more accurate strikers will make the most of their striking attempts. You can’t knock your opponent down on volume alone, you have to land the strikes.

It’s also important to remember that not all strikes are created equal. The same overhand right or high kick will have very different outcomes depending on who threw it and who absorbed it. The reality is: size matters. The physics of collisions rely on mass. Larger fighters that can put more body mass behind their strikes impart more momentum and kinetic energy into the heads of their opponents. More mass behind the strike means more brain rattling in the target and more corresponding knockouts. It’s not just the mass of the fist or foot—it’s also the mass of muscles throughout the body if the strike is thrown properly. As we observe in UFC statistics, the chance of a power head strike causing a knockdown rises consistently with weight class, demonstrating this effect.

This quick view of the results reminds us of our weight class bias. Upper weight class fighters dominate knockdown lists and finish far more fights by (T)KO. But if we want to compare fighters across weight classes to each other, we’ll have to account for this trend and normalize fighter performance based on size. Based on aggregate benchmarks, we’ll inflate the knockdown rate for smaller fighters and deflate the value for larger fighters to arrive at a normalized value. You’ll have to trust me on the math. Once this pattern is adjusted for, we should be able to answer the question of who the pound-for-pound most dangerous striker is.

image descThe experiment and number crunching boils down to a single winning metric. With the highest adjusted-knockdown-per-attempted power head strike, Anderson Silva is statistically the most dangerous striker to ever compete in the Octagon. The rest of the top 10 offers more familiar names of excellent strikers.

When a strike is attempted, these 10 fighters have maximized the effect of each attempted punch, kick, knee, or elbow far above and beyond their division peers. And only after our proper accounting of size differences and strike volumes could we see flyweights and heavyweights side-by-side on the same list.

Here’s what we learned:
— The UFC leaderboard for knockdowns favors heavier fighters with long careers in the Octagon.
— To identify the most dangerous and effective strikers, volume and size must be adjusted.
— The greatest strikers do the most damage in the fewest striking attempts.
— Anderson Silva is the most dangerous striker of all time.
— B.J. Penn may be impossible to knock down.

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