Sports Analytics

The Analytics of Fighting in Cages


Lyoto Machida (right) kicks Dan Henderson in their light heavyweight bout during UFC 157 in Anaheim, Calif.

Photograph by Miralle/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Lyoto Machida (right) kicks Dan Henderson in their light heavyweight bout during UFC 157 in Anaheim, Calif.

Probably the surest sign that we are approaching peak statistics is a panel at this year’s MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference called “Breaking Down the Fight: MMA Analytics,” the first of its kind for the conference. Moderator John Wertheim of Sports Illustrated billed it as a “non-ironic panel” and he wasn’t kidding. He and ESPN (DIS) commentator Jordan Breen, fight journalist Luke Thomas, current Ultimate Fighting Championship bantamweight title holder Dominick Cruz, and Rami Genauer, who keeps the closest thing the sport has to box scores at his website FightMetric, spent an hour soberly breaking down the status of stats in the UFC.

It’s unfair for a neophyte such as myself to cover this panel. I’m the UFC equivalent of a guy who asks why basketball players keep dropping the ball on the ground. But my takeaway is that nobody really knows what is going on in cage fighting. The program for the panel explained that the sport “still relies heavily on rudimentary statistics and analytics.” That’s putting it mildly. “The biggest challenge we have is small sample size,” said Genauer, the Bill James of the sport. As he and Cruz debated over what counts as a “takedown” or a “significant strike,” it became clear that sample size is just one problem. In cage matches, fighters attack each other in a dizzying array of styles, methods, and combinations, and unless somebody gets knocked out, there is apparently very little agreement about what actually happened.

Fans now have FightMetric stats, which are integrated into UFC broadcasts, to help them try to make sense of it all. And some fighters use the information in limited ways to strategize. (If opponents have strong right hands, throw a lot of high lefts to keep them busy blocking.) Mostly it’s helter skelter. The MMA judges, to hear it from the panel, are notoriously inept. Fighters are paid above and below board for all kinds of squishy reasons. And matches are organized in an unsystematic fashion. During the panel, Cruz, who is a current champion of the sport, learned that when making their final decisions, judges do not have access to the real time data that Genauer collects. “This is news to me,” Cruz said.

I did, however, glean one very interesting bit of information from the hour: The average fighter takes about 22 seconds to recover from a low blow. Now you know.

Boudway_190
Boudway is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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