Imagine a conversation between two people debating what will happen in an upcoming UFC championship fight, arguing things like SAPM (strikes absorbed per minute), TDD (takedown defense) and other terms which sound like, and actually are, math formulas.
That’s where we may be headed as the developing industry of mixed martial arts statistics matures and becomes more sophisticated.
Rami Genauer, a journalist who grew up as a self-professed "baseball stats geek" is a pioneer in this new world. When reading preview stories on major fights, he would see styles and personalities analyzed, but never the kind of statistical analysis he was used to in reading about other sports.
Thus was born Fightmetric.com, an attempt to develop viable and meaningful statistics in a complex sport. Just three years old, the site was recently named the official stats provider of the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Genauer logged and charted nearly every UFC fight in history (minus some early company fights where no film is available), as well as fights from a number of different promotions, and as many fights as possible, inside and out of the UFC, in the careers of the biggest stars in the sport.
Of late, Fightmetric stats have been used increasingly in UFC broadcasts, such as when Mike Goldberg talks about how Georges St. Pierre has the highest successful takedown percentage (81.5 percent) in company history. Of course, applying and logging numbers is one thing, but gaining meaningful insight from the data is quite another. There are so few fights, and so many variables, that logging who landed the most strikes – a practice on boxing telecasts for years – doesn’t always give you an accurate story of who won the fight.
In a sport as new as MMA, logging stats and then figuring out their relevance is still a learning process.
"You don’t want to have what I call a 'Chris Lytle problem,'" said Genauer, referencing someone who looks impressive in different statistical categories, lands a lot of strikes, has had a lot of submissions, but also has plenty of losses and is not considered a championship contender.
Still, the system works more often than not, as demonstrated by a recent high-profile example.
Going into his first fight with B.J. Penn in April, there had never been a UFC fighter whose opponents had connected on a lower percentage of their significant strikes (basically, all strikes except short strikes in a clinch or weak strikes on the ground) than Frankie Edgar.
At the time, Edgar was considered a good wrestler, but not world class. He was viewed as a tough guy who could win close fights. By wrestler standards, he had transitioned well into boxing.
But it was the significant strikes stat, his quickness and darting in-and-out without getting hit, that turned out to show a strength in his game few had noticed. And Edgar's ability to dart in and out without absorbing damage was a key in his title win over Penn and subsequent rematch victory last month.
In fact, his upcoming title defense against Gray Maynard matches up two of the seven fighters whose opponents miss on the highest percentage of strikes in UFC history. Again, when people think of Maynard, they think of a strong wrestler. This is true, but they don’t talk about his ability to stand with people and make them constantly miss on their punches.
After the two Penn fights, Edgar's numbers changed based on the high quality of opposition, but still they only landed 24.5 percent of their strikes against him. Maynard's opponents connected on 27 percent. There is a surprise at No. 1 with Edgar dropping a bit – heavyweight Jon Madsen, whose opponents have landed a scant 16.2 percent of their significant strikes.
Of course, like in all sports, these statistics can be learned from, but hardly guarantee what will happen in a fight any more than a low ERA predicts whether a pitcher will go out and get shelled on a bad night.
"Are Edgar and [WEC bantamweight champion] Dominick Cruz going to be the first people with a new way of fighting, relying on speed, darting in and out and not getting hit?" asked Genauer, who noted their style is different from that of Lyoto Machida, who employs a Floyd Mayweather Jr. type approach, using speed to deliver a lot of blows while avoiding opponents’ strikes.
"And how will this style age?" he said. "What happens if one of the fighters gets a knee injury and can’t move as fast, or gets older and slows down?"
Edgar's success in avoiding strikes is just one indicator of success. In fact, you'll find that most categories are led by the most successful fighters in the sport.
St. Pierre, for example, is near the top of a number of categories. Of fighters with at least 20 takedowns in their career, he is far and away No. 1 when it comes to percentage of takedowns landed (81.5 percent), and also No. 2 in takedown defense (87.5 percent). That seems to justify St. Pierre’s reputation as the best MMA wrestler in the game. In an average UFC fight, 45 percent of takedowns are successful.
St. Pierre is also near the top at making his opponents miss when they are striking with him, and is No. 5 all-time in striking plus/minus.
When you look at the category of successful takedown defense, the top five fighters in UFC history are Andrei Arlovski (90.5 percent of takedowns defended), St. Pierre (87.5 percent), Yushin Okami (87.5 percent), Machida (86.1 percent) and Dong Hyun Kim (84 percent). Others near the top include Chuck Liddell and Penn.
All had highly successful careers in UFC, with five of them being current or former champions. It should be noted that some of the newer dominant wrestlers, like Brock Lesnar, Shane Carwin and Cain Velasquez, are not on that list because opponents must have attempted a minimum of 20 takedowns in order to qualify. Because of Lesnar’s wrestling reputation, you don’t get a lot of people trying to take him down to begin with.
UFC middleweight champ Anderson Silva, who along with St. Pierre would have to be considered the most dominant fighter of the modern era, is No. 1 all-time in striking accuracy (68 percent). That, combined with being strong in takedown defense and high in strikes landed per minute of fighting, has made him the most successful fighter in company history in the most important stats of all, win-loss percentage (12-0, 100 percent), most consecutive wins (12), most consecutive title defenses (seven) and longest title reign (will hit the four-year mark on Oct. 14).
Genauer also looks at what he calls the plus/minus striking number as a key stat, and it shows Velasquez as the most effective striking fighter in the history of the company. Velasquez’s average of 7.07 significant strikes per minute is second, behind only Junior Dos Santos (7.12). The average fighter lands 1.60 significant strikes per minute).
At the time same, Velasquez, on average, has only been hit 0.97 times per minute, and the differential of 6.1 is as far off the charts given his time frame as Babe Ruth’s slugging numbers in his era. Dos Santos has landed 7.12 strikes per minute, but in doing so has taken 2.27 strikes per minute, and his 4.85 differential is second.
It’s a stat dominated by modern fighters because of the faster pace.
The remainder of the top five are undefeated welterweight John Hathaway (3.20), light heavyweight wrestling standout Phil Davis (3.06) and St. Pierre (2.73).