Three by Five: Decisions in the UFC (Part 1)

Photo by Daniel Herbertson via www.cdn.sherdog.com

Last week, Mike Chiappetta examined the recent rise in decisions in the UFC.  To wit:

MMAFighting looked at UFC stats dating back to UFC 100 in July. That covers 130 fights over 12 events, or roughly 10 percent of all fights in the company's history.

According to the numbers, UFC fights these days are most likely to go to the judges' scorecards. Sixty of the 130 bouts did so, with 41 unanimous decisions, 16 split decisions, one majority decision and two draws.

...

The interesting thing to note is the trend of more fights going the distance. Dating back to UFC 1, only 30.9 percent of all UFC fights in the organization's history have gone to a decision (a number somewhat skewed by the fact that early matches had no judges and were fought until a winner emerged). But during the recent 12-event stretch examined by MMAFighting, over 46 percent of match outcomes were decided by the judges.

My own numbers since UFC 100 indicate 62 decisions in 142 fights.  I'm not sure what the cause of the discrepancy is, but the differences are negligible for our purposes.

So what's going on here?  Chiappetta notes that historically, MMA fights only going to the scorecards 17 percent of the time according to the Sherdog Fight Finder.  The intuitive explanation is that the talent gap between fighters outside the UFC is far larger than those in the Octagon.  Taken a step further, it's also intuitive to believe that the gap between UFC fighters in the present day has closed considerably compared to just two or three years ago.

That doesn't necessarily mean that fights going to a decisions is an irreversible upward trend.  Here are the decision rates in the UFC since 2004:

2004 26%
2005 24%
2006 33%
2007 36%
2008 32%
2009 42%

While this looks like a fairly clear rise, we need to account for an important fact: There were only nine lightweights fights between 2004 and 2006.  Lightweights had zero fights in the UFC in 2005.  And before you counter that the UFC didn't put on as many shows in prior to 2007 (which is true), lightweight fights comprised just nine percent of the total fights put on by the UFC, compared to an estimated 28 percent today.

Why is this important?  Let's look at the UFC decision rates by weight class since 2004:

LW 43%
WW 38%
MW 31%
LHW 34%
HW 24%

Here's the distribution of fights by weight class since 2004 in percentage form:

LW WW MW LHW HW
2004 15% 31% 21% 15% 18%
2005 0% 31% 33% 19% 18%
2006 13% 27% 23% 21% 16%
2007 31% 25% 16% 18% 9%
2008 28% 23% 23% 15% 11%
2009 27% 27% 18% 17% 11%

It's reasonable to assume that part of the reason for the rise in decisions (especially since 2004) can be explained by the general shrinkage in the talent gap and the trend for the average UFC fighter to be smaller.  In Part 2, I'll examine the prolificacy of individual fighters, their tendencies to finish/be finished, and its effects on the overall rate of decisions.

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