The Decline of Submissions in MMA: A Closer Look

Declineinsubs_mediumThis Fan Shot was promoted to the front page by Nick Thomas.

Kid Nate fired the first shot in the ongoing BE discussion about the decline (or lack thereof) of submissions in MMA, its causes and implications. Nate:

I've been concerned that MMA is becoming too unbalanced and the disturbing trend that [Josh] Gross points out does nothing to reassure me...I'm not saying there's anything wrong with a good stand-up war, but I do worry that MMA is degenerating into bad kickboxing.

Mike Fagan played good cop in a response, arguing that while there was a clear downward trend, the death of grappling was greatly exaggerated and due to the numbers involved could be largely smoothed out with the addition of just a few "extra" submissions.

With additional time having passed, I thought it would be interesting to revisit this topic.  The result is (I hope) a couple more insights into the numbers.

I performed a card-by-card analysis of the UFC's events since UFC 31 (fullfledged start of the Zuffa era, and shortly following adoption of unified rules), calculating the % of wins by submission per event. The ever-popular Sherdog Fight Finder was the source.  A couple caveats:  as we all know, Sherdog's results are known to be a little inconsistent; I did grab everything which was described as a "submission" (including tapping to strikes or corner quitting, if it was described as a submission); and the data was compiled manually so small errors are possible but I would fully expect them to be immaterial to the overall picture. I then graphed the results:


This is the submission frequency, as a percent, of every event from UFC 31 through UFC 116, along with a polynomial trendline.  The primary feature that stands out to me is the erratic distribution of values.  There aren't many periods of consecutive events with "gains" or "losses"; and there aren't many "flat" periods.  Generally speaking, one card has more, the next less, the next more.  But, the next feature that stands out to me is that the trendline (the most appropriate for data of this nature) shows a clear pattern of the frequency of submissions gradually rising through around Autumn 2007 (UFC 76/77 timeframe) and then gradually falling since then.

This trend is shown more clearly - much less noise - in a graph of the yearly averages, which follows.


There are two things clear to me from this graph: (1) it's true that submissions are showing a "regression to the mean", which was accurately argued for by Mike Fagan; but (2) it's clear with the benefit of 1 year+ removed from Fagan's piece that there is a downward trend (which was in dispute at that time).  The last four consecutive years (2010 obviously being YTD) each had fewer submissions, average per fight, than the prior year; and this is the most marked trend on the graph.  So it's fair to conclude something is happening.

To me this raises two questions: (1) What could explain this trend, and (2) Can it be considered "good", "bad", or maybe neither?  As it turns out, the answer to the second is highly reliant on the answer to the first.

Let me tackle the second question first.  The annual graph does show a definite regression to the mean.  Again, Fagan:

I hate to say, "I told you so," but...wait, I love saying it.  I told you so.  In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to see a future period where the submission rate hits 35% over a few cards upon which I'll have to roll in and mow down the notion that BJJ is taking over the world (again).

Everything regresses back to the mean.  Unless significant changes are made to the Unifed Rules of MMA, the submission rate will hover around that 25-26% mark.

Mike was prescient with his first statement: UFC 106, TUF 10 Finale, UFC 107-108 to end 2009 into 2010 had an average submission rate of ~34% with three of the four being above 35%.  However, to date his second assertion - that submissions would hover around 25-26% - is less accurate (depending on how generous one wants to be with the word "around").  2009 ended with a rate roughly 23.3% and 2010 to date is less than 22% - the lowest in 6 years.

So - we began the modern era at one level; gradually worked up to a higher level over 4-5 years; and we've now gradually fallen very close to the starting point over 4-5 years.  Is this "good", "bad", or "other"?  Well, as with all clever answers, the best reply here is "it depends". If the rate is falling because MMA really is turning into "bad kickboxing", and the rate will continue to fall - well I would agree with Kid Nate that this is bad.  If the rate is falling because MMA is becoming more well rounded and submission defense is improving - I would consider that a good thing.  On the other hand, a pure "regression to the mean" approach would imply that the area we find ourselves in these days is actually what's "normal", and that the period of rise represents a "bubble" not unlike irrational stock market run-ups.

However, again as with all clever answers I'm going to say that I think the truth is a lot more complicated.  For one thing, MMA is still a very young sport (the modern era is a decade old) and didn't arrive fullborn: the game has seen a fantastic amount of evolution over its course.  Even the last few years have seen a significant amount of evolution in the well-roundedness needed to compete at top levels.  So one simple answer to the question is that the jury's still out on the "right" ratio of submission finishes, because there's simply not enough history to draw a conclusion.

In the interest of exploring the topic more fully, though, I suggest at least two other factors that should not be sacrificed to the the "vacuum view" of submission frequency. They are event type, and overall decline in fight stoppages.

Event Type
One hypothesis I formed in considering the timing of the decline in submissions is the arrival and prevalence of The Ultimate Fighter.  I reasoned that TUF didn't exist till mid 2005 - so a big portion of the runup occurred without it - and that both TUF Finales and Ultimate Fight Nights (which began at the same time - mid 2005) featured a disproportionate number of TUF contestants and/or at the very least the "lesser-caliber" fighters, vs.the PPV's and numbered events which featured more "higher level" fighters.  I reasoned that these are younger fighters who may be more likely to "stand and bang" in order to make an impression, as well as (on the whole, of course) not being AS versed on the ground as their more experienced counterparts.  So, I formed a hypothesis that the prevalence of TUF/UFN events from mid 2005 forward "diluted" the global submission rate of the organization.

So to prove/disprove this, I returned to the data to produce two new graphs - one for TUF/UFN events, and one for everything else.  The results are fairly persuasive:


While the "regular" (non-TUF/UFN) events graph shows a fairly even distribution of results, and its trendline is reasonably flat, the TUF/UFN graph is rather different.  We see in this graph both a more pronounced bulge during the "bubble" period, as well as a much more pronounced decline in submissions over the most recent several events.  In fact, until TUF 11 Finale (which was only a tiny uptick), each of the last 6 consecutive TUF/UFN events was at the same or lower submission rate than the prior event - a trend which never occurs in the "regular" events despite there being twice as many of them!  Given the relatively small number of fights per event, and the additional impact each gained or lost sub has on the overall picture, these two charts show clearly that while TUF/UFNs have comprised only ~1/3 of all events of the past 5 years, they have been a major driver in the decline in submissions.  Now, is this only a coincidence?  Possibly, but I am unwilling to conclude that.  These aren't events chosen at random in order to make a pretty curve on a graph - these are events whose rosters are inherently different from the "normal" events.

Overall Changes in Fight Results
Another factor that needs to be considered is that submissions as a fight result don't exist in a vacuum.  Leaving aside no-contests, draws and other rare results, there are three main results in MMA - decision, (T)KO, or submission.  How has the (T)KO frequency changed over time?  Thought you'd never ask:


This graph shows that KO's have had a trendline shaped opposite of, but less pronounced than, that of submissions.  So there were more (T)KO's in the first couple years of the modern era, dropping gradually to fewer, and now it's rising but only very gradually - it's basically flat the last several years.

By now, those who have stuck with me to this point can guess what this indicates - (T)KO's have been largely flat over several years, submissions have fallen - so decisions have been on the rise.  And that's exactly what the data shows.  Following, I graph the incidence of decisions per year.  This is based not on my own data but from the great FanPost by mma_critic:


This is no reversion to the mean or a flattening out.  There is a clear-cut increase in decisions over the past five years.  Taking all of this information cumulatively, it's most accurate to characterize the situation this way:  It's not so much that submissions have declined, as a statement without context, but that decisions are dramatically up and both forms of stoppage are down, with submissions compromising only a slightly larger proportion of the reduction. 

To return to the earlier (and central) question - is this good or bad - I may be an optimist but I'm considering this to be positive.  A greater number of decisions can potentially mean fighters are more cautious and boring; or it can mean that fighters are more well-rounded, there is greater parity in the sport, and iron continues to sharpen iron.  While I can conceive of objective means to explore this in greater detail (a subject for a future very exhaustive analysis by some brave soul), I am comfortable in my own mind with my anecdotal experience that MMA has gotten much more varied, exciting and unpredictable over the past few years - which implies that the "boring" explanation isn't likely and instead, the sport is as diverse or more than ever and its participants are ever more skilled in all phases of the game - which as fans is exactly what we would hope for.

\The FanPosts are solely the subjective opinions of Bloody Elbow readers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Bloody Elbow editors or staff.

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