Finishing rates in the UFC: a longer view

I took a look at finishing numbers by weight class over the past year recently, and the comments in that article often seemed to revolve around a desire to see more numbers over the years, and a desire to see a larger sample size. I'll try to oblige that to some extent here with a tally of fight results over the past four years. I chose four years more-or-less arbitrarily, because I believe it's long enough to begin to sketch trends, and also because I believed I could feasibly tally that much data without destroying my computer in math rage.

Most of what follows is just raw data, with little interpretation or tinkering to get at underlying trends; I'm definitely not a statistician, and several hours of poring over fight results in online databases quickly reminded me why I didn't really want to be one in the first place.

The first set of results is a very basic breakdown of annual match results, divided into weight classes. For this tally, I included all UFC events (PPV and other) during the period, but did not use numbers from other organizations, even if they are Zuffa-owned. (I believe that insofar as the UFC is currently a de facto major league of the sport, it made sense to restrict my analysis to reflect the results obtained only at the pinnacle of the sport.) As a result, the numbers for bantamweights and featherweights are sorely lacking and provide only a snapshot of very recent bouts. I chose only to include three-round bouts (even if a five-round fight ended before the fourth round) and established weight classes. I also had to use my discretion in several instances; for instance, I omitted Jason MacDonald's loss to John Salter on the grounds that the injury seemed to me incidental, but I included results like TKOs from cuts, which I thought reflected what one fighter was able to do to another. I also kept submissions due to strikes in with submissions rather than TKOs, which is a bit contentious, but I believe ultimately defensible. These discretionary calls mean my numbers probably won't precisely align with other tallies (if there are any public), but I believe the tallies maintain validity – although others might disagree.

That said, here are the tables.

2008 Results by Weight Class

Weight Class Fights (T)KO Submissions Decisions
Light (155) 53 10 17 26
Welter (170) 41 16 9 16
Middle (185) 44 17 16 11
Light Heavy (205) 28 18 5 5
Heavy (265) 20 15 2 3

2009 Results by Weight Class

Weight Class Fights (T)KO Submissions Decisions
Light (155) 53 12 18 23
Welter (170) 52 16 11 25
Middle (185) 36 10 12 14
Light Heavy (205) 32 12 2 18
Heavy (265) 23 12 6 5

2010 Results by Weight Class

Weight Class Fights (T)KO Submissions Decisions
Feather (145) 2 1 0 1
Light (155) 62 7 21 34
Welter (170) 58 14 14 30
Middle (185) 51 13 12 26
Light Heavy (205) 34 11 7 16
Heavy (265) 29 15 5 9

2011 Results by Weight Class

Weight Class Fights (T)KO Submissions Decisions
Bantam (135) 35 9 5 21
Feather (145) 38 5 8 25
Light (155) 59 15 16 28
Welter (170) 48 15 6 27
Middle (185) 37 11 8 18
Light Heavy (205) 27 13 5 9
Heavy (265) 22 11 3 8

What seems clear is that there is a trend towards more decisions over time, especially in 2011, the only year I examined that resulted in a majority of fights going to the judges. Of course, these results include two new weight classes in 2011; perhaps they skew the distribution. Omitting them from the 2011 tables produces this:

2011 Results by Weight Class, excl. 135/145

Weight Class Fights (T)KO Submissions Decisions
Light (155) 59 15 16 28
Welter (170) 48 15 6 27
Middle (185) 37 11 8 18
Light Heavy (205) 27 13 5 9
Heavy (265) 22 11 3 8

That looks a little more typical. (With only two sub-155 fights in 2010, I didn't bother to re-do the tally for that year.) Whether or not higher decisions rates are a constant over time at the lighter weight classes, or whether they result from the emergence of those divisions to prominence or some other factor is beyond me, so I'll conveniently ignore the issue entirely. Compiling all of these plain numbers into yearly percentages results in something like this:

UFC Fight Results by Year, 2008-2011 (%)

(T)KO Submissions Decisions
2008 41 26 33
2009 32 25 43
2010 26 25 49
2011 30 19 52
2011 (excl. 35/45) 34 20 47

Treating the results by year, Mike Fagan's position that submissions have not hugely declined with time is borne out – at least until 2011. Whether 2011 is just a blip or not remains to be seen. Does this mean that today's MMA fighters are generally knowledgeable enough to avoid submissions, or perhaps that fighters are playing it safe on the ground? I find it hard to accept the notion, given how young BJJ still is, with new techniques still being created and perfected, but a drop-off in submissions by a fifth suggests there may well be something happening here. Regardless, the culprits in the decline of submissions seem to be welterweights and middleweights, who both had bad years for finishing people in 2011. In fact, over time, middleweight number shift from looking rather like 205 numbers to looking more like the lighter weight classes; perhaps this is a kind of 'Anderson Silva effect,' with a number of quality middleweights jumping ship to other divisions (Nate Marquardt, Martin Kampmann, Dan Henderson, Rich Franklin, etc.). Or probably not: I haven't done the analysis to examine if there's anything to that, and I don't really intend to. Still, middleweight generates some slightly odd totals.

The cross-division numbers that are apparently moving mostly downwards over time are tied in to (technical) knockouts, with a big dip starting in 2009, another drop in 2010, and a slight recovery in 2011. Generally speaking, it seems as if fighters today are slightly less likely to knock out (or be knocked out by) their opponents, compared to four years ago. Assuming this is an actual trend, rather than just statistical noise, what explains the shift? (I won't speculate as to the reason, but I welcome you to do so below.)

That said, not all weight classes have experienced such a drop, with the heavyweights putting up fairly similar numbers over time. It remains the case that if you want to see someone get knocked unconscious, you should watch big guys with a high ratio of muscle mass and questionable endurance. Whether that's a physiological aspect rearing its head, or perhaps a show of the disparity between higher and lower level heavyweights isn't clear. It does seem a bit odd that the heavyweights, and to an extent the light heavyweights, don't seem prone to the slight decline in (T)KOs over time. Speculate away in the comments section if you have a handy explanation.

As a final way of presenting the collected data, I thought I'd tabulate the numbers cumulatively for each weight class:

Cumulative Results by Division, 2008-2011 (%)

(T)KO Submissions Decisions
Lightweight 19 32 49
Welterweight 31 20 49
Middleweight 30 29 41
Light Heavyweight 45 16 40
Heavyweight 56 17 27

What does this prove? What sticks out to me is the trend of knockouts increasing with fighter size, an the inverse relationship with submissions, which are slightly more frequent towards the lightweight end of the spectrum. Noticeably, the big jump in knockouts takes off at light heavyweight, with 45 per cent of fights coming via (T)KO, compared to 31 per cent or less at lower weights; then there's another sizeable jump at heavyweight. Decision rates creep up in a more or less linear fashion as you move away from the heavier fighters. (Interestingly enough, in the year's worth of data for 135 and 145, these fighters do not exhibit the greater propensity for submissions that lightweights do, but with such a small sample, it's hard to say if this is real or a statistical artifact.)

In the end, these numbers aren't meant as anything more than a sketch of what's been happening over the past few years in the UFC. Unfortunately, the sample size is still pretty slight, and the daunting task of comparing these numbers to the sorts of numbers generated in second-tier organisations is a little too onerous for me to tackle. Drawing real conclusions from the tables is going to involve some speculation, or perhaps statistical analysis beyond my rudimentary math 'skills.' Feel free to toy with the raw data and to discuss the apparent trends in the comments.

Thanks for reading.

\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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