Do Stats And Technical Talk Give MMA Fans The Heebie Jeebies?

Michael Johnson at the UFC on Fox 2 weigh-ins. Photo by Esther Lin, MMA Fighting.

As mixed martial arts grows and develops as a sport that large numbers of people pay attention to, we face the "big sport" balancing act between getting the important information out there and drowning people in too much infojunk.

Does it serve you as a fan to know that Jon Jones has a 100% rate of defending takedowns? Or would it matter more to you to know that Jones has essentially fought one opponent in his career who actually tried to take him down? What about the unprovided statistic that tells you that Rashad Evans has never attempted a submission in the UFC? That disconnect between statistics and reality is what I call infojunk.

This type of infojunk has ruined many a baseball, football or basketball team as general managers fall in love with the big names of faded stars, home run totals and hand out indefensibly bad contracts or gobs of playing time to not-actually-great players. However, calling out the infojunk seems to be the domain of a few passionate fans and for the great number of sports fans, the infojunk either slides by or gets adopted nearly wholesale. For prominent commentators in MMA, their approach to avoid the glazed eyes and itchy TV remote fingers seem to settle into calling something "great" or "world-class" and avoiding any real insights (such as pointing out weaknesses to this strike or that ground tactic or strengths and preferences in doing this or that). If everything is great and terrific, why do fighters lose then?

The rise of Moneyball-like organizational concepts across leagues and across big numbers of fans through fantasy sports, relentless evangelizing and just plain curiosity of the modern sports fan has helped call out the horse-pucky their favored teams try to put over on them, but the evaluating mistakes still happen and can hinder, wound or destroy teams and athletes for years.

This should not happen in MMA. Fans should consciously build more patience for the technical terms and concepts. The vast majority of fighters are too skilled and too awesome to dismiss as thugs or brawlers. The audience should be better at telling Dana White, Scott Coker, Bjorn Rebney or the other occasional hot air bags out there something along the lines "This specific thing you are saying is not actually true. This is closer to the objective truth." There is already a fantastically literate, knowledgeable and passionate fanbase across all corners of the internet, talking to each other in gyms and offices across the planet and slowly bringing each other up to a point of surprising expertise. Higher-ups are constantly telling each other and the people that work for them that they should tone things down or ease up on the technical stuff because the fans out there do not like that. This is a disservice to the fans and the approach and quality of explanation/presentation probably matters more than the technical level of the material discussed. We can listen to Neil deGrasse Tyson speak about anything all day because the man is a communicative genius. MMA needs that quality and we are getting it in highly dispersed ways throughout the community we fans, fighters, coaches and sport-builders have developed.

However, I do not believe that the most commonly used FightMetric or CompuStrike statistics are all that useful to talk about fights or to break down tendencies. My favorite short example of infojunk versus useful information is the Pat Curran and Marlon Sandro fight. To get the dramatic knock-out, Curran threw three punches - every single one of them missing - and then connected with a massive head kick that put Sandro out cold. The missed punches were extremely valuable to Curran, despite never making contact, because they set Sandro up for the kick - which Curran was hunting the entire time. The stats would say something like "Curran connected on 1/4 strikes. Curran has a 25% accuracy rate, although he did land one significant strike." That does not describe what happened at all.

To get even better in the future about understanding MMA, we just need to figure out how to better reduce this wonderfully complex sport into useful numbers and how best to communicate it to the glazed eyeballs crowd. Easy peasy.

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