Trying to pin down fighters to a single striking style is a difficult exercise. By its very nature, MMA encourages hybridization and cross-fertilization between disciplines: it is impossible to find a boxer who doesn't throw knees or low kicks, and you would be hard-pressed to find a Muay Thai practitioner who hasn't incorporated more head movement and jabs into his game. Nevertheless, most fighters can be placed into two broad categories, boxers and Muay Thai-based strikers, each of which contains a great deal of internal variation. What I've done here is broken down fighters ranked in the top 25 of each weight class into one of the two categories, and analyzed the results for patterns. The differences between Muay Thai- and boxing-based fighters stand out in two particular areas, volume of strikes thrown and power. I'll explore volume in this article, and power in a second installment.
Some of the classifications are easy. It's clear that Junior dos Santos is a boxer and Wanderlei Silva is a Muay Thai guy, but this is not to say that every fighter can be placed into one of the two categories, and where fighters fell into that sizable gray area between the two I refrained from including them. This subset includes fighters like GSP, Vitor Belfort, and Benson Henderson, or guys like Lyoto Machida, who clearly don't belong in either category. I also excluded ground and clinch specialists, such as Big Nog, Jake Shields, and Yushin Okami, so the sample essentially consists of "good" strikers. There may be some disagreement about fighters that I've excluded from the sample or chosen to include, so here are the full lists. Heavyweights are overrepresented among the boxers as compared to Muay Thai-based fighters, and there's a slight edge among the Muay Thai fighters in guys ranked in the top ten of their weight class. Nevertheless, we can draw meaningful patterns from the comparison of the two groups.
Boxers: Junior dos Santos, Daniel Cormier, Shane Carwin, Sergei Kharitonov, Stipe Miocic, Brendan Schaub, Alexander Gustafsson, Rampage Jackson, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, James Te-Huna, Gegard Mousasi, Michael Bisping, Constantinos Philippou, Nick Diaz, Johny Hendricks, BJ Penn, Rick Story, Gilbert Melendez, Nate Diaz, Frankie Edgar, Evan Dunham, Brian Bowles, and Brad Pickett.
Muay Thai fighters: Cain Velasquez, Alistair Overeem, Mauricio Rua, Forrest Griffin, Rafael Cavalcante, Brandon Vera, Anderson Silva, Luke Rockhold, Brian Stann, Alan Belcher, Wanderlei Silva, Carlos Condit, Martin Kampmann, Jake Ellenberger, Nate Marquardt, Thiago Alves, Donald Cerrone, Melvin Guillard, Jose Aldo, Diego Nunes, Charles Oliveira, Renan Barao, and Michael McDonald.
Boxers both land and throw a significantly greater volume of strikes compared to Muay Thai stylists. The boxers land 3.88 strikes per minute and attempt 9.64 strikes per minute, while the Muay Thai-based strikers land 3.46 strikes per minute and attempt 7.50 strikes per minute. These disparities might not sound substantial, but think about the aggregate difference over the course of a fifteen-minute fight: the boxer will land six more strikes (58.26 vs. 51.92) while attempting thirty-two more (144.60 vs. 112.43). This greater volume, however, is accompanied by a lower accuracy rate (42 vs. 48%).
Defensively, things get interesting. Boxers get hit a little more than Muay Thai practitioners (2.61 strikes absorbed per minute vs. 2.26), but the average percentage of strikes that land is the same, 38%, for both groups. The difference lies in the fact that boxers' opponents tend to throw more strikes at them than those of Muay Thai fighters (6.92 per minute vs. 5.84).
So how do we explain these patterns? The answer comes in two parts, strike selection and range, with the former largely being a product of the latter. As I noted in the first paragraph, it's difficult to find a boxing-based fighter in MMA who doesn't throw the occasional kick or make use of knee strikes in the clinch: even Junior dos Santos and the Diaz brothers, likely the purest boxers in MMA, still utilize those strikes. Nevertheless, a much greater proportion of boxers' strikes will be punches, especially jabs, while the Muay Thai guys utilize a more varied arsenal of step-up and jumping knees, along with high, middle, and low kicks.
The range-finding jab, employed with much greater frequency by boxers, partially explains the disparity in accuracy between boxers and Muay Thai fighters. The point of the jab is not necessarily to land, though this is a useful bonus, but to help land other strikes by establishing the distance and drawing attention away from the follow-up power strikes. Muay Thai fighters also use the jab, of course, but nowhere near as much as boxers, and are much less likely to double or triple up on the strike. Additionally, the farther you are from your opponent, the less likely a strike is to land, and a jab is inherently less accurate than a clinch knee or short punch.
The remainder of the disparity in accuracy can be explained by Muay Thai fighters' offensive proficiency in the clinch: the closer you are, the more likely your strike is to land. Sure, everybody can throw knees and punches there, but who does it better? Overeem or Junior, Gustafsson or Shogun, Bisping or Anderson, Johny Hendricks or Jake Ellenberger? Additionally, many boxers on this list actively avoid the clinch; Junior, Gustafsson, Costa Philippou, and Frankie Edgar all come to mind as examples. Alternatively, boxers who spend a lot of time in the clinch, like Shane Carwin, Rampage, and Johny Hendricks, all have pretty solid accuracy numbers.
The optimal range for a low kick or long front kick, the Muay Thai fighter's best weapon at the longest striking distance, lies at or just outside the range of a jab. When you're close enough to land a jab, you're also close enough to land a body kick, and possibly a high kick as well: this at least partially explains the greater amount of strikes that a boxer absorbs as opposed to a Muay Thai fighter. Whenever you're in range for your strikes, you can also be hit back.
But how does the use of the jab explain the volume disparity? Simple: it takes a great deal more energy to throw a kick, especially with the amount of force most Muay Thai practitioners employ, than a jab. As an example, think about the difference between Jose Aldo's low kicks and Frankie Edgar's jab, which they throw at a roughly similar range. When Aldo throws a low kick, whether on its own or at the end of a combination, he normally takes a while before throwing his next strike (I counted intervals of between four and twenty seconds in the Florian fight, for example), while Frankie immediately follows his jab with other strikes. That gap between strikes thrown easily explains the difference in volume. Low kicks take more energy than jabs or power punches, body kicks more than low kicks, and so on.
So what have we learned from this analysis? There are demonstrable differences in striking volume and accuracy between fighters with bases in boxing and Muay Thai, and those differences are best explained by reference to the use of the jab and striking range. Note that I haven't stated that one is better than the other: each style (as broadly conceived in this context) offers both advantages and disadvantages. One could reasonably infer, however, that a boxer might have a better chance of winning a decision through greater activity alone. That's a question for another time.
-Standard deviations for each category available upon request. The boxers were a more volatile sample than the Muay Thai fighters in every striking statistic, and if I hadn't included Forrest Griffin in the Muay Thai sample this would've been even more pronounced.
-If you're wondering about ground strikes skewing the accuracy statistic, I don't think it's a major issue. Boxers average a half a takedown more per fifteen minutes, meaning that they spend more time in top position, but their accuracy is still lower. Based on anecdotal viewings of some of the boxers in top position, it doesn't seem to skew the volume statistics, either: fighters are remarkably consistent about their volume regardless of position (clinch, ground, free movement), and given FightMetric's reluctance to classify ground strikes as "significant", if anything it should skew the numbers downwards. I haven't examined this with statistics, but I'm satisfied that it doesn't change things too much.