Fightnomics: The man behind the statistics (Interview)

Photo courtesy of Fightnomics

MMA statistician extraordinaire, Fightnomics Reed discusses the important facts and figures that get overlooked, and how meaningful the 'Tale of the Tape' really is in this interview.

With the emergence of Fight Metric a few years back, we've been able to view a much more clinical side of our beloved sport. Percentages and statistics and crunched numbers give us the basis for how coaches, odds makers and matchmakers view fighters. These days, if you want to learn about a fighter, you get guys like Connor Ruebuschor Jack Slack to do one of their phenomenal technical breakdowns.

Recently, a new name crept into the MMA sphere, with unusual, yet critical stats, that has led me to wonder how we managed to get by without them. Fightnomics Reed has been bringing our collective attention to a whole new round of facts and figures that some of us hadn't even thought of. Things like the differences between volume and accuracy come into play, especially when measured up against judge decisions. Did you know that judges tend to favor the fighter with higher volume over higher accuracy? Details like these get overlooked, but not with Reed.

I recently sat down with Reed in an interview on MMA Sentinel with my co-host Iain Kidd. We were pleasantly surprised to find that the stats guy is quite an interesting fellow, and is a veritable fountain of information. This your chance to get to know the man behind the numbers.

How He Got Into Statistical Analysis of MMA Fights

My background, and the combination of the opportunities and holes I saw in this sport, is what got me into it, really. I was a full time management consultant, and I had more than enough work to do each day in my day job, but I went to a fight with a friend, and he was sponsoring some fighters. I was asking a lot of questions, like I normally do as a consultant, but I wasn't really happy with the answers I was getting, and so I started doing some digging, and stumbled upon FightMetric.

At the time, they had literally just finished quantifying the first, I think, 100 or so UFCs. They had kind of an open casting call for analysts, saying 'Hey, send us resumes if you want to play with data, and do research you can publish with our data. We will give you access to it if you prove you know what you are doing with your math.'

It was me and a couple of professors who got access as research fellows, and I was the only one that was a business guy, as a consultant. So I found a fighter, at the time it was Jorge Rivera, who was about to go on a three fight win streak. I latched up with his camp and I said, 'Hey, guys, would you be interested in seeing a very detailed breakdown on your opponent and on your fighter, and where they match up and where the mismatches are?'

They said, 'Yeah, bring it', and they were very open to me, and I became part of that family. That ramped up very quickly. I started writing, I got involved with the management group, MC Hammer's crew, and so recently I actually took the big leap, and quit my job, and now I'm writing Fightnomics, the book, in the hopes that it will help popularize the sport, and also bring a new angle to understanding MMA.

I try not to focus too much on individual match-ups, because micro analysis is a lot more difficult. Anything can happen in a cage fight, I'm going to be wrong if I try to go around making predictions all the time. I can tell some interesting stories about the sport when I look at it in the macro sense, though, so that's what I'm trying to do with the book; I'm trying to shed a very different kind of light on the sport.


How His Background Helps

In terms of understanding technique and what makes things tick, I try to color some of my analysis with my training as a physicist. I've talked a little bit about size and the physics of weight-classes, and why that matters, and the physiology of the brain. I was actually a scientific consultant for the military for a few years before going back to grad school.

I consulted to DARPA, which is like the mad science division of the military. They were specifically interested in human performance, things like how do you turn special forces soldiers into super soldiers? It sounds like a Jean Claude Van-Damme movie, but there is genuine science there: how do you speed up recovery time? How do you train optimally? What's the best nutrition for people who get deployed in the field for two weeks at a time? We did some really cool research, and I was part of the team that was managing and funding that research.

I was involved in human performance and peak performance, and understanding what makes a really extreme athlete tick before I ever came near MMA. I was always a fight fan, so this work was just sort of a weird tangent that colored my mind, so when the opportunity came up to work in MMA, all of these things joined forces together and this (Fightnomics) is what popped out.


Tale of the Tape

We inherited this Tale of the Tape from boxing, and it's not not necessarily doing MMA a lot of justice, but there are points on that page which are meaningful, and size is one of them. First of all, we have a weight class, so you have to understand the context of that weight class, and fights within different weight classes tend to end differently.

From Featherweight to Heavyweight, for example. At Heavyweight the statistical majority of fights will end via strikes, whereas at Featherweight, that's more like 20%. The number of submissions go down slightly with increasing size, but knockouts go up and up and up.

Certain performance metrics are more important in larger weight classes than they are in smaller ones, so the weight class is context for the fight to take place in, and then you have the individuals that are competing.

Size is important, but it's not height alone. When I ran anthropometrics, and when you look at the tale of the tape, anthropometrics is height, reach, hand dominance, age, etc. Age is actually, of all of those, probably the most important, if there is a significant difference. Older fighters just do not perform as well when they face younger fighters.

Some people are probably more resilient than others, but in a macro sense, when you see a big age differential, the younger guy usually wins. It's noticeable, and it's not how the older fighter performs in terms of his attack, it's how he loses, and older fighters are far more likely to be knocked out than younger fighters. That's from a combination of things, it's the natural decline of the brain, but it's also more likely prior concussions and the accumulation of those over time. The more concussions you've had, the lower the threshold for another, and the more severe the symptoms. It's easier to knock an older fighter out, and when you do wobble them, they feel it more than they would have when the were younger.

That effect leads to more older fighters losing by KO. So, age is important. When it comes to size, height is not an advantage if it doesn't also come with a reach advantage, and a reach advantage needs to be significant, it needs to be more than two inches, and then you start to see a little difference in terms of win percentage for the longer fighter, with all other things being equal.

I try to isolate each variable and see which ones actually pan out in terms of win-loss. In some of them, I do go a little deeper and look at performance variables, so the reach advantage works best when people use the reach. They use a lot of jabs, they're generally more accurate and they have slightly higher knockdown rates than the shorter fighter when they go head to head.

The southpaw advantage is real. It's not as big as I would have expected, but it is there. It's not that left handers are naturally better than right handers, it's when they face each other, the right handers tend to do a little bit worse than they normally do. That's a frequency selection effect. It just means you're facing something rare, and that rareness carries it's own advantage, because you're not used to facing it.


The Most Useful Stats for Coaches to Look At

Understanding how you've performed, compared to how you think you've performed is important, and the same goes for your opponent. Some people believe someone is good at something, then when you look at the stats, they actually see that they're not good at it.

I think that one sneaky item in the data is the difference between volume and accuracy, or effectiveness. Judges tend to favor volume over effectiveness, because judges are human, and they can't tell if punches have actually landed. So if they see a guy throwing a lot, they assume that he's winning, because he's controlling the pace and he's doing more, but is he landing the harder strikes?

So, if you understand that you're facing a high-volume guy, it's critical to know that you're probably going to be on the losing end of the decision if you allow someone to simply out-work you. If you know that they are inaccurate, and higher volume people do tend to be less accurate, then you know that you need to stand in the pocket, or work those counters, land the harder strikes and don't let them get into that game.

Understanding the trends of the individual fighter is important, but putting it into the context of how it gets interpreted by the judges is also important. You don't want to fall prey to the trap of getting outworked by a guy who probably wasn't really threatening you at any point, but was just punching a whole lot, and that does happen.


How the UFC Has Evolved Over the Years

I've done some analysis, looking at the way fighters perform, and how fights end. There has been a lot of evolution, and I'm laying that out in a chapter right now in the book I'm working on. Looking at the year to year rates, finish rates have gone down and down and down, well that's because the level of competition has gone up and up and up. People are better at defending submissions, there aren't as many mismatches and the overall parity within the UFC is at an all time high, so of course the finish rates will go down.

We also have this effect where the center of gravity, the centre of mass, has gone down the scales. Whereas the average fighter in 2004 was probably 190lbs, weighted average, it's now more like 155lbs, because the average fighter is now a lightweight, not a middleweight. That's been a shift, and it's come with fewer knockouts because of the size ratio, and few other things. We have more full time athletes, so the pace of activity has gone up, but fewer fights are finished. It's a trade-off between exciting because of a highlight reel finish, or exciting because we actually see very competitive athletes, and I'm sure there are a lot more factors that I'm just beginning to get to.

You can follow Reed via his Twitter account, @Fightnomics

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