This is a guest post by Paul Gift.
Lyoto Machida faces Gegard Mousasi this Saturday at UFC Fight Night 36 in a bout that will likely give Machida #1 contender status at middleweight if he wins. Not too long ago Machida was still a light heavyweight and the MMA world was abuzz over his unanimous decision loss to Phil Davis at UFC 163. All three judges scored it 29-28 for Davis while major media outlets had it 30-27 or 29-28 for Machida. Davis had a takedown late in each of the first two rounds and, in the aftermath, people were left wondering if that's what stole him the rounds, and therefore the fight.
If we ask judges how they evaluate takedowns, there's a good chance we'd get a different answer from what's consciously or subconsciously going on in their heads. That's where MMA analytics can help. We don't have to ask judges what they think. All we have to do is analyze their scoring decisions and see what gets revealed.
Here's the way the first two rounds played out for Machida and Davis in the key striking areas that score points with the judges. While head jabs score points, keep in mind that power strikes to the body and legs generally score three times more while power shots to the head score five times more.
In addition to the striking statistics, Davis had a takedown towards the end of the first round with 51 seconds of ground control and another takedown towards the end of the second round with 19 seconds of ground control.
These two rounds were definitely close. Did the takedowns seal the deal for Davis? To figure that out, we can use work we've done on how judges value different aspects of fighter performance. Without beating around the bush - takedowns score points. We're talking about the act of a takedown itself, not the ground control or strikes that come afterwards. Landing a takedown is equivalent to landing 1.7 power shots to the head. This is a decent-sized number considering that a fighter only lands six power shots to the head in an average round.
If you're wondering about the flip side, missing a takedown costs you points. The value of one takedown can be wiped out by missing 3 ½ others. This may be because missing makes you look weak or desperate, but it also likely enters into a judge's consideration of "control of the fighting area" from the unified rules of MMA. If you're shooting and missing, your opponent appears more in control. The rules even give an explicit example of control of the fighting area as "countering a grappler's attempt at takedown."
So did Davis' takedowns cost Machida the first two rounds? By our calculations, Davis had a 64 percent chance of winning round 1 and a 62 percent chance of winning round 2 from a typical judge. To be clear, this doesn't mean that the actual scoring decisions were right or wrong, or that Davis should have won or lost the round. Think of it as revealing the direction a typical judge would be leaning.
A cool thing you can do with these models is predict how judges likely would've leaned if they were to value performance differently. All you have to do is turn certain things off, so let's "turn off" the judges' value of takedowns. Now Davis has a 53 percent chance of winning the first round and a 51 percent chance of winning the second. We've moved from Davis having an edge in the mind of a typical judge to the coin flip zone.
To truly understand the first two rounds we need to check out a couple other areas of Machida and Davis' performance. If you look back at the table, you'll notice Davis whiffed a lot with power in the second round. This is important because power misses to the head and body score points with the judges. If misses weren't counted, Davis would now have a 49% chance of winning round 1 and a 41% chance of winning round 2.
Another area where fighters get credit is the time they spend in a controlling position on the ground. Davis was active while on the ground, landing half of his jabs and more than half of his power shots for the entire round, but he also got credit just for spending time in a dominant position. Let's suppose you think the time he spent controlling Machida shouldn't count for much - not the strikes, just the time spent on top. Now Davis has only a 36 percent chance of winning the first round and a 37 percent chance of winning the second.
So did Machida get hosed? Well, it's like the show "Air Emergencies" tells us; there's always a series of events that leads to disaster. The takedowns hurt Machida in both rounds but weren't the only major factors at play. Being controlled for 51 seconds - mostly in half guard - really cost Machida in the first round. His Achilles heel is his lack of activity and Davis significantly outworked him with power misses in the second.
No matter how fans or analysts feel, takedowns can absolutely be an important factor in winning a round from a judging perspective. In fact, we estimate that 4.2 percent of all rounds would have a different winner if judges didn't give credit to the pure act of a takedown. These two rounds don't appear to be in that group, but what came after the takedowns hurt Machida, along with his notorious inactivity. Let's see if see if he makes any changes this Saturday against a much more active fighter in Mousasi, or if he risks the same judging fate again.
Paul Gift is a sports economist and econometrician at Pepperdine University with a research focus on MMA. He can be contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or @MMAanalytics on Twitter. Fight data provided by FightMetric.