BE Analytics: How Does Ground Control Help MMA Fighters Win?

Jason Silva-USA TODAY Sports

Bloody Elbow’s analytics expert looks at the nature of different ground control positions in MMA, and how they help fighters win by knockout, submission and judges’ decision.

When Chad Mendes and Cub Swanson fought at WEC 50, they were tied on two judges' scorecards - Mendes was ahead on the other - going into the pivotal third round. Mendes landed a whopping five strikes in the final round (1 jab, 4 power) while Swanson landed 35 strikes (29 jab, 6 power) with neither making any submission attempts. Mendes took the round from all three judges. Even though he did virtually nothing in the striking and submission departments, he had three takedowns and 3:44 of control time on the ground while Swanson had goose eggs.

More recently, after Germaine de Randamie's split decision victory over Julie Kedzie in the prelims of UFC on Fox 8, Joe Rogan said, "Julie Kedzie, although she got the takedowns, wasn't really able to do any damage in that position. And, I think that's probably a good thing that the judges are scoring things like that because you have to do damage. It can't just be a takedown. There has to be something effective happening." That's Joe Rogan's opinion, but is it how things really are? We already know that takedowns score points, but how do judges score ground control situations when "something effective" isn't happening?

FightMetric defines ground control as being on top. Jiu-jitsu people may disagree with this in certain situations, but let's reserve judgment and see what the data say. A fighter can be in control in guard, half-guard, side control, mount, back control, and miscellaneous ground control positions such as being in a dominant position while your opponent turtles. These positions make up a significant portion of MMA fight time. On average, fighters spend 38.1 percent of their time (1:54 of every five minutes) on the ground with someone in control. Moreover, every 5.6 rounds one fighter will have ground control over the other for at least half the round.

A relatively unique feature of MMA compared to other sports is that competitors can win through their own actions or by decision from a panel of judges. The good people at FightMetric like to say that it's tennis and figure skating wrapped into one; tennis if you finish the fight and figure skating if you don't. This means analyses of winning need to examine judges' decisions as well as TKO and submission finishes. So today we're looking at how ground control relates to all three aspects of winning.

Let's start with a very basic analysis of fight finishes. This shows how an extra minute of ground control affects your odds of getting a TKO or submission finish. Any area with missing data means there wasn't enough evidence to be confident the result didn't come from random chance.


Value of Extra Minute of Ground Control

Analytics_-_ground_control_-_extra_time_tko__subs_with_strikes_medium

It seems pretty clear that extra control time on the ground leads to better odds of finishing the fight in most positions. Being in someone's guard isn't a good way to get a submission, as anyone with a jiu-jitsu background knows well. Also, extra time in half guard or with back control doesn't tend to lead to more TKOs. This is pretty obvious for back control, but is interesting for half guard since some fighters prefer it for ground and pound. You can still do damage and rack up points from half guard, but it doesn't appear to be a great position for finishing with strikes. It should be pointed out that being in these positions doesn't necessarily cause a greater chance of a finish. It may be that good finishers are better at getting into these positions and maintaining them.

What about situations where you have ground control but aren't active? Here's a new analysis where you have an extra minute of ground control, but all other elements of performance (strikes attempted and landed, submissions, sweeps, standups, etc.) remain the same for both fighters. In other words, it's an extra minute of idle time. The value of ground control now changes dramatically.

Value of Extra Minute of Ground Control

(Idle Time, No Additional Strikes, Subs, Sweeps, Etc.)

Analytics_-_ground_control_-_extra_time_tko__subs_idle_medium

Big difference, huh? The only difference between the first and second charts is that you are active with the extra time in the first chart and inactive with the extra time in the second chart. When it comes to TKO finishes, extra ground control time doesn't help if you aren't doing work and being active. The value of these positions comes from the additional strikes you get to throw and the difficulty your opponent has defending and throwing strikes of his own.

In very stark contrast, having more idle time in half guard, side control and mount helps you better complete the submissions you're able to attempt. Remember, idle time means there are no measureable elements of performance taking place. It doesn't mean you're completely inactive and doing nothing for the entire round. The extra time allows you to set things up from a good position and gives more opportunity for your opponent to make a mistake.

Did you notice what's going on with back control? Extra idle time on your opponent's back doesn't help you complete submissions. This is because having the back is very different from other ground control positions. Far and away, the most submission attempts per minute of control are rear naked chokes from the back - more than double that of any other submission type from any other ground control position. The first and second charts tell us that activity is the crucial feature of back control in MMA. Submissions with back control tend to come from making a lot of attempts and setting those attempts up with strikes, as opposed to being more patient and picking your spots.

Now that we know how idle time on the ground relates to TKO and submission finishes, let's see how the judges score these situations. The classic conundrum is what to do when one fighter "lays on" the other for most of the round - Mendes' win over Swanson was described by MMA Mania as a "blanketing win." So how much weight do judges tend to put on idle time spent in different ground control positions?

Value of Extra Minute of Ground Control

(Judges' Perspective)

Analytics_-_ground_control_-_extra_time_judge_decisions_medium

It turns out that all time spent in control on the ground increases a fighter's chances of winning the round. This has nothing to do with extra strikes, takedowns, submission attempts, or damage inflicted; it's just from being in a controlling position longer. Furthermore, the points given by the judges steadily increase with the dominance of the position from guard to half guard to side control to back control to mount. Half guard and side control are worth roughly twice as much as being in your opponent's guard, while mount and back control are around three times as valuable. So for decisions, ground control = Winning!

Here's a quick summary: All "blanketing" idle time with ground control helps earn judge decisions no matter what the position, but that same time only helps fighters finish by better completing submissions from half guard, side control, and mount.

Probably the most important take away for fighters is that every second you spend in control on the ground you're accumulating points from the judges and this is completely separate from the strikes you throw and submissions you attempt. Every second you're on bottom, you're losing, even if your opponent is just laying on you or doing nothing from inside your guard. This is a lesson Cub Swanson learned the hard way, and it has nothing to do with how things should be. It's about how they are.

Are there any a fight questions you'd like analyzed? Send them to paul.gift@pepperdine.edu or @MMAanalytics on Twitter. Fight data provided by FightMetric.

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