Number Crunching, Part 1: What does an MMA Champion Look Like?

This post is the first in a series based on some large-scale number crunching. I've created a database with the top ten fighters in each weight class and added the length of their careers, total number of fights, age at the time of their first fight, and how long it took for them to make their first appearance in a major promotion. By doing this, I'm trying to create a dataset that allows me to figure out how long it takes prospects to develop into top-flight fighters and what factors influence that process, including generational shifts within the broader scope of MMA.

Here's how I've constructed the list. I used the most recent version of the USA Today/SBN Consensus Rankings with one change: I've replaced Masakatsu Ueda (ranked tenth) with Takeya Mizugaki (ranked eleventh) on the bantamweight list, as Ueda has yet to make his debut in a major promotion as I've defined them here. "Major promotion", under my definition, includes the UFC, Pride, Strikeforce after the acquisition of Fedor, the WEC (for bantamweights and featherweights, but not lightweights), the RINGS King of Kings tournament, or a significant title fight outside one of these organizations (this includes Bellator). All time periods are rounded to the nearest quarter of a year.

A dataset like this offers a great deal of food for thought, enough that I'll have to split it up into several parts for simplicity's sake. This post will focus on current and former champions of a major organization (sorry, Mike Chandler), with future posts exploring how MMA compares to other major sports in terms of prospect development, which weight classes are due for an infusion of new talent, and miscellaneous observations that I've made based on the database.

So what does a champion look like according to the criteria I've laid out here? First, champions tend to begin their MMA careers at a young age compared to the general population of top-10 fighters. Second, contrary to what we might expect, a full four-year collegiate wrestling career is not in fact the most viable basis for a championship-level fighter. Third, champions tend to be ready for the major leagues very quickly, but this seems to be changing. This leads directly into the fourth point: the current crop of champions differs significantly from the larger group of champions still ranked in the top ten of their weight class. Finally, having established the common characteristics of champions in these terms, we can make some informed speculations as to other fighters who fit the profile and might be worth tracking.

Champions, by and large, start fighting at a young age; the average for the group is 20.5. Of the seven current champions, Frankie Edgar was the oldest (24) when he began his career, and Jose Aldo (17) was the youngest. This makes a good deal of sense: simply put, it takes a significant amount of time to develop the necessary skill sets to become the best in the world at a given weight. Much like language acquisition, it's much easier to learn a martial art when you're young than it is if you start later in life. If we think about MMA as a martial art in and of itself, rather than as a simple amalgamation of various disciplines, this makes even more sense. Fighters who begin to compete at a young age in MMA proper don't need to spend a precious portion of their careers figuring out how to translate their base skill sets to the specific circumstances of an MMA fight, as opposed to a kickboxing, wrestling, or submission grappling bout.

Contrary to what Joe Rogan constantly tells us, a full four-year collegiate wrestling career is not the best background for achieving the ultimate goal in MMA. Only one current champion, Frankie Edgar, wrestled for all four years of college; the recently dethroned Cain Velasquez did as well, but things are strange up in the heavyweight stratosphere (I'll get to that in another post). Don't get me wrong, a wrestling background is extremely helpful, it's just that former collegiate wrestlers, on average, are missing out on two full years of developing their overall MMA skills. Instead, fighters who competed in high school, at the junior college level, or developed their wrestling skills as part of their complete MMA training are more likely to become champions. We can point here to Jon Jones (Junior College National Champion), GSP (started wrestling in his teens, but didn't compete as an amateur), and Dominick Cruz (accomplished high school wrestler). With that said, collegiate wrestling is a great background if you want to be a top-10 fighter and have a long, successful career; more than a third (26/70) of the fighters on the list wrestled collegiately.

Champions also tend to make it to a major promotion very, very quickly. It generally takes a champion under two years to go from debuting on a local or regional card to fighting on one of the biggest stages in the world (average 1.96 years), compared to an average of 2.83 years for the average top-10 fighter. Again, this makes good sense; if you're talented enough to be a champion, you'll generally be spotted pretty early in your career. This seems to be changing significantly, however, as the sport of MMA develops and progresses. Future champions who began their careers in the late 90s or early 2000s took very little time to make it to a major promotion; Alistair Overeem made his RINGS debut a week after his very first fight, while Vitor Belfort, Big Nog, Dan Henderson, and Shogun Rua were all in the big show within a year. While there is still room for phenoms in MMA - see Jon Jones and his three month career in regional shows - by and large it seems that the newer generation of champions is taking a little longer to reach the largest promotions. Junior dos Santos spent 2.25 years in smaller shows before making his UFC debut, which makes him an extreme outlier among top-10 heavyweights (1.325 average), Jose Aldo fought in regional Brazilian shows for 3.75 years before coming to the WEC, and Dominick Cruz took a little over two years to make his major promotional debut (after which, it should be noted, he didn't return to the WEC for more than another year).

This is perhaps the biggest respect in which the current crop of champions differs from their immediate predecessors, and it reflects the fundamental shift in MMA from the dominance of specialists to the rise of true hybrid fighters with every skill set at their disposal. It takes a lot more time to become a true mixed martial artist than it does to be a wrestler or kickboxer who happens to be fighting in MMA. Current champions also started fighting much younger than their predecessors (20.5 vs. 22.7, a full two-year difference).

INTERLUDE: The Incomparable Anderson Silva

Before moving on to our tentative predictions, I wanted to stop to appreciate just what an outlier Anderson Silva really is. He started fighting professionally at 22, which isn't at all out of the ordinary for a champion. What is out of the ordinary, however, is just how long it took Anderson to a) move to a major promotion (5.25 years) and b) how late in his career he really blossomed. Anderson had been fighting for nine years by the time he won a championship; compare that to Jon Jones (a little under three years), Frankie Edgar (4.5 years), and Jose Aldo (5.25 years). This should help us understand Anderson's game a little better; setting aside his enormous athletic gifts, Anderson had already spent a ton of time honing his skills by the time he became a champion. No wonder that Anderson's supremely technical Muay Thai and Jiu-Jitsu create such problems for his opponents: most fighters are still growing and learning over the course of their careers, but Anderson was essentially a finished product by the time he became a star. Those extra years of learning - Anderson is well known as a voracious and enthusiastic student - created a massive technical edge over all of the opponents he's faced during his run in the UFC. It's no wonder that Rich Franklin had no answers for his masterful clinch work, or that he made the experienced Yushin Okami look like a clown on his feet. In a sport where training time plays such a significant role, Anderson possesses a massive advantage.

Predicting the Future

Finally, the predictions. Here are a few fighters who fit the profile of the new generation of champions:

1. Dustin Poirier: Although he's had a whirlwind professional career, moving from regional shows to the big time in less than a year and a half, he had a substantial amateur career first. He started fighting very young (20 professionally, 18 amateur) and seems to possess the full and well-rounded skill sets necessary to compete at a high level.

2. Jake Ellenberger: Although he has a background in collegiate wrestling, I'm not sure if he wrestled all four years; if he did, then he was fighting professionally at the same time, which seems unlikely. He's extremely experienced, having spent most of his career (4.5/6.75 years total) fighting in smaller shows. Ellenberger seems to have all the skills and the athleticism necessary to be a champion, and we shouldn't forget his absolutely crushing power, either.

3. Gegard Mousasi/Carlos Condit/Nick Diaz: It's amazing how much these guys resemble each other. They all started fighting very young (17, 18, and 18) and they all have a ton of experience, most of it against less-than-top competition, which helps as far as skill development is concerned. If they're going to make a run at a UFC belt, however, it needs to be soon; although they're only in their late twenties (26, 27, and 28, respectively), years of fighting take a huge toll on the body, and it's only a matter of time until they suffer a major injury or a general decline in health.

This brings me to my final prediction. If the current trends continue, fighters will begin to burn out more quickly, much like other professional contact sports such as football and hockey, where players over the age of 35 are a rarity. The Randy Coutures and Matt Hughes of the world are being replaced by the Jose Aldos and Rory McDonalds, and while these fighters represent a quantum leap in terms of skill and athleticism, they'll also peak earlier and retire earlier. We might also see more fighters moving up in weight as they grow into and out of their initial weight classes; Overeem, while he might be an extreme example, could be the prototype for this.

Part 2, in which I compare prospect development in MMA with other sports, will be coming soon. As always, I'd be happy to clarify my methods or my arguments in the comments section, and I'm always down for a good debate.

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