The MMA event of the year is set to go down this Saturday, at least as far as your casual fan friends are concerned, since Conor McGregor may be the only MMA fighter they know and care about. Next month’s UFC 230 has a stacked main card, even while missing a headliner, and yet one fight – Conor vs. Khabib – is all that’s needed to put 229 in the conversation for potentially the most PPV buys ever.
Headliners matter. Popularity matters. Titles matter. Grudges and bad blood could matter if Khabib would step his game up a bit. McGregor’s been pulling both their weight in the awkward silence of basically an empty room for god’s sake.
I haven’t watched Countdown yet, so going through the stats was soothing and motivational. Can’t wait to get to Saturday night. Ferguson-Pettis and Waterson-Herrig will also be covered, so let’s get to it.
Remember, what you’re about to read are not official UFC statistics. They’re alternative stats generated from official statistics designed to (1) give more weight to the recent present than the distant past and (2) not let one huge or horrible performance dominate the data.
See the notes at the bottom for definitions of certain statistics and check out an earlier piece for an explanation of how this works.
Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Conor Mcgregor
According to RoboJudge, McGregor’s only lost four rounds in his UFC career and you probably know exactly which ones (R1 to Mendes, R2 to Diaz, R3 & 5 to Diaz, part deux). Meanwhile, RoboJudge has Khabib losing just a single, solitary round in his 29-round UFC career – a 45% first round versus Gleison Tibau six years ago. Since his second round against RDA over four years ago, Khabib’s won every single round except one with 98% probability or higher – taking the fourth round against Al Iaquinta with a lowly 95.3% probability.
For perspective, those numbers are pretty insane. But if you know anything about MMA, insane numbers have a way of eventually getting humbled. In this case, both fighters have insane numbers in their own special way.
While Khabib’s lifetime bout closeness measure is 13 (0-100 scale, blowouts are closer to 100, see notes at the bottom), it drops to 8 in the alternative stats world giving more weight to more recent bouts. That would rank him #1 in the entire UFC for fighters with his level of experience or more. And a low bout closeness score doesn’t mean you’re winning all the time. A fighter can be in a blowout by getting his or her ass kicked. That Khabib has the #1 bout closeness measure and all he does is win, win, win, no matter what is no minor accomplishment.
But all fights start at distance, a position where McGregor should surely have an enormous advantage. The question is, how long he can keep it.
If McGregor wants a #1 UFC stat to match Khabib, his 52% alternative stats head power connect rate ranks him just above Alistair Overeem for fighters with McGregor’s experience or more. For all distance power strikes, “The Notorious One” lands at an impressive 53% clip.
Usually when a fighter is above 50% it’s because they attack the body and legs where connect rates are higher. Not McGregor. While he attacks the body with regularity, he doesn’t target the legs much at all. McGregor claims to have timing and precision, and boy do his head power stats at distance support him – landing more than half his shots while throwing tons of volume (54.1 attempts per five minutes, or 106% more volume than a typical lightweight).
Does that timing and precision lead to power? Well, McGregor has knockdowns in half of his 20 rounds. A typical lightweight gets one or more knockdowns in 7.3% of their rounds. Khabib does it every 6.9%. Meanwhile, McGregor’s hanging out in the 7x multiple range at 50%. With alternative stats weighting, he’s actually at 54.9%.
Put another way, standing opponents drop to the canvas once every 18 times McGregor touches their head with power. And when they’re not dropping, he’s out-landing them by 15.1 power shots per five minutes (P5M) in the position and a lowly 0.6 head jabs.
So jabbing ain’t really his thing. It’s much more so Khabib’s who throws an about average volume of power strikes at distance and slightly fewer head jabs.
While Khabib has yet to be knocked down, he’s appeared shaky at times before getting his bread-and-butter takedowns to transition the fight into his domain. At distance, Khabib shoots for takedowns 122% more than average and lands 38% (30% average), while McGregor defends at an exactly average clip.
But Khabib also doesn’t spend a lot of time at distance. His most common fight position is on the ground, usually arriving via the clinch to takedown route.
Clinch numbers aren’t always the easiest to decipher, but this doesn’t appear to be one of those situations. Khabib’s cage pressing 87% of the time while McGregor gets pressed 75% of the time. Khabib throws extremely low power volume (6.5 power strikes P5M vs. 23.0 average), preferring instead to use any annoying jabs and power shots he throws to set up his 16.3 takedown attempts P5M (3.3x an average lightweight).
McGregor’s clinch takedown defense has been a solid 82%, but if Khabib can keep the fight dirty and not let McGregor uncork his power, he can afford to fail a few times. Khabib’s clinch takedown success rate is just above average at 48%. But it’s his relentless volume and what he does after getting opponents to the ground that’s world class.
One thing McGregor has yet to experience inside the Octagon is an upper-body takedown attempt. Khabib doesn’t do them often, but he’s 6-for-10 in his career so keep an eye peeled for that possibility.
If Khabib gets things to the ground, he’s the controlling fighter 99% of the time. It was a bit surprising to see that only has half guard or better one-third of the time, but regardless of position, the man turns into a machine in his world. He throws 43.1 power attempts P5M and lands 31.0 of them – a full 17.3 more power shots landed every five minutes than the average top position lightweight. When he goes for submissions, they tend to be of the dominant variety, less likely to lose position if they fail. And he’s been successful 40% of the time.
While Khabib’s never been swept, his lifetime rate of opponents standing up isn’t great (3.4 standups P5M, 2.4 average) thanks to 18 standups from a certain Abel Trujillo, but even his alternative stats rate of 2.5 is higher than I thought it’d be. After Trujillo, RDA and Iaquinta had five standups, Healy three, Barboza two, and Johnson and Horcher goose eggs.
McGregor’s only significant ground time came against Chad Mendes where he had three standups in just over five minutes on his back. Will he be able to pull that off against Khabib? Guess we’ll see Saturday, if Khabib doesn’t get Jose Aldo’d on his way in.
A final factor that’s hard to put numbers on is endurance. I like looking at round-to-round changes in each fighter’s distance power volume using a structure I won’t get into that tries to provide an apples-to-apples comparison. While no metric is perfect, Khabib’s pace improves from rounds one to two to three, and he doesn’t have enough data for four and five. McGregor’s pace, on the other hand, improves between the first and second rounds, but he then starts to fade in the third and the fourth.
Does McGregor just have two rounds to get a knockout? Will Khabib sap his will in only one? Will Khabib make it to the clinch with McGregor’s precision and angling? Will McGregor dare throw a kick? Are we about to witness Khabib-Barboza 2, the Irish remake?
So many questions. Can’t wait to get some answers.
Tony Ferguson vs. Anthony Pettis
Hey, it’s a battle of two guys who are always on their backs!
Well not always, but 82% for Ferguson and 77% for Pettis. Good luck matching those percentages in this fight.
Neither is big on takedowns so we may just get a glorified kickboxing match, but how fun would it be to see these guys MMA roll for 15 minutes?
Both fighters throw about the same power volume at distance with Ferguson tossing in around 13 more head jabs P5M. But going back to power, Pettis is 11% more accurate to the head (43% vs. 32%) and his overall accuracy is at 51% thanks to a good amount of high-accuracy body shots (FightMetric doesn’t distinguish between types of strikes but here’s guessing a decent amount are those nasty body kicks).
Yet Pettis’ defense hasn’t quite been as good as Ferguson’s, absorbing more power damage to the body and legs and not evading as well with his head. The net result is Ferguson tends to land 6.1 more power shots and 5.5 more head jabs than his opponents at distance while Pettis out-lands at a lower 2.3 and 3.2 clip, respectively.
Neither fighter has remarkable knockdown metrics, but all three of Ferguson’s are better than Pettis (knockdown rate, percentage, and rounds) and his knockdown rate is slightly better than average. Like everything in life, there are tradeoffs. And the tradeoff here is that all three of Ferguson’s knockdown defense metrics are worse than Pettis and his knockdown rounds measure is slightly worse than average.
I know, an extremely informative paragraph.
In the clinch game, Pettis is usually cage pressing or being pressed (more often the latter) while Ferguson spends 73% of his clinch time in open space and only 16 seconds of every five minute round clinched up. He doesn’t throw a lot of power knees like one might expect, instead going to the head 86% of the time with the net result out-landing opponents by 7.9 shots P5M. Pettis, on the other hand, is usually getting beat up or taken down in the clinch. He absorbs 12.6 more power shots P5M than his opponents and, at 57%, he gets taken down at a higher than average percentage and with an above average volume of opponent attempts.
On the ground, both guys are usually on bottom so who knows what’s going to happen here. Ferguson technically throws enormous power volume P5M of control (the large majority of ground power strikes usually come from the top position fighter), but he likes throwing nasty elbows from bottom, which could be skewing his data.
Both fighters let opponents stand up at a high rate. Pettis stands up at an average rate and sweeps 204% more than usual, while Ferguson is often content to hang out on bottom (a rarity these days) and utilize a nasty guard.
Will Pettis find a way to add another elite tap to his submission trophy wall? While there’s a clear predicted winner, this should be a fun one to watch.
Michelle Waterson vs. Felice Herrig
Felice Herrig’s stats always initially confuse me. At distance, she has these high volume numbers that I never mentally connect to her fights until I remember some of her whiffing.
Waterson’s game is much more efficient. 47% head jab accuracy at distance (23% average), 56% power accuracy (39% average) thanks to extreme efficiency to the body and legs, and 8.5 more power shots landed P5M than her opponents.
Neither shoots much for takedowns but both are more than willing to attempt takedowns from the clinch where they’re both on and off the cage at roughly similar percentages. At 8-for-8, Waterson’s never missed a clinch takedown, but she’s also been vulnerable to them with a subpar 40% defended.
On the ground, Herrig tends to be the one on top while Waterson’s big problem has been not getting out of there. She stands up and sweeps 83% and 62% less than average, respectively, leaving her submission volume and 28% success rate against the yet-to-be-submitted-in-a-documented-bout Herrig.
I’m just ready to focus on Herrig and try to mentally connect her performance to her stats.
Sergio Pettis vs. Jussier Formiga
Alan Patrick vs. Scott Holtzman
Gray Maynard vs. Nik Lentz
Ryan LaFlare vs. Tony Martin
Predictions can be made for seven of the 13 scheduled bouts. Be sure to return to Bloody Elbow on Saturday at 6pm ET for precise win probabilities and possible bets shortly before UFC 229 starts.
Notes: Strike attempts are for an entire five minute round in each position (P5M) and are categorized as jab or power. A jab is just a non-power strike. Strikes are documented based on where they land or are targeted (head, body, legs), not the type that is thrown (punch, elbow, kick, knee). Visible damage rate is per five minutes the fighter is not on his back. It’s hard to bust up someone’s face while lying on your back. Damage percentage is per power head strike and distance head jab landed. Knockdown rate is per five minutes at distance or in the clinch off the cage. Knockdown percentage is per power head strike landed while standing. It’s really hard to knock someone down if they’re already on the ground. Clinch control is having the opponent pressed against the cage. Ground control is having top position or the opponent’s back. Submission attempts are per five minutes of ground control minus time spent in the opponent’s guard plus time spent with the opponent in guard. A bout closeness measure towards zero means a fighter is in blowouts (win or lose) and towards 100 means he is in very close fights.
Paul writes about MMA analytics and officiating at Bloody Elbow and MMA business at Forbes. He’s also a licensed referee and judge for the California Amateur Mixed Martial Arts Organization (CAMO). Follow him @MMAanalytics. Fight data provided by FightMetric.