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UFC 235: Jon Jones vs. Anthony Smith alternative stats

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A detailed breakdown of the position-by-position statistics to watch out for in Saturday’s UFC 235 fight card in Las Vegas.

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The most boringly titled UFC event of all time is almost upon us!

If Jon Jones’ picograms don’t pulse too high, a few of these breakdowns may be in the works for 2019. Jones, the #2 ranked pound-for-pound UFC fighter, returns just two short months after thrashing Alexander Gustafsson to defend his light heavyweight title against up-and-coming and nicely hydrated contender Anthony “Lionheart” Smith.

In the co-main event of a stacked pay-per-view card, we finally get to see if welterweight challenger Kamaru Usman can find an area where he’s better than reigning champ Tyron Woodley and possibly exploit that advantage. I’m already excited and it’s only Tuesday night as of this writing, so let’s get down to the numbers.

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.

Jon Jones vs. Anthony Smith

While both fighters on average spend 3 – 3 ½ of every five minutes at distance, there’s good reason to suspect things may go down differently on Saturday.

Smith’s takedown defense has been anywhere from awful to not-so-bad depending on how you look at it. Using lifetime stats, opponents have landed 45% of their distance takedown attempts on him (31% light heavyweight average). But Cezar Ferreira went 6-for-6 eight fights ago, so in the alternative stats world Smith’s looking better with opponents completing only 18% of takedown shots from distance. Yet Smith has been downright awful in the clinch with 80% of opponent takedown attempts driving him to the canvas (48% average). To make matters worse, Smith stands up from bottom position 53% worse than a typical light heavyweight and has been finished by the only two submission attempts he’s faced.

Now who might be putting him in those positions? Just the arguable light heavyweight GOAT when looking solely at in-cage performance.

Jones has been shooting distance takedowns much more frequently in recent fights. He currently attempts them 153% more frequently than a typical light heavyweight per five minutes in the position (P5M) and lands 44% (31% average). In the clinch – where Jones tends to spend 51 seconds of every five minutes – he has slightly less than average takedown volume and lands at a slightly worse than average 45%.

If Jones gets Smith to the ground, Smith’s difficulty standing up is already documented. Meanwhile Jones drops power bombs to the head at such a high rate and with high accuracy that he connects to the opponent’s skull at almost twice the rate of the typical light heavyweight P5M. Then add in that he’s 5-of-10 on submission attempts (although two were finished while standing).

If Smith can keep the fight standing at range, he still might be in Jones’ world but also might finally have some statistical edges he can exploit.

At distance, Smith tends to operate with more volume. The flip side being he also sees more volume from his opponents in return. Jones’ striking attack is dynamic and designed to keep opponents guessing. Jones mixes up the targets of his power strike volume to the tune of 56% to the head, 24% to the body, and 20% to the legs so opponents never truly know from where the next attack is coming. Smith has a more predictable head-centric style with 83%, 7%, and 10% of his power volume going to the head, body, and legs, respectively.

Yet in constantly attacking the head, Smith’s biggest danger is his power. His knockdown round percentage of 24.1% is more over three times better than Jones’ 6.8% while his knockdown percentage (with strikes) is more than two times better (3.0% to Jones’ 1.4%). And when it comes to bloodying up faces, Smith’s been almost 50% better than Jones with a damage percentage of 1.7% to Jones’ 1.2%.

It’s also worth pointing out that Smith has thus far shown virtually no leg strike defense at distance. Opponents attack Smith’s legs with power almost twice as often as a typical light heavyweight (5.8 attempts P5M) and land an incredible 94%. For context, an average light heavyweight absorbs 80% of distance power strikes to the legs while the elusive champ Jones eats only 69%.

Tyron Woodley vs. Kamaru Usman

From most of the straight-up stats, it doesn’t look like Usman has too many advantages in this matchup. While he has the volume edge at distance, the net effect is that Usman tends to get outstruck with power at a -2.4 differential P5M. Head jabs are at least a different story with Usman maintaining +5.3 edge P5M.

Woodley is certainly a low volume fighter at distance, but he also only gets hit by 14% of his opponents’ power shots to the head (as well as jabs to the head) resulting in an overall power strike differential of +5.1 P5M even with his more methodical pace. And Woodley’s power is legit, earning knockdowns in almost ¼ of his documented rounds and maintaining a knockdown percentage almost three times that of an average welterweight and more than three times Usman. While Usman is yet to be knocked down, his head power defense is subpar with 30% of such strikes connecting to his noggin.

The thing is, Usman’s only been spending two of every five minutes at distance, tending instead to shoot takedowns at a 375% higher than average rate or clinch up and attempt to drive the fight to the canvas over twice as often as usual. While Usman’s had strong success thus far, Woodley’s takedown defense is an exceptional 98% at distance and 96% from the clinch.

If Usman can somehow get Woodley down, he’s pretty much been on top 100% of the time while Woodley’s only at 82%. Woodley’s biggest weakness from the ground has been an inability to get up or reverse position. He’s never swept and stands up at a paltry rate of 0.2 P5M of opponent control (2.2 average). Basically, Woodley’s stood up one time in his documented career, against Nate Marquardt 8 ½ years ago at Strikeforce: Rockhold vs. Kennedy.

Another possibility from Usman takedown attempts or clinch work – where he’s cage pressing 82% of the time to Woodley’s 55% – is to wear Woodley down and possibly work a cardio advantage as the five-round fight plays out. Cardio is notoriously hard to reliably measure, but one possibility is looking at the rate at which fighters land distance power shots in later rounds relative to early ones with as close as we can get to an apples-to-apples setup.

In that world, Woodley lands 2.5% more and 11.5% less in the third and fifth rounds relative to what he does in the second round while Usman lands 54.2% and 78.4% more, respectively. So if Usman can tire Woodley out, he may be able to negate what seem to be a number of statistical advantages for the champ.

Can’t wait to find out.

Cody Garbrandt vs. Pedro Munhoz

Jeremy Stephens vs. Zabit Magomedsharipov

Alejandro Perez vs. Cody Stamann

Diego Sanchez vs. Mickey Gall

Marlon Vera vs. Frankie Saenz

Predictions can be made for seven of the 13 scheduled bouts. Be sure to return to Bloody Elbow on Saturday at 5pm ET for precise win probabilities and possible bets before UFC 235 starts.

Statistical Notes: A bout closeness measure towards zero means a fighter tends to be in blowouts (win or lose) and towards 100 means they tend to be in very close fights. Strike attempts are per 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. Knockdown/Damage round percentage is the percentage of rounds with at least one knockdown or busted up face, respectively. 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.

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.