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UFC 249: Tony Ferguson vs. Justin Gaethje alternative stats

A detailed breakdown of the position-by-position statistics to watch out for in Saturday’s UFC 249 fight card from Jacksonville.

We’ve got live sports again! The UFC throws its fight entertainment hat back into the ring this Saturday with a stacked card, quickly followed by two more shows to remind us of the pre-virus fight-overload days.

Justin Gaethje, with slightly less short notice, should put on a hell of a scrap against the former interim lightweight champ Tony Ferguson. And before that we get to see what another massive layoff has done to former bantamweight title holder Dominick Cruz. Oh yeah, and there’s that kind of weird champ champ guy.

Florida’s stepped up to regulate these shows so get ready for possible appearances by Herb Dean, Kevin MacDonald, Big Dan, and Keith Peterson over the next eight days, along with a bunch of other names we don’t know who are hopefully up for the challenge.

Fight predictions and precise win probabilities are on hold while I try to make improvements to the model. From late July 2017 through early March 2020, the entirely-computer-driven model booked a profit of $977 if I hadn’t made a human error making two bets that shouldn’t have been made at UFC Fight Night 116. Including that human error, the model profited $580. It wasn’t anywhere close to the test results, but making money is much better than losing it. The model succeeded on 44.0% of its bets – mostly on underdogs – and had an unsatisfactory 58.1% success rate across all picks, something that needs to get better.

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.

Tony Ferguson vs. Justin Gaethje

This matchup might not be Khabib-Ferguson, but hot damn, it’s a sweet headliner. Especially as the oh so glorious medicine to cure our MMA withdrawals.

The former interim champ Ferguson is riding a 12-fight win streak – and 15-of-16 overall in the UFC – but he doesn’t have the more consistent 90%+ dominance measures we see from someone like a Khabib. Ferguson’s been touchable and droppable at times and that could potentially bite him in this fight. In the meantime, Gaethje’s put on some barnburners and has won at least one post-fight bonus in all six of his UFC appearances.

All fights start standing and these two love to do just that, spending 4 to 4 ½ minutes of each round at distance and 11-30 seconds in the clinch.

When it comes to power at distance, they each throw similar volume [53.7-57.4 attempts per five minutes in the position (P5M)] and while Gaethje’s been more accurate with power to the head, his overall accuracy differential is even wider thanks to a larger percentage of power strike leg kicks – the most accurate power strike by far a lightweight fighter can throw at distance (80%, 60%, and 28% average accuracy to the legs, body, and head, respectively). 32% of Gaethje’s distance power strikes are to the legs while Ferguson only targets the lower limbs 15% of the time.

When they pop jabs to the head, Ferguson has an easy statistical advantage, out-pacing Gaethje by almost 3x and out-landing opponents with a +5.5 differential P5M to Gaethje’s -4.4.

If striking defense is what you’re interested in, you may want to tune out after the co-main event. In the eight distance categories of head jabs and power strikes to the head, body, and legs for each fighter, Ferguson and Gaethje absorb higher percentages of strikes than the average lightweight in all areas except one – Gaethje only eats 69% of power leg strikes (80% average, 87% Ferguson). So if you didn’t already know, now you know. Let’s get ready for some action and damage.

When Gaethje’s not absorbing shots, he’s dished out power exceptionally well in the UFC, dropping opponents to the canvas in more than ¼ of his rounds (almost 4x the lightweight average) and with a knockdown rate more than twice the lightweight average. For all of Ferguson’s edges and while he may push a relentless pace, his knockdown stats are well below average – he hasn’t been credited with a knockdown since dropping Josh Thompson almost five years ago. But he’s busted up the faces of four of his six opponents since then, so he’s certainly not working with pillows in his fists.

On the defensive end, Ferguson’s been dropped in 62% more rounds than the typical lightweight and has tasted the canvas twice in his last six fights.

If things move to the ground, it’s basically a place we haven’t seen Gaethje in the UFC. In his six Octagon appearances and 47 in-cage minutes, he’s spent a grand total of 35 seconds on the ground, or four seconds out of every full five-minute round. And in that short time he has two standups for a pretty insane UFC standup rate.

On the flip side, we know Ferguson’s ground performances and he’s been on bottom 84% of the time, although the vast majority of that time (84% of his bottom time) have been with his opponents in guard or what FightMetric classifies as a miscellaneous ground position.

Stats may be a little misleading for Ferguson’s ground game. Typically, the vast majority of ground power strikes are thrown by the fighter with top control. In Ferguson’s case, there’s a good chance his nasty elbows from bottom likely don’t get recorded well in the way I report ground statistics, but we know they’re there, so much so that he’s sometimes comfortable going to work from his back and standing back up at a below average rate. At the same time, Ferguson attacks submissions 230% more than a typical lightweight (and infinity percent more than Gaethje’s zero) and finishes at an outstanding 43% clip (23% average).

And there’s possibly one of Ferguson’s biggest edges, the fact that he’s so dangerous from any position.

While neither fighter spends much time in the clinch, they’re both most likely to clinch in open space as an extension of their distance fighting game. And they’re both incredibly active and usually dominating the clinch action, Ferguson with a +12.9 power strike differential P5M and Gaethje at +21.3. If the cage does come into play, it’s usually Gaethje doing the pressing, but he’s yet to attempt a single clinch takedown in the UFC.

Oh man this should be a fun one. Saturday can’t come fast enough.

Henry Cejudo vs. Dominick Cruz

Yes, Cruz’s stats are at least three years old. But he’s been down that road before and I, for one, am not ready to write him off yet.

Something’s got to give in this fight.

The champ champ Cejudo completes a not exceptional but solid 36% of his distance takedown attempts while Cruz defends a robust 84%. Meanwhile Cruz’s pinpoint timing leads to an incredible 63% accuracy on his takedown shots (30% average), along with almost doubling Cejudo’s attempt volume P5M, but Cejudo defends an even better 89%.

A similar story holds for the clinch. Cejudo completes a slightly subpar 44% of his clinch takedowns but Cruz’s defense is legit at 80%. And once again, Cruz’s takedown accuracy and volume (57% and 8.8 attempts P5M) top Cejudo’s, but Cejudo’s defense is a wee bit better. You know, like 100%.

And if things do end up on the ground somehow, Cejudo tends to have top control 99% of the time while Cruz is on top 94% of the time.

If we’re looking at power, Cejudo drops opponents in 15.1% of his rounds. On the other hand, Cruz has only been knocked down in a single round out of his 48-round documented Zuffa career. Granted it was a bad round in his most recent outing against Cody Garbrandt, but it was still just one.

Like I said, something’s got to give.

If they end up mostly at distance where Cejudo spends 3:28 of every five minutes and Cruz 3:46, Cruz has the overall volume edge, but a significant chunk of his strikes are head jabs where he tends to out-touch opponents with a +4.7 differential P5M to Cejudo’s -1.1. Cejudo has the volume edge in power strikes where he’s been 7% more accurate than Cruz and has earned a +6.0 differential to Cruz’s +3.1.

If Cruz doesn’t drop, one potential problem for Cejudo is 83% of his distance power strike attempts are to the head, a location Cruz has defended exceptionally well throughout his lifetime statistics with only 16% landing. Yet his alternative stats percentage is 20%, meaning he’s been slipping on that stat in more recent appearances. For instance, Garbrandt landed 44-of-151 (29.1%) distance power strikes to Cruz’s head in his most recent outing at UFC 207.

What kind of Dominick Cruz steps into the cage tomorrow night? And what ends up being that thing to give? I can’t wait to find out.

Francis N’Gannou vs. Jairzinho Rozenstruik

Yes, these guys both have crazy power. Rozenstruik has a knockdown in all four of his UFC appearances while N’Gannou makes opponents fall in 33% of his alternative stats rounds. But did you know neither had ever busted up an opponent’s face until Rozenstruik put one of the gnarliest lip injuries you’ll ever see on Overeem with four seconds left in their fight?

These guys have just one (failed) takedown attempt between them (by Overeem) in 77 combined standing minutes, and they each tend to throw roughly average or better power and head jab volume at distance.

One major stat that stands out is N’Gannou has defended his head from power at distance much better than Rozenstruik. The Predator has only eaten 15% of such shots while Rozenstruik absorbs 32%. Although with these guys, it may only take one.

All I know is fingers crossed we don’t get N’Gannou-Lewis 2.

Bring on the glorious fights!

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 an ABC-certified referee and judge. Follow him @MMAanalytics. Fight data provided by FightMetric.