UFC Heavyweight Division Striking Analysis
Assessing the Best UFC Heavyweight Strikers
In mixed martial arts, arguing over “who’s better” is often made irrelevant just as soon as two fighters square off in the Octagon. The cage is unforgiving that way. At the end of the fight it doesn’t really matter who has the better takedowns or clinch, but rather who has his hand raised after each fighter is given the unmitigated freedom to impose his will on the other. But understanding the specific strengths and weaknesses of each fighter is critically important in understanding matchups, and there is value in diagnostic analysis of a fighter’s performance.
Within any given division, many fighters will never fight each other simply due to the logistics of the sport. So taking a point in time assessment of a full division’s roster is a quick way to compare fighters without having to wait for a matchup that might take years to materialize, if ever. It’s not perfect, but if done properly it should illustrate some basic trends and confirm some existing hypotheses. And from a fan’s perspective, it adds a new dimension of understanding and appreciation of the competitors we pay to see.
Heavyweight fighters spend 60% of all fight time on their feet, most of that in a distance fighting stance, and from this position they score more knockouts by far than the lighter weight classes. This is where to start any analysis of striking performance across a division.
In order to understand standup striking performance, which is more multifaceted in MMA than it is in boxing, I need to identify a few of the most important variables that determine success as a striker. So let’s start with some fairly uncomplicated variables and see what they tell us. Here, I’ve focused on three fundamental, offensive metrics:
- Accuracy: I’ve used power head striking accuracy (as opposed to body or leg strikes, or jabs to the head), where the average for UFC heavyweights is about 29%. The accuracy of the power head strike is a great indicator of a fighter’s striking prowess, and there’s a wide range within a single division. This is the vertical axis in the graph.
- Standup Striking Pace: prior analysis reveals that outpacing your opponent is a key indicator to success, and certainly correlates with winning decisions as it reflects which fighter is dictating the pace of the fight. Here, I’ve used the total number of standup strikes thrown as a ratio to the same output from a fighter’s opponents. All strikes attempted from a standup position are counted, including body shots and leg kicks. This is the horizontal axis in the graph, and the average for the whole division must be 1.
- Knockdown Rate: the objective of every strike thrown is the hurt your opponent, and knockdowns reflect a fighter that has connected with a powerful strike. I’ve used the total number of knockdowns a fighter landed corrected by the amount of total fight time they have to see who does the most damage in the least amount of time. The size of the bubble for a fighter indicates their relative knockdown rate; the bigger the bubble, the higher their knockdown rate. The very small bubbles indicate fighters who have yet to score a knockdown in the UFC.
- The data includes all UFC/Strikeforce fights through 2011, plus Hunt-Kongo this year. Therefore, some fighters have one additional fight that is not captured here, though a single fight would not typically change the scoring positions in a big way.
Dos Champion, Twice Over
Junior Dos Santos is currently the gold standard for striking in the UFC heavyweight division, with the shiny strap to prove it. His boxing has long been touted as the best among his peers, and the numbers certainly back that up. It’s nice to see a comprehensive analysis confirm a key hypothesis like that – it tells us the model is at least directionally accurate. “Cigano” is at the top of the heap in almost every way. In fact, if he improved his power striking accuracy by a mere 3% to catch the division leader Mike Russow (far upper left corner of the graph), Dos Santos would lead every category on his way to a stochastic domination of the UFC heavyweights. Although if we factor in jabs, JSD’s ridiculous 38% accuracy does in fact edge Russow’s 35%, so in aggregate JSD is still a relative pugilistic sniper. He also outpaces his opponents over 2:1 with clear knockdown power, solidifying his position as the best UFC heavyweight striker.
Also pushing their metrics into the high performing quadrant of the analysis are some familiar names:
- K1 kickboxing crossover Mark Hunt has brought his accurate strikes to the Octagon, and also outworks his opponents. Hunt needed that accuracy in his recent knock out of Cheick Kongo, himself an impressive, but perhaps slightly sloppier striker.
- Velasquez has also shown good accuracy and a propensity for knockdowns in dominant performances that led him to a UFC title. All the more impressive given his wrestling background – clearly, he’s had no trouble picking up the standup game.
- On different ends of the spectrum, Brendan Schaub and Mike Russow have succeeded in different ways. It will be interesting to see how these two develop with a little more Octagon time.
Other notable performances include:
- Ben Rothwell and Stefan Struve, whose most recent fights aren’t accounted for here, should see a bump in their performance metrics. Specifically, Rothwell scored his first UFC knockdown, meaning the bubble size should increase, and Struve showed much improved standup accuracy trading strikes with Dave Herman, before finishing him on the ground. I expect both these guys to improve their position in the next iteration of this chart.
- Shane Carwin has been known to throw bombs, but perhaps those bombs are more like “mortars in the wind.” His strikes are intermittent and inaccurate, but when they land they’ll ruin your day.
- And Alistair Overeem, his future uncertain, remains an enigma in this analysis as well. Despite including all his heavyweight fights spanning a variety of non-UFC promotions with numerous first round knockouts, he has not consistently controlled the striking pace. He has shown excellent accuracy, like fellow K1 striker Hunt, and has scored his share of knockdowns. But keep in mind these fights have not been against many elite opponents. It remains to be seen how he will perform against high-caliber UFC strikers, and unfortunately we may have to wait a while to see that.
How does your favorite heavyweight stack up? And which weight class of strikers should I breakdown next? Or how should I assess takedowns or the grappling game first? I take requests, within reason….
–The Fight Scientist