The Pace of Striking in UFC Fights
During the controversial formative years of the UFC, the sport of Mixed Martial Arts looked a lot different. One could argue it wasn’t even MMA just yet. But somewhere between John McCain’s branding of “human cockfighting” and the modern MMA that shows up live on network TV in primetime, many aspects of the sport evolved.
So let’s take a very simple look at the activity pace of UFC fighters over time. The graph shows the average annual total strike attempts per fighter per minute. The trend is pretty obvious.
The average total strikes thrown per minute has been climbing steadily over the years. While the topline trend was flat up to the year 2000, it began to rise immediately after the Zuffa purchase, and has been climbing ever since. Fully telling the story of why will take some more analysis and a few more charts, but two big reasons contributing to the trend are smaller weight classes and evolving time in position.
Overall, smaller weight classes tend to average a slightly higher pace of activity. And that’s even accepting the fact that fights in smaller divisions last longer than heavier weight classes due to lower finish rates. So despite pushing cardio harder in longer fights, smaller fighters manage to press the pace more than heavier ones.
A second big factor is that over the same period of evolution of MMA, the portion of fights spent in a standup striking position has also increased. This may surprise some, the same people who boo loudly every time fighters go to ground, but the average number of minutes fights spend on the mat has been steadily decreasing with time. While standing, both fighters are able to engage in striking activity and so the average pace is higher. In fact, just the pace of standing strikes alone has more than doubled over the last decade, indicating that fighters are engaging more frequently and throwing more leather while standing. This too boosts the average pace of action as measured by striking activity.
On its current pace of advancement, UFC fighters will be averaging 10 total strike attempts per minute by 2016, unless other forces act to counter the historical trend. In 2012, the last complete year of data, the average pace was double that of the slowest year in 1997. The upward trend has only seen two down years since Zuffa took over, but there’s one key trend that will likely continue to push things forward: competition.
Over the last decade, competition has increased as the sport has grown in popularity, and more full-time athletes are competing in the Octagon. Training has improved, expectations have risen, and the amount of fame and fortune at stake in any given fight climbs steadily upward. These powerful competitive forces have also elevated the pace of fighting and the quality of action in the UFC, and we should all hope that continues.