The Finish Line
Haven’t you heard? Guys aren’t finishing fights. They’re just “playing it safe.” At least that’s the ugly rumor. It’s one thing to boldly make this proclamation in a bar after a lackluster main event, but mentioning the UFC’s declining finish rates at a press conference will certainly rouse the ire of the UFC’s top brass. So, what’s the real story? Are guys really failing to finish opponents under the brighter spotlight of a sport experiencing rapid growth? Or, is something else changing the fundamental nature of MMA’s top promotion?
A quick look at the statistics is certainly damning. If it were stock you owned, you should be scared. However, let’s remember that in the early years of UFC competition, rules were significantly different and stylistic imbalances led to few decisions. As higher-skilled athletes compete under the unified rules of MMA, you might expect fewer lopsided finishes that defined the early years of the sport. But, even if we generously mark the first season of The Ultimate Fighter in 2005 as a starting point for the “Modern Age of MMA,” you still see finish rates dropping precipitously in those recent years, despite standardized rules and consistent matchmaking. The 76% of fights finished in 2005 is now down to just 51%.
After the UFC was purchased by Zuffa in 2001, new management made a lot of changes. Though discretionary “locker room” bonuses began soon after the acquisition, it was 2005 when the UFC first implemented publicly announced incentive bonuses for performance. Knockout, Submission, and Fight of the Night bonuses were designed to reward what fans wanted to see most—exciting fights. All businesses struggle to figure out how best to optimize employee performance, and the UFC is no different. From the beginning, they attempted to reward aggressive fighters who gave it their all, rather than risk-averse competitors gaming for a safe win. However, as compensation has risen significantly in the sport, so has the cost of losing. These bonuses will not be as effective for a fighter who stands to lose more financially with a loss than he might hope to gain with a finish and a shot at a potential bonus. The bonus also depends on everyone else’s performance that night, further reducing its expected value. A case can be made—and supported by behavioral economics—that as the sport grows in popularity, the old compensation model might diminish a fighter’s likelihood of going for a finish. But as soon as the UFC went the extra mile with formal fight night bonuses, the finish rate was just kicking off its biggest drop since the late 90’s. Something else was undermining finish rates beyond just incentives.
Anyone who can remember knowing the difference between an Americana and an anaconda choke back in 2004 is probably ahead of a large portion of fans, and even some recent professional competitors. BJJ as one of the fundamental skill sets of modern MMA has not always been as ubiquitous as it is now—thanks to a Gracie camp on every corner. The average fighter entering his first UFC bout in 2011 is much better prepared for grappling and submissions than 10—or even just five—years ago. For this reason alone, we see fewer submissions as the grappling game matures and fighters are more careful when in guard. In fact, through the first 4 months of 2011, not a single Lightweight or Welterweight fighter was submitted by an armbar or leg triangle, two of the most common submissions of yesteryear. But, that still doesn’t explain such a rapid fall in finish rates.
As demonstrated in a previous Fight Science (FIGHT! Magazine, March 2011), TKO rates correspond directly to body mass. Bigger fighters have a lot more power—and a little bit worse striking defense. Size is a great predictor of overall finish rates in MMA. Isolating each weight class and also separating finishes into those by strikes versus submissions should help get to the bottom of the question.
The results of this analysis reveal some interesting patterns. First, finish rates don’t seem to be declining as much when we isolate by weight class. Middleweights, light heavyweights, and heavyweights are all finishing fights at almost exactly the same rate in the first half of 2011 as they were in 2005. Welterweights and lightweights, however, have been finishing slightly fewer fights. This decline is driven more by a significant drop in submission finishes and a much smaller drop in TKO finishes. These lighter weight classes generally finish more fights by submission than by strikes, so maturing submission defense skills in these divisions will have a bigger impact on lowering finish rates. When you look at UFC finishes overall by strikes versus submissions, there is a huge decline in striking finishes in recent years. But since TKO rates of individual weight classes aren’t declining, the driving difference is actually the greater number of fights in lighter weight classes. The percentage of UFC fights under 185 pounds has been increasing steadily in the last five years—precisely when we see the biggest drop in TKO finish rates—and they now represent almost two thirds of all UFC fights.
The addition of lighter fighters should decrease overall finish rates, and that’s exactly what we’ve seen. With the reintroduction of lightweights in 2006, and more and more fighters dropping down weight classes to be more competitive, the mix of heavier fighters in the UFC has been declining for quite some time. With fewer heavyweights and light heavyweights to slug it out in the Octagon, there’s a corresponding drop in the rate of KO/TKO finishes. Let’s take a closer look at the two trends for recent years.
This year’s addition of featherweights and bantamweights to the UFC ranks—and the very recent announcement that flyweights could come—will only continue this trend. That’s not to say that this trend is necessarily a bad thing for MMA or its fans. Anyone who has followed the sport a reasonable amount of time knows that two frenzied bantamweights are capable of 15 minutes of competitive MMA action that no two heavyweights can match. Understanding this underlying factor in the sport should hopefully set our expectations differently. Finish rates have indeed declined. However, it’s not for lack of effort, it’s for lack of size. They will continue to decline before plateauing as submission skills mature and weight classes stabilize. The UFC has always attempted to incentivize effort and entertainment more than anything, but it’s the weight classes that will drive finish rates.
What Have We Learned?
- UFC finish rates have declined through the years.
- Submission defenses are improving across the sport, leading to fewer submissions.
- TKO rates have been consistently stable within each weight class.
- The addition of lighter weight classes to the UFC is dragging down overall TKO rates.
- Expect finish rates to decline a little further with the addition of featherweights, bantamweights, and flyweights.
- Only half of all fights are currently finished, and this will drop a little more in the years to come.
Source data was provided by FightMetric, and analysis performed by Reed Kuhn. An abridged version of this article appeared in FIGHT! Magazine 2011 as part of the “Fight Science” feature.