Pace of Action in the UFC, and the Best and Worst Gas Tanks

 

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General Patton famously warned that “fatigue makes cowards of us all.”  It’s a powerful insight, and one that is absolutely relevant in sports, just as it is in warfare.  It’s pretty hard to impose your will on someone else when you’re exhausted, or more importantly, prevent them from imposing their will on you.  So let’s take a closer look at conditioning in the UFC, and see how competition has changed over the years.

 

Fit for the UFC

Stories of fighters walking from the bar stool to the Octagon are the legends of yesteryear.  The modern mixed martial artist is most likely a full-time fighter, on a strict diet, and generally a much better athlete than the cage fighters of the 1990’s.  And the data suggests that this new school of fighters have picked up the pace of action in the Octagon both significantly and consistently as the sport has grown.

The UFC, via FightMetric, tracks significant strikes as all strikes attempted from a standing distance position, plus all power strikes (as opposed to jabs) in the clinch, or on the ground.  It is the common denominator for offensive output by a fighter, and an excellent metric to use as a proxy for overall fighting pace.

Since 2007, UFC fighters average 6.8 significant strikes per minute (SSpM) of fight time. Again, this is not just while standing, but also from dominant clinch and ground positions.  Significant strikes do damage, score knockdowns, set up submissions, or cause referees to jump in for the save.  Significant strikes generally define the action in a fight, and as the analysis shows, fighter output by this metric has changed drastically since the early years of the UFC.

 

UFC conditioning striking pace fatigue accuracy

Click image for larger view

Through the 1990’s, UFC fighters attempted an average of only 2.8 significant strikes per minute.  Averages for UFC fighters then more than doubled to 6.9 SSpM after the sport matured under Fertitta’s Zuffa umbrella.  Modern UFC fighters also score more knockdowns and throw a slightly higher percentage of power strikes than the old guard, further suggesting greater endurance.

In terms of accuracy, about 42% of these significant strikes land on target.  This rate has not changed much in recent years as fighters improved simultaneously on both offense and defense, and there is greater consistency in fighter training and quality.  Accuracy dropped during the maturation period of the mid-2000′s, but has hovered around this 42% mark since 2005  The pattern is clear.  Competition is a strong force, and as the sport has grown and evolved, MMA athletes have stepped up their game and their overall level of fitness and skill to bring a better conditioned product into the Octagon. We as fans should expect that the best is yet to come.

 

Judges Favor the Fit

Research into success variables has found that fighters who strike more win more decisions.  Judges are only human, and when a flurry of exchanges occurs, it’s hard to tell who landed more strikes, or the more effective ones.  And while judging how hard or accurate strikes are is difficult, it’s plainly obvious to notice one fighter significantly outpacing the other.  Perhaps this falls under the “cage control” aspect of judging criteria, but there’s no question that when a fight goes to the scorecards it’s usually the fighter with more attempted strikes that wins, even if he didn’t land more than his opponent.

This is another reason top fighters have to be in excellent condition.  Champions are rarely overly muscled, but rather, more lean.  Large, muscular bodies are much harder to fuel with energy and oxygen, and elite level conditioning is necessary to remain effective not just through three rounds, but potentially five.  And with titles on the line, every bit of advantage counts.  A good gas tank means a fighter can not only win rounds, but perhaps even secure a late round finish on an exhausted opponent.

UFC’s Best Gas Tanks

Some guys are just full of energy.  Here are the Top 10 UFC fighters in terms of average significant striking pace, who can also stay on the gas pedal into the third round.  Remember, the overall average for SSpM was 7.9 in 2012, which was an all time high compared to prior years.  These tables include UFC career statistics for the fighters listed through mid-year 2012.

 

 

Back to the Gym

Unfortunately, not all fighters are all action, or can maintain their pace.  Here’s a few that start off well below average in significant striking pace, and then still decline throughout the fight.

worst significant strikes per minute fighters

 

What Did We Learn?

  • Though not perfect, significant strike activity is a good measure of a fighter’s pace and stamina
  • UFC fighters have steadily improved their conditioning and offensive output over the years
  • Modern fighters maintain their pace throughout rounds better than early MMA fighters
  • Smaller fighters actually increase their output into the 3rd round, while middleweights and larger fighters decrease slightly
  • But while UFC fighters maintain pace, submission success rates fall in later rounds – something I’ll expand on in a later post
  • High striking output is the key to winning decisions on the judge’s cards
  • Given the evolution of striking pace in recent years, the best and most explosive fighters have yet to be seen

The Fight Scientist


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Raw data for the analysis was provided by, and in partnership with FightMetric, and all analysis performed by Mr. Kuhn.  A portion of this article appeared in FIGHT! Magazine.

 

 

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5 Comments

  1. Reed Kuhn says:

    For those wondering, the average height of UFC fighters has increased measurably in a number of weight classes since the mid-2000′s. More evidence that fighters are more fit – and they pack more weight into their frames. I’ll have analysis soon on how fighters have “grown” – i.e. they’ve been more competitive in weight cutting in their recent years.

  2. Reed Kuhn says:

    Received a question about “endurance.” In the early years of Zuffa ownership, most weight classes would see a significant decline in striking pace in the third round compared to the first. A sign of fatigue.

    In recent years, however, this effect is gone. Most weight classes actually increase their pace in the third round (flyweight through welterweight), while the largest weight classes only see a small dropoff in pace (2%-5%) compared to the first round.

    These are indications that endurance for fighters is getting better, as one would expect given that more fighters are dedicated to training full time, the natural effect of higher competitive forces, and perpetually improving training and nutrition.

  3. Richard Eddy says:

    I’d be interested in knowing how the Lean vs. Bulkly muscle (a fighter’s build) factors into the success of a fighter, by weightclass. My hypothesis being that the path to a UFC championship is more likely for the fighter with lean muscle than bulky muscle. Maybe there is a body-fat percentage or muscle-mass indicator that corresponds to a win/loss ratio or something…
    Have you looked into that at all? Great sight, great science by the way.

    • Reed Kuhn says:

      I’d agree with that hypothesis. I could look at the activity rate and also the round to round decline for fighters based on whether they are short, average or tall for their weight class. As a rough proxy, height should be inversely correlated with muscle mass if fighters make a certain weight. Short powerful guys seem to gas, but that’s strictly anecdotal. I’ll see if I can work that into my mix. Thanks for the suggestion!

  4. Glen says:

    There are a lot more fights in smaller weight classes in recent years with the addition of flyweights and bantamweights. I suspect that a fair bit of the increase is due to having a higher percentage of featherweights in the recent years than heavyweights, who are obviously a lot slower. I would think there is still an increase, just a smaller jump.
    Would be interesting to see what the significant striking pace looks like within a division, such as the middleweights, over time.
    The average height data would be interesting, though again you would want to account for smaller guys fighting in a lighter division than they would have 5 to 10 years ago.

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