Striking Assessment: UFC Heavyweight Division

We’ve saved the biggest fighters for last in the striking assessment series. Heavyweights end 57% of fights by (T)KO, far more than any other weight class. They also have the highest average power head striking accuracy, possibly because defense is harder when you’re that big. And on top of all that, heavyweights hit really hard . Collectively the group shown in the graph has scored 82 knockdowns in their Strikeforce and UFC fights through 2012.

So let’s see how the whole division stacks up against each other, and then look at the winners and losers in each category. A full explanation of the chart and variables is included below.

mma punching striking accuracy pace volume knockdowns knockouts cain valesquez junior dos santos overeem mir carwin



The Winners

Sniper Award: Relative newcomer (i.e., small sample size) Shawn Jordan has been a highly accurate striker to date, though he has lacked knockdown power. So let’s focus on the trio of Pat Barry, Dave Herman and Mark Hunt, who each have four or more UFC appearances and have maintained power head striking accuracy of 38% or more. These are big guys who can also hit their target.

Energizer Bunny Award: Monstrous Southpaw Todd Duffee has almost quadrupled the striking output of his opponents with three fights to date in the Octagon, none of which have gone the distance. But with far greater Octagon experience, veterans Cheick Kongo and former champion Junior Dos Santos have managed to almost double the volume of opponents, all while maintain accuracy well above the division average.

Biggest Ball(s) Award: Punch for punch, Shane Carwin has landed the most knockdowns in the fewest strikes. Despite low accuracy and pace, Carwin packed enough power to finish his first four UFC fights all by (T)KO. Like a mortar in high winds, Carwin doesn’t land on target very often. But when he does, he destroys what he hits.


The Losers

Swing and a Miss Award: With just 12% power head striking accuracy, Christian Morecraft is the least accurate heavyweight striker. Though Shane Carwin is a close second, he has made the most of the shots he’s landed. Morecraft outworked opponents by more than 30%, but under-landed them in the long run.

Starnes Award for Inaction: Former kickboxer Alistair Overeem may have seemed invincible prior to his knockout loss to Antonio Silva, but he certainly didn’t press the action inside the MMA cage. Opponents outworked the Reem by throwing more than double his standing strike volume.

Smallest Ball(s) Award: Only three heavyweights shown here have failed to score a knockdown in UFC/Strikeforce competition to date. But Shawn Jordan has failed to do so in 56 minutes of Octagon time to date. But Jordan did manage to finish two opponents by strikes, showing he’s got power on the ground. Morecraft, however, failed to score a knockdown in four UFC appearances, losing three of those fights by KO himself. He recently announced his retirement from competition, which perhaps is a good thing.


Upcoming Heavyweight Matchups 

Though we’re just three months into 2013 and already fighters like Bigfoot Silva and Mark Hunt are putting in performances that will boost their striking assessment position the next time around.

The matchmakers have made sure to keep the UFC’s biggest sluggers booked for future shows. First, Matt Mitrione will take on Philip De Fries on the UFC on FuelTV card. De Fries has nice offensive stats but only from a very small sample size. One factor not discussed here is striking defense, and the stat for De Fries on defense is way below average.

The following week Travis Browne will make his comeback against Gabriel Gonzaga on the TUF Finale card. Browne will have a size advantage and can control range and pace. He’ll be more likely to land dangerous strikes on Gonzaga, who may try to get the fight to the ground.

Then on FOX, Daniel Cormier will make his UFC debut against former champion Frank Mir. Cormier has outworked larger opponents and also has knockdown power, which we’ll likely see thanks to his wrestling base that can keep Mir’s BJJ at bay. The oddsmakers are already supporting this idea that Cormier has a big advantage in the matchup.

And closing out April, we’ve got Kongo vs. Nelson at UFC 159, pitting one of the fastest paced strikers against one of the least active ones. Nelson’s stout beard will buy him some time under the onslaught of Kongo’s attack, maybe long enough to land a big counter right hand on Kongo’s aging chin. That one could be a slugfest, but if it is, it will be quick.

In May we’ll get Junior Dos Santos vs. Mark Hunt, and see a title on the line with the Velasquez-Silva rematch. Bottom line: expect some fresh highlight reel knockouts from the UFC this spring.


How the Analysis Works:

In order to understand standup striking performance, which is more multifaceted in MMA than it is in boxing, I need to boil down a few of the most important variables that determine success as a striker. These are fairly uncomplicated variables in isolation, but together they can summarize a fighter’s overall capabilities. 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 28%. Certainly, great strikers can attack the body and legs, but the most likely way to end a fight by strikes is by aiming at the head. And in order to keep this comparison apples-to-apples, we can’t have a guy that throws a lot of high accuracy leg kicks skewing his accuracy stat. 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 as we’ll see. This is the vertical axis, so more accurate fighters are higher in the graph.
  • Standup Striking Pace: prior analysis reveals that outpacing your opponent is a key predictor of 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, so fighters with superior pace appear further to the right.
  • Knockdown Rate: the objective of every strike thrown is to 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 divided by the number of landed power head strikes to see who does the most damage per strike landed. 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 their Zuffa fights.

The data includes all UFC, WEC, and Strikeforce fights through 2012, including UFC 155.


For more on the science and stats of MMA, follow @Fightnomics on Twitter or on Facebook



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