Striking Assessment: UFC Lightweight Division
The UFC’s Lightweight division went dark for a few years before returning with tons of momentum, and it’s now the center of mass for the entire UFC. More fights now take place at Lightweight than any other single division, and the roster for that weight class just edges out the Welterweights as the biggest in the UFC. That’s partly because the typical body size for the Lightweights coincides with the most common frame size in the male population, and therefore there’s plenty of talent lurking that fits the weight class.
And given how competitive the division is, perhaps it’s no surprise that no one has ever been able to defend the Lightweight strap more than three times. Recently, veteran Rafael dos Anjos dominated the incumbent champ Anthony Pettis, who was a heavy favorite, giving the division it’s third regime change since the BJ Penn Era.
It takes a solid win streak to penetrate the rankings in this division, so let’s now take a look at how the Lightweights stack up in striking metrics, and see who the biggest threats might be to Dos Anjos down the road.
How the Graph Works
This balloon (or bubble) chart includes all active UFC fighters who have competed since the beginning of 2014 with sufficient data. Some of the names are retired or no longer with the organization, but were left in here for reference. There’s also a few more that didn’t have enough data, or have been inactive for a while who were excluded.
The four metrics in the graph are all related to striking (we’ll look at key grappling stats later). First, the vertical axis is the power head striking accuracy. This is a general reflection of a striker’s skill level in technique. But some fighters are more aggressive than others, while some are primarily counter-strikers, and those characteristics lead to very different striking styles. So the horizontal axis indicates the ratio of strike attempts while standing compared to the same fighter’s opponents. It’s a measure of output, and a proxy for aggression. An even 1.0 ratio means a guy matches the pace of his opponents when standing and trading, while a higher number shows more aggressive and higher-volume strikers compared to lower ratios indicating counter-strikers.
The dots are plotted based on those two metrics, but two more variables are also shown. The size of the bubble is based on the fighter’s Knockdown Rate in the UFC/Strikeforce/WEC. Bigger bubbles mean a lot more power, while the small specks indicate fighters who haven’t logged a knockdown in recorded competition. And lastly, southpaw/switch stance strikers are in red. Lefties are rare, but are worth highlighting as most fighters have trouble with Southpaws.
Click to enlarge.
This division is loaded with Southpaw and Switch stance fighters, who make up over a quarter of the fighters in the graph (that’s double the male population rate of lefties). We also see a very wide distribution in strike ratios, revealing a lot of different styles of fighters within the division. There are pressure-strikers, counter-strikers, and plenty in between. Some who get excel in all metrics, and a few that have failed to succeed in any.
But the question remains: if Barao couldn’t stand up to Dillashaw’s striking, does anyone else stand a chance? Let’s check the graph to see where the strongest performers are, and who might make an interesting challenger down the road.
Bobby Green leads the division in precise power head striking at just over 41%, way above the division average of 27%. Green showed early promise rattling off four consecutive wins before succumbing to the superior aggression of Edson Barboza. Ranked No. 11, Green has been on the shelf since late 2014 after a string of injuries, but is likely to return against a ranked opponent.
Not far behind Green is John Makdessi, who may be small for the division, but has made up for his range disadvantage with highly precise counter-striking at 39%, and one of the few spinning attack KO’s in UFC history.
Among other high performing UFC veterans, Dustin Poirier deserves mention for his 37% power accuracy.
Nate Diaz has chased plenty of opponents around the cage, and like his brother, often taken time to taunt while peppering a high volume of strikes. Diaz has outworked his opponents by 76% on volume, even while maintaining accuracy that is just above average with his power strikes, and well above average with his frequent jabs. He brings an intriguing stylistic matchup against Michael Johnson at the final FOX card of the year, one that coincidentally features a Lightweight title matchup between Dos Anjos and Cerrone.
Other veterans that like to press the action include the aforementioned Erik Koch and Michael Johnson, as well as Gilbert Melendez and Evan Dunham, who all outwork opponents by at least 50%.
The highest recorded Knockdown Rate in the Lightweight division was former UFC slugger Melvin Guillard. He scored a ridiculous 13 knockdowns through his UFC career, a feat exceeded only by the likes of Anderson Silva (17) and Chuck Liddell (14). However, after a long but occasionally tumultuous UFC career, Guillard was let go.
Among active UFC Lightweights, the most efficient at scoring knockdowns is Erik Koch. While he tends to push a high pace, Koch didn’t require many strikes to cause his three knockdowns in the UFC to date.
But in terms of total knockdowns at a high rate sustained over a longer career, we have a virtual dead heat between Edson Barboza and Donald Cerrone. These two always look to keep fights standing and have landed 21 knockdowns between them. No surprise then that their fight against each other ended quickly.
Division’s Next Title Fight
Donald Cerrone presents a dangerous striking threat to Rafael dos Anjos at the UFC on FOX card in December. However, dos Anjos not only defeated Cerrone previously, he faced down another skilled striker in Anthony Pettis, and was able to stifle him over the course of five lopsided rounds and nine landed takedowns. Dos Anjos doesn’t distinguish himself well on this chart, but his well-rounded MMA game and reliable cardio has won him a title. That said, Cerrone remains one of the most dangerous strikers in the division, and he’s fully capable of capitalizing on a the slightest opportunity.
Waiting in the wings for potential title shots are fresh contenders Khabib Nurmagomedov, Eddie Alvarez, and Tony Ferguson (to name a few), in a division with no shortage of talent and future challengers.
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