Are Submissions Harder to Secure in Later Rounds?

On Twitter: @Fightnomics

Two key concepts that I’ve analyzed in prior research are the ideas that UFC fighters have improved their pace of output continuously through the years, and that not all submissions are created equal.  Now it’s time to combine these two concepts and test a key hypothesis that’s been floating around the Octagon for a long time.  The question is: are submissions more difficult to secure later in fights, either due to sweat or fatigue, or both?  Common sense says “yes.”  But I’m going to run the numbers to find out for sure.

 

How UFC Submission Actually Go Down

What we know from how submissions go down, is that some of the most commonly attempted submissions are actually the least successful.  For example, in the average three-round UFC fight lasting 15 minutes, there will be at least one submission attempt, with an overall success rate of 20%.  In 2012 alone, the overall result was 70 submissions in 341 UFC fights, meaning about 21% of fights ended by submission in aggregate.

 

But when analyzed by submission type, the findings become more nuanced.  The guillotine choke is the most commonly attempted submission type, and yet is one of the least likely to be completed with a success rate of only 14%.  Only ankle locks and shoulder locks are less likely to succeed.  The rear naked choke, however, is hard to gain position for, but most likely to end a fight once there, with a best in class 41% success rate.

Keep in mind that FightMetric only counts a submission attempt for a technique that is fully applied.  That means just appearing to “go for the arm bar” doesn’t count as an attempt unless the arm actually gets extended.  So these success rates reflect the percentage of fully applied submission attempts that result in a tap or stoppage.

 

The Limits of Endurance

It’s true that the level of athleticism and conditioning has improved significantly during the rapid evolution of mixed martial arts. But let’s not all high-five the conditioning coaches just yet, because there are still limits to stamina and performance in the Octagon.

One key factor that changes with fatigue is a fighter’s ability to secure submissions.  With few only one exception, the success rate of submissions drops substantially in the third round.  Accounting for the fact that submission attempts occur at a reduced rate in later rounds, it’s still true that the success rate of these attempts is much lower than in earlier rounds.  It’s not a small effect; third round attempts have barely half the overall success rate of submission attempts in the first two rounds.  Grapplers be warned: don’t waste any time going for the submission, because the clock is ticking, and you’re only getting more tired.

Late round submissions are more difficult

Of the most common UFC submission types, almost all have been much harder to secure in the third round.  The most obvious reasons are fatigue and sweat, both of which make holding an opponent tightly much more difficult.  The lone exception is the Leg Triangle Choke, which notably, does not require arm muscles to sustain the lock.  Legs have greater strength and endurance than arms, so this pattern isn’t surprising.  In this case, fatigue may have a greater effect on a fighter’s ability to defend the triangle choke than on the fighter locking their legs in attack.  The lesson is: when you’re gassed, use your legs.  And whatever you do, don’t sacrifice position for a shoulder or leg lock.

Photo by Esther Lin, allelbows.com

 

Certainly, slipperiness of fighters later in fights definitely makes shoulder and leg locks more difficult.  Many of these submissions have success rates that drop to 0% in rounds three and beyond.  There are exceptions of course, often involving the best in the business (see Jon Jones’ Americana submission of Vitor Belfort).  But the trend is quite clear, and it likely has a lot to do with muscle fatigue.  Even pure position holds, like the RNC, are harder to keep locked for the necessary duration to elicit the tap, with early success rates of 44% dropping to 30% in the third round.  So fatigue is very likely a root cause.

Flexing muscles for long holds is harder with fatigue, and knowing this fact could change a fighter’s strategy mid-fight.  Even an exhausted fighter can still throw a haymaker that downs their opponent.  Knockdown rates don’t decline much in later rounds, proving that fighters remain dangerous in their striking, still able to summon their fast twitch muscles for sporadic bursts.

Grappling specialists are most likely to secure submissions in the first two rounds of fights, and only remain dangerous with their legs from guard or via back control in later rounds.  Armed with this information, fighters may change their offensive tactics in later rounds. For example, knowing that the chances of locking up a Guillotine choke is less than 10%, or that top game submissions will become nearly impossible, perhaps it’s better to stand and trade in the third, or improve position to back control if you’re down in the third.  Conversely, and fighter clearly ahead on the cards may be at less risk by going to the mat than by keeping the fight standing at the end of a fight.

How these findings are acted upon is up to fighters and coaches.  But at least now we’ve confirmed a key hypothesis about mixed martial arts once and for all.

 

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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. Conor says:

    There is a likely to be a risk-reward tradeoff with submissions. Safer submissions will be tried more often because failure has lesser consequences for safer submissions. Fighters only go for risky subs when they have a good chance of getting them.

    There is probably a selection bias at work for submission defence in later rounds. The fighters defending submissions in later rounds are fighters who’ve avoided being tapped up until that point. The fighters with bad submission defence are tapped early. Th

    • Reed Kuhn says:

      Excellent point, Conor. That phenomenon is known as a “Survivorship Bias.” That’s when there’s been some selection or filtering of the data, so those that “survive” the filter are inherently different from the original group. That could definitely be part of this observed trend.

      Unfortunately, the data set doesn’t currently differentiate novice vs experienced grapplers, so it would be hard to tell how big this effect is. But the fact that all submissions relying on arm strength become more difficult with time, while the one submission type performed primarily with legs actually goes up in success suggests that fatigue plays a role.

      One thing I will look at soon is whether submission success rates vary by round when only one attempt is made, or when multiple attempts are made. Another filter could be to isolate fights that spend the first two rounds standing versus grappling, and see if those 3rd round success rates vary. This will address survivorship bias at least a little, in that we’ll see if fighters that successfully defend early attempts eventually succumb at a lower rate, or if there really is a bifurcation of good and bad grapplers that are driving the phenomenon.

      Thanks for the comment, it was a good one. Always think of ways to test the hypothesis better!

  2. Josh says:

    I wonder if the data regarding shoulder locks might be slightly skewed by the amount of fighters that use the Omoplata as a sweep. I would not have thought the number of shoulder locks being attempted would be more frequent than arm bar or triangle attempts.

    • Onan says:

      Perhaps the shoulder lock numbers are higher due to Omoplatas and Kimuras both being counted as shoulder locks.

  3. Biscoinferno says:

    The guillotine choke may be the most attempted submission, but not necessarily by choice of the fighter attempting it. Any time a fighter is shot on by an opponent looking for a takedown, the guillotine is usually there. If the fighter is about to be taken down, he’s basically got no choice but to go for the choke, as it it all he as to work with both offensively and defensively.

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