Small Fish, Bigger Pond: The WEC-UFC Merger’s Hidden Secret
Small Fish in a Bigger Pond: The Dirty Secret of the WEC Merger
Note: portions of this analysis are excerpted from the book version of “Fightnomics,”specifically Chapter 13 “The Fringe: Strange Forces that Matter in Fights, and Some that Don’t.”
In December of 2010, Anthony “Showtime” Pettis leapt off the wall of a cage and landed a kick to Benson Henderson’s face. The spectacular “wall walk kick” put an exclamation point on the the waning moments of the final fight of the World Extreme Cagefighting organization. The folding of the bantam, feather and lightweight fighters into the UFC came with a bang. But while Zuffa had owned the WEC for years prior, and management had already implemented operational practices from the UFC, most fans may not know about one key difference that the WEC fighters would face.
The biggest questions at the time of the merger focused on whether smaller fighters would be enough of a draw to warrant airtime on MMA’s biggest stage. Stars like Urijah Faber and Jose Aldo certainly could put on a show and held strong followings, and the WEC’s highlight reel boasted amazing fight ending knockouts and submissions, all taking place in the vivid, electric blue WEC cage. But despite having fewer marquis stars, the greater threat to the smaller weight classes was the new, full-size UFC Octagon. In the WEC, fighters competed in a 25-foot diameter cage. At 30-feet across, the full size UFC Octagon may not seem quite so huge with only a 20% bigger diameter, but that translates into a cavernous 44% increase in Octagon area. That makes the cage in the WEC pretty tight quarters by comparison.
So let’s settle this once and for all. What has been the effect of adding smaller weight classes to the UFC?
(Cage) Size Matters
Finish rates in the UFC are an inherently scrutinized statistic. People want to see fights finished, and the UFC wants exciting ends to fights for the fans, and highlights for future promos. But the most important variable affecting finish rates is the size of the fighters.
Data provided by Fight Metric, analysis by Reed Kuhn
It’s pretty clear that the bigger the fighter, the more fights they finish. This is true across the board in the UFC. Another definite trend is that the mix of finishes changes from predominantly submissions, to mostly knockouts with increasing size. But this is due to the physics of muscles and striking, not the “heart” or skill sets of the fighters. Accounting for the fact that smaller fighters finish less often, did moving into a larger cage have any effect on how these fighters perform? Wouldn’t smaller cages force competitors to press the action – resulting in more finishes – with bigger cages allowing more room to roam and therefore fewer exchanges?
Fortunately, we have a great way to test this hypothesis. Before the WEC-UFC merger, several weight classes operated in parallel, which meant two different cage sizes under the same ownership. They also kept Sean Shelby as the matchmaker for the lighter weight classes, so this too was consistent before and after the merger. Furthermore, the UFC still uses a smaller cage for The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) show and Finale events that is closer to the WEC cage in size (i.e., smaller than the regular UFC full-sized Octagon). This is due to the tighter quarters of the TUF gym and the Palms Casino where TUF Finale events are held. So let’s looks at finish rates in those three scenarios, all while controlling for fighter size.
The results show that finish rates are higher in smaller cages, and this is true for all the weight classes where we have good data. The spike for the Bantamweights is due to the small sample size of bantamweight fighters competing in TUF Finale events, because there have only been 15 shows of those since the merger, with seven Bantamweights fights (all finishes). But even more conclusively, we see higher finish rates in all weight classes in the smaller cages of the WEC and TUF events, including the lightweight and welterweights, who have been around longer and have more total fights to examine.
When put into a smaller cage, even larger UFC weight classes (welterweight and above) finish more fights. They also throw over 20% more strikes per minute than when they are in the full size Octagon. Same rules, same division, same matchmaker…just more action. The idea is confirmed: smaller cages result in more finishes.
Pulling Their Weight
Smaller fighters fighting in bigger cages could have spelled disaster for the WEC divisions, were it not for upside to being small: endurance. Any fan knows that they can expect two featherweights to maintain a frenzied pace of fighting far more intense than larger fighters, and they can do it for longer. Like two squirrels wrestling for a nut, they don’t seem to get tired, no matter how wild the fight gets. Look at the new Flyweight division as evidence that two little guys can get after it for 15 minutes straight and be exciting the whole way through, even without a spectacular KO finish. Queue the “Mighty Mouse” vs. “Uncle Creepy” highlight reel.
How that translates into metrics is clear too. Smaller weight classes (Flyweight through Lightweight) average 16% more significant strikes landed per minute than the larger half of the UFC (welterweights through heavyweights). And they do this despite having much longer fights on average due to their lower overall finish rates. Smaller fighters can push the pace faster and longer than their heavier peers.
A fighter’s career can live or die by the bonus. It can be a windfall payday for a broke fighter only earning “eight and eight” to enter the cage. And perhaps more importantly it can cement the legacy of their value in the eyes of management, paying dividends down the road. The UFC wants action as much as their screaming fans, and for that reason management has wisely incentivized desirably behaviors in the fighters. Zuffa’s hope is that by rewarding aggressive fighters putting in action packed performances, they will ensure a higher quality entertainment product.
The question now is: who steps up the most on fight night? For the moment, let’s use the three fight night bonuses (KO, Submission and Fight of the Night) as a rough indicator of how exciting fighters are, and see how the weight classes stack up.
Though it’s still early, it certainly looks like the lighter divisions are holding their own. The flyweight sample size is quite small (only 4 fights by the middle of 2012), and may return to normal with time. And no one can match the devastating knockouts that occur in the heavyweight division. But overall, Bantamweight and Featherweight fighters have been putting on more bonus-worthy performances than the UFC’s middle and light heavyweight divisions. The lightweights actually earn bonuses at three times the rate of middleweights. Notably, the middleweights, who have the largest weight difference to the next class up also have some of the lowest activity pace and bonus metrics of all. So perhaps there’s another insight for the MMA masses – cutting too much weight really does hurt performance, and the UFC’s product. Is that an argument for a 195-lb weight class? You decide.
What Did We Learn?
- First, size matters in fighting, and larger fighters finish more often and also have more knockouts
- But the size of cage also matters, and smaller cages lead to more finishes, but are used less often
- The small WEC weight classes have held their own in the larger UFC Octagon by putting on bonus worthy fights
- Smaller fighters have a much higher striking pace than larger fighters and fatigue less in later rounds
- There’s a method to the madness: Zuffa has very good reasons why they use the large cage of the UFC, and we’ll explore that in a separate post
- The Fight Scientist
 Note: “eight and eight” refers to the current baseline contract for new UFC fighters. This translates into $8,000 to “show” (or just to compete), and an $8,000 bonus if the fighter wins. It does not include additional fight night or locker room bonuses from Zuffa, or sponsorship endorsements a fighter may earn. More well-known fighters transferring to the UFC will often command higher rates, hence this is the “minimum wage” for the UFC. Though low by professional sports standards, this rate has been climbing quickly and steadily since the early days of fighting for “three and three,” which was the case as recently as 2009.
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