UFC 144: Frankie Edgar vs. Ben Henderson Statistical Matchup Analysis
The lightweight title is again on the line this Saturday/Sunday (depending on your time zone) in Japan at UFC 144. For the first time since 2009, Frankie Edgar gets to fight someone NOT named BJ Penn or Gray Maynard. Also making the trip to Saitama is Benson (Ben, Smooth, Bendo) Henderson, the Challenger. The current betting line doesn’t get much closer than this: Edgar (-130) and Henderson (Even). It’s a virtual coin flip with only the slightest edge going to the reigning Champ, who once again gets little respect from the betting public. But as we’re about to see, there’s good reason for spectators to find it difficult to pick a winner, as these guys match up very, very evenly.
In lightweight fights, a single overhand right in the first minute is much less likely to end the fight early, and these two fighters are no strangers to the deep water rounds. This one is likely to go 5 rounds, so examining their metrics in critical areas of performance should give us some clues as to how this could go down.
But first, let’s see how they stack up.
Tale of the Tape
Henderson comes out the taller, more recently active Southpaw, but Edgar get a slight reach advantage. It’s important to note that my records (via FightMetric) indicate Edgar’s reach is longer than is publicly documented. I’m going with the overlords of MMA data on this one, which means despite being shorter, Edgar gets the reach nod.
In terms of experience, these guys are both worthy title bout fighters, with only one decision loss apiece in their UFC and WEC careers. Henderson’s only other loss was prior to the WEC when he fought once at Welterweight. All said, it’s an even matchup between equally experienced and successful athletes, with the slight reach differential being cancelled out by the Challenger’s height and Southpaw stance. Both fighters are within the peak age range for UFC fighters, so there’s no advantage there.
The Striking Matchup
All fights start standing up, so I always start there too. The edge goes to the < fighter with an advantage, or << significant advantage over his opponent based on historical performance (e.g. guy with Advantage > guy with Disadvantage).
Data includes all UFC data for both fighters.
The biggest differences here to note are Edgar’s boxing accuracy, and Henderson’s pace. Edgar’s standup has above average accuracy for UFC lightweights with both his jab and power striking, and he matches his opponents’ pace almost exactly. By having better than average defense, the Champ edges out opponents in terms of total landed strikes. This is helpful given that he’s been knocked down or wobbled multiple times, and need plenty of time to recover and make up points. Conversely, Henderson is below average in his accuracy, but makes up for it with good defense and by outpacing his opponents almost 2 to 1 in attempts. Both fighters have nearly identical defense, so expect Edgar to land the more precise strikes, while Henderson sets the more active pace.
How that will pan out in the Octagon is hard to say, but Edgar has the option of countering and winning the more important exchanges (see Carlos Condit vs. Nick Diaz), or pressing and trying to eliminate Henderson’s typical pace advantage. But working against him will be Henderson’s speed, slick combinations and furious pace. The Challenger is also slightly more likely to control the cage than Edgar. Henderson can pursue, and push the pace, mixing in kicks and body shots, while Edgar looks for selective strikes and takedown openings.
If the two clinch, Henderson will have his most distinct standup advantage. He generally takes control in the clinch, whereas Edgar is usually put on the fence. Henderson also vastly outstrikes his opponents from this position. Again, despite Edgar being the more accurate striker, it’s Henderson that will dictate the pace. Being the taller fighter, Henderson will also have an advantage to work the body, something he does well when in the clinch position.
But the clinch is a critical spot for how this fight will progress for more reasons than just striking, because from here both fighters have had a lot of success taking down their opponents.
Takedowns and the Grappling Matchup
Whoever can take control on the ground will score some big points with the judges, as both have strong wrestling backgrounds and have been effective in the past. But it will be no easy task, as neither is likely to stay on his back for long. So takedowns will be the first indicator of who’s gaining an edge in this fight. Overall, Edgar only spends 28% of his time in fights on the ground compared to Henderson at 41%, which I believe reflects Henderson’s ability to prevent standups. But let’s go deeper into what happens when these guys hit the ground.
Keep in mind that Edgar has almost 4X the minutes of fight time under analysis in striking here.
Henderson has recently evolved his takedown game, and gone are the failed shooting takedown attempts of his WEC career. Since coming to the UFC, he hasn’t shot once, and has improved his takedown success rate significantly by focusing only on takedowns from the clinch. Similarly, Edgar’s shooting takedowns haven’t gone well (25% success rate), but he fared better from the clinch (63% success rate). In terms of defense, both fighters have defended takedowns well, though Henderson has performed slightly better.
Note that both fighters have controlled most of the dominant positions in their past fights, with Edgar controlling 91% of advanced ground position time versus Henderson at 76%. What’s interesting here is that Henderson outstrikes opponents 7:1 and rarely allows opponents to escape. Edgar performs at a solid 3:1 striking pace, but is unable to hold opponents in position for quite as long. Edgar’s wrestling ability is certainly top notch, but in terms of who is in a worse spot if they end up on their back, it appears to be Edgar. Layer in Henderson’s more advanced submission game and excellent submission defense, and that bodes well for him on the ground. Remember, prior to his recent run of decisions in the UFC, Henderson rattled off 8 wins by submission in the years prior.
The Final Word
There’s no surprise the betting line is so tight on this one. The standup edge that Edgar might have is countered by the ground advantage for Henderson. Those burned by Edgar’s impressive underdog performances of the past might be hesitating to doubt him again, leading to his (ever so slight) market price advantage. But let’s not overlook what Henderson brings to the table here. Sure, we saw him get outpointed by the sharp and dynamic striking of Anthony Pettis once, but Edgar doesn’t have the same skillset as Showtime and will not be able to exploit the same openings. Plus, Henderson should have the grappling advantage. I like spotting underdogs, and I’m gently leaning that way. But really I just want to see what a Head and Shoulders commercial starring Smooth Henderson’s hair might look like.
Looking ahead, a big question is what if Edgar loses? It’s well known he doesn’t cut much weight for fights, and has a frame more commonly found in the featherweight division. Would a 145 lb. debut and potential matchup with Jose Aldo be in his future? Or will he once again silence the naysayers and keep the UFC lightweight belt in New Jersey, only to likely face yet another larger opponent in the future? Should Edgar win, there’s no doubt he’ll want to continue his reign at the top of the Lightweight hill. And with Maynard and Henderson out of the way, an anxious Gilbert Melendez makes a compelling case for a UFC debut as the next Challenger. We’ll have to wait and see.
Regardless of what the numbers say, tune into UFC 144 this weekend to see it all go down. Maybe the numbers tell you something different, and if so please chime in. Maybe we’ll see one of these guys finally get finished in the Octagon for the first time ever. Let’s not forget, this is still two guys in a cage, and anything can happen.
Enjoy the action, and Kanpai!
–The Fight Scientist
Note: Raw data for the analysis was provided by, and in partnership with FightMetric. All analysis was performed by Reed Kuhn. Reed Kuhn, Fightnomics and FightMetric assume no responsibility for bets placed on fights, financial or otherwise.