Rigor in the Ring – How Statistics is Changing The Way We Fight

How science and statistics are changing the world of mixed martial arts

An MMA match in Bay City, MI. Image: David Devoe

Nothing is more raw and human than hand-to-hand combat. That’s what MMA (mixed martial arts, like the Ulitmate Fighting Championship or UFC) lives on. Two dudes, fighting it out in basically whatever way they choose. Doesn’t seem like there’d be a ton of room for science there. But one trainer, Popular Science reports, doesn’t see it that way.

Greg Jackson is the most successful trainer in the history of mixed martial arts fighting. It’s a big industry, worth billions of dollars, and Jackson has trained several champions. He doesn’t see his old sweaty gym as a gym at all. He sees it as a lab – a place to experiment, gather data and test it. And his way of thinking is changing the way we fight. Popular Science writes:

Jackson’s attempts to impose some measure of order on the primal, violent world of MMA mirror a larger movement within the sport. Science may not be civilizing cage fighting, but it is refining it. Specialty firms compile detailed statistics on matches. MMA pros appear on ESPN rigged head to toe with sensors and monitors that measure their striking power and speed. Academics are writing peer-reviewed articles on subjects such as the physiology of top fighters and the role that fear plays in the Octagon. And now fighters, most of them trained by Jackson, are beginning to use this data and analysis to become ever more brutally effective in the ring.

For a long time, there was very little record keeping in fighting. People who tried to mimic the Moneyball strategy of statistical evaluation of players came short because there were no statistics. Rami Genauer, a journalist and UFC fan, found this supremely frustrating. So, he fixed it. Popular Science again:

In 2007 Genauer obtained a video of a recent UFC event, and using the slow-motion function on his TiVo, he broke each fight down by the number of strikes attempted, the volume of strikes landed, the type of strike (power leg versus leg jab, for instance) and the finishing move (rear naked choke versus guillotine, and so on). The process took hours, but the end result was something completely new to the sport: a comprehensive data set.

That data set turned into FightMetric, the go-to place for statistics on every fighter in the league. Officials like the statistics, as do marketers who were trying to sell the sport as one of strategy and skill rather than all out destruction. Broadcasters like to have numbers to show and talk about, and fighters can now assess their opponents statistically long before they size them up in the ring. And now scientists are starting to use the growing data set to get a better understanding of MMA matches. Last year researchers used the data to publish a study called “Aggression in Mixed Martial Arts: An Analysis of the Likelihood of Winning a Decision.”

Jackson’s statistics-based approach clearly works. His fighters win about 80 percent of their matches. But when Jackson thinks about his statistics in his lab, he doesn’t think about winning, he told Popular Science. “That doesn’t mean we don’t want to win. I want my guys to be thinking about trying to get to the strongest position they can, with the most edges, over and over. Like any science, it’s more about the process than it is the outcome.”


More from Smithsonian.com:
The Johnson-Jeffries Fight
Thailand’s Fight Club

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