By Nick Zazulia
HOUSTON – Hop on UFC.com during any fight and you’ll see live-tracking of strikes, knockdowns, submission attempts and time-in position figures all courtesy of Fight Metric. Log on to a fan forum or reddit’s MMA hub and you’ll find people discussing the statistical edges possessed by their favored fighters. Pop over to Amazon Books and you might purchase Fightnomics: The Hidden Numbers in Mixed Martial Arts and Why There’s No Such Thing as a Fair Fight if you fancy a read.
It looks like MMA has gone the way of MLB, with teams, managers and athletes spending portions of their training camps examining the results of quantitative analyses to maximize their game plan.
Cain Velasquez, a 33-year-old heavyweight from Salinas, California, who lost the UFC heavyweight championship title in June and has a still-unscheduled upcoming rematch, said his camp pays no attention to metrics.
“We just watch a lot of film to pick up on tendencies. We don’t use numbers,” Velasquez said. “I’m a visual learner so if someone tells me something, if I read something, I don’t really get it. My brain doesn’t work that way, so I need to do something [to learn it].”
Fighters aren’t the only ones keeping it traditional, though. Mike Valle is a striking coach who recently broke away from renowned Albuquerque trainer Greg Jackson to start a gym in the Chicago area with wrestling coach Izzy Martinez. Among other fighters, Valle trains 23-year-old Yair Rodriguez, who just won his bout at the Oct. 6 UFC 192 in Houston.
“Do we use stats? No, no stats really,” Valle said when explaining how they train for fights.
His team uses a “three ways to win and three ways to lose” approach, in which they identify fighter tendencies and break down relative strengths and weaknesses to give fighters things to plan for.
“Everybody does something under pressure,” Valle said. “They go to the right, go to the left, everybody does something. Your opponent, he saw your last fight. You have to be dynamic; you could do the same thing but in a different way.”
If used, analytics can give an important edge, according to Reed Kuhn. Kuhn is the author of “Fightnomics,” a treatise on analytics in MMA which received endorsements from Greg Jackson (Valle’s mentor) and former UFC fighters and current analysts Chael Sonnen and Kenny Florian.
Kuhn believes a fighter should fold the metrics in with his traditional methods.
“Use all of it,” Kuhn said. “Knowledge is power. Analytics can sometimes tell you things that you didn’t expect [after traditional film study.] I am a firm believer that the scientific method with the application of analytics is going to improve your understanding of anything, regardless of the subject matter.”
Kuhn said that it is hard to quantify, but he has seen what he believes to be a significant impact.
“In some cases, it’s very specific where there was a hole or opportunity to exploit in the opponent where the fighter was able to do that, and that was the difference,” Kuhn said. “I’m sitting here reading through [the pre-fight analytics report he prepared for the fighter’s team] bullet by bullet and it sounds like a play-by-play of the fight. So in those cases, at least, I know that I’ve either pegged it very well or the coaches and fighters were very diligent in executing a good game plan.”
Kuhn explained that there is increased volatility in the data for combat sports compared to other sports because of the smaller sample size of fights and the looming possibility of a one-punch knockout. But because the volatility is common for everyone, any statistical edge remains valuable
Kuhn isn’t surprised that UFC and its fans have more readily adopted analytics as part of their process than the fighters themselves. He chalks part of it up to MMA beginning to look more like other sports, and part of it to the fighters themselves.
“A professional ‘cage-fighter’ is inherently a confident and aggressive person,” Kuhn said. “So, tell them that they’re actually deficient in something that they think they excel at, [that their] wrestling game needs some work and they’re like ‘Shut up, I’ll pin you in two seconds.’ But that’s not the point. The question is, ‘Can you pin the other guy or can he pin you?’
“So some of these guys ultimately are going into a cage fight and they just don’t think that numbers can help them. But the top guys? Yeah. And the top managers? Absolutely. Because I’ve personally given reports to most of the top coaches in the game.”
That may change. According to Kuhn, it had better. The UFC and its fighters need not look very far for cautionary tale about refusing to evolve.
“Boxing hasn’t really changed in 100 years,” Kuhn said. “I don’t think any sport can afford to just not change in 100 years.”