Among the many die-hard UFC fans was Rami Genauer, a journalist based in Washington, D.C. Genauer had read Moneyball, Michael Lewis’s best seller about Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane and his statistics-driven approach to player evaluation. He dreamed of analyzing mixed martial arts in the same way.
“There were no numbers,” Genauer says. “You’d try to write something, and you’d come to the place where you’d put in the numbers to back up your assertions, and there was absolutely nothing.”
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.
Genauer titled his data-collection project FightMetric and created a website to house the information. Some UFC fans registered their disapproval on Web forums. “‘We don’t need math with our fighting,’ people would say. I disagreed,” Genauer says.
In 2008 he managed to persuade the UFC to use FightMetric data from past matches to support a televised event in Minneapolis. “The idea was that this would be good for the producers, who could use the numbers to illustrate the story,” he says. “It’d also be good for the broadcaster—they’d have ammunition, something to rely on just like they do in other sports.”
Officials liked having Genauer’s fight data, and when the UFC began spiffing up its broadcasts with more graphics and statistics—part of an effort to make MMA seem like a real sport instead of a series of cage brawls—it hired FightMetric as its statistics provider. Genauer quit his job and opened an office in D.C.
Today FightMetric has five full-time staffers and a rotating cast of 15 specialists who collect a large data set for each fight using a video feed, proprietary software and a video-game controller with which they can record every type of strike. Among the statistics they track: each fighter’s number and type of strikes, number of significant strikes (defined as all strikes landed from a distance, as well as power strikes landed from close range) and the accuracy and location of kicks and punches.
The FightMetric team collects the strike and location statistics in real time. The UFC uses some of the data for graphics during broadcasts and on its website. FightMetric goes into even greater detail on its own website, presenting statistics over outlines of a human body. Colored lines indicate the accuracy of each type of strike, and boxes show which ground move, whether arm bar, kimura lock or triangle choke, each fighter used to try to induce a submission. The analysis is strangely disconnected from the violence of the Octagon—a savage fight broken down into simple, neat figures.
As the available body of data from FightMetric (and its main competitor, CompuStrike) grows, Genauer and others are attempting to analyze it in new ways. Already Genauer and his colleagues have identified some clear trends in MMA matches. For instance, the number of fights that end in decisions, especially at the lower weight classes, has risen from a third in 2007 to half today. That’s a significant change from the wilder early days of the UFC, when fighters swung crazily and the vast majority of bouts ended in knockouts. It points to increasing skill levels among UFC fighters (knockouts usually happen when one fighter is obviously superior to the other), a factor that could affect fighters’ styles and training methods. A lighter-weight fighter, expecting now to go the distance in his next fight, might accordingly develop his aerobic threshold (so he can wear out bigger opponents) rather than his ability to throw first-round knockout blows.