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Ultimate Fighting vs. math: no holds barred

One man’s quest to bring statistical analysis to the chaos of mixed martial arts

Nick Diaz had the guy on the floor, crawling backwards like a scared crab. As he approached, muscles gleaming, mouth in a menacing snarl, the 9,000 keyed up fans gathered in Las Vegas for the Ultimate Fighting Championship wailed at the show of total dominance unfolding before them in the cage. As the final seconds of the round ticked away, Diaz drove his foot into his opponent’s knee.

Mixed martial arts fighters Ryan McGivern (left) and Dan Miller battled during a 2008 bout in Uncasville, Conn.

Al Bello/Getty Images/file

Mixed martial arts fighters Ryan McGivern (left) and Dan Miller battled during a 2008 bout in Uncasville, Conn.

Three young men in the arena were not clapping or hooting. They were working for a Washington, D.C.-based company called FightMetric, and they were watching the action quietly with old video game controllers in their hands, pushing buttons every time one of the fighters visited some brutality upon the other. When Diaz slammed Carlos Condit in the head with his fist, one of them ticked his controller. When Condit kicked Diaz in the stomach, one of the others ticked his. As the audience roared at the ferocious beating taking place in the ring, the three men from FightMetric were methodically turning it into a stream of numbers. After five rounds, when all was said and done, their record would indicate that even though Diaz seemed to spend most of the match as the aggressor, he had in fact been outperformed.

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Mixed martial arts — often called ultimate fighting — has, in its short life, become one of the most popular sports in America. There were an estimated 5 million people watching Diaz fight Condit on TV in February. The sport has its own news sites, magazines, message boards, and training gyms all over the country.

For all that enthusiasm, however, the sport has had a weak spot: It can be surprisingly difficult to say with any specificity what makes a mixed martial artist great, or what makes one fighter better than another. In baseball, there are home run tallies and RBIs and countless more obscure measures of a player’s skills. In MMA, fans find it easy to call someone a force of nature, but historically, it’s been impossible to back it up with data. In some cases, it is frustratingly hard to tell who is even winning a match.

That uncertainty can be traced back to the sport’s origins. When the Ultimate Fighting Championship was created in the early 1990s, the point was to give pairs of tough, bloodthirsty fighters an open venue in which to attack each other in whatever way they pleased. There were no standard measures of anything. There were barely any rules at all, and the only statistic anyone kept track of was who was still standing at the end.

By the time Rami Genauer began to follow the sport closely in 2005, it had matured: Fights were overseen by referees, matches were capped at 25 minutes, and rules had been imposed against hitting opponents in the groin. Genauer started writing analytical articles about the sport for a website called MMA Weekly, and realized that while fighters were performing increasingly complex feats in the cage, there was no useful way to seriously compare their strengths, weaknesses, and strategies.

Genauer’s frustration gave rise to a unique ambition: to systematize what might be the least systematic sport ever invented. The task would require going over more than a decade’s worth of fights, watching around 1,500 hours of video, and entering every punch, kick, and guillotine choke into a giant database. Genauer wanted to take a wild, free-wheeling sport and turn it into something that fans could analyze and obsess over with the same precision that their friends brought to baseball, basketball, and golf.

-FightMetric in-depth reports on MMA fighters.

FightMetric

FightMetric in-depth reports on MMA fighters.

The result of his work was a pioneering thing: a full-fledged statistics system for mixed martial arts called FightMetric, produced by a company he founded in 2007. And while FightMetric has not been universally embraced by judges, fighters, or fans, the numbers it generates are becoming an increasingly important part of the sport. “It’s not a statistics-based sport yet, but it’s moving in that direction,” said Aaron Ard, who has built an MMA fantasy league called Kountermove using FightMetric’s data. “Ten years ago, the idea of statistics in MMA — most people would have scoffed at it.”

But even as Genauer heralds the adoption of his system as a natural step in the evolution of the sport, some fans worry that too many numbers will spoil the very thing they love about it. Mixed martial arts, after all, has its roots in an impulse to see what happens when you throw out the rules. Genauer’s project is a kind of experiment of its own — one that asks what happens when you set the powerful urge to watch lawless, explosive violence on a collision course with the blunt tyranny of math.

***

THE VERY FIRST Ultimate Fighting Championship, in 1993, was billed as the closest thing to a no-holds-barred street fight possible in a legal setting. Contestants weren’t supposed to bite or gouge each other’s eyes, but most everything else was fair game, and no distinctions were made between weight classes or fighting styles. A Dutch kickboxer went up against a Sumo wrestler. A heavyweight boxer went up against a guy trained in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. By pitting fighters trained in different styles against each other and letting them go at it until one of them was knocked out or begging for mercy, the event tapped into something primal among fans. Traditional martial arts involved discipline and choreography; boxing was constrained by strict rules and norms. This was something else: a chance to watch two powerful men try to viciously dominate each other by any means necessary.

As word spread among fighting enthusiasts that the most hardcore physical contest ever conceived had arrived, UFC came under the gaze of regulators, and before long was forced to adopt rules and practices that gave it more structure. Fighters flocked to the octagon, developing new techniques specifically for the occasion. These changes moved MMA away from its “style vs. style” origins and started turning it into a distinct sport of its own. Fighters started combining moves in new ways, and developing strategies that couldn’t be described in traditional terms. No one was just a kickboxer or Kung Fu master anymore. Said Brian Hemminger, a writer for MMAMania.com and host of the podcast The Verbal Submission, “You needed another way to figure out what made a guy special.”

In a lot of sports, this is where statistics can come in handy: We know Ray Allen is a pure shooter, while Rajon Rondo, with his paltry percentages behind the arc and at the line, must beat opponents with speed and craftiness. The problem for MMA fans was that nobody had really been keeping track of fights with this level of specificity. “I think it was so crazy that we didn’t even give it any thought,” said Kirik Jenness, an MMA judge and referee, and founder of the popular website MixedMartialArts.com. “We were just thinking, ‘Oh my God, that guy’s stomping on that other guy’s head.’”

Was it important that Ian “Uncle Creepy” McCall took Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson down, or did it matter how long he spent sitting on his chest afterward?

Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

Was it important that Ian “Uncle Creepy” McCall took Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson down, or did it matter how long he spent sitting on his chest afterward?

Genauer was working as an analyst at a corporate consulting firm, and in his side gig as an MMA writer found himself frustrated by the vague, relative terms he was forced to use. He could call someone an aggressive presence, and point out one fighter’s wrestling skills or another’s quickness. But when it came to hard evidence, he had nothing to draw on — no way to measure a champion’s skills, or handicap a match, or trace the arc of a career — except win-loss records and his personal impressions. “There was literally nothing,” he said.

Genauer realized he would need to collect the statistics himself, by watching footage of fights from the 1990s and taking rigorous notes as he worked his way up to the present day. First, though, Genauer had to decide what to look for: After all, it was far from obvious what was even important to track. Was it worth specifying that Chuck “The Iceman” Liddell had thrown an uppercut at Rashad “Suga” Evans, or was the fact that he hit him at all the only thing that mattered? Was it important simply that Ian “Uncle Creepy” McCall took Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson down, or did it matter how long he spent sitting on his chest afterward?

Eventually Genauer arrived at a system that recorded the positions fighters assumed on the mat, as well as every punch, kick, takedown, and submission they attempted. The aim, Genauer said, was to marshal the tallies into a quantitative “retelling of the fight,” and ultimately use them as inputs for a more complex statistic, a “total performance rating” comparing both fighters.

The sport turned out to be ready for it: Within months of FightMetric’s launch, articles were referencing Genauer’s numbers, and broadcasters were invoking them in their commentary. Not everyone in the MMA world, however, saw the sense in systematizing a contest that consists of flying triangle chokes, underhooks, and headlocks. “I was very skeptical at first,” said Jenness. “I’ve judged hundreds and hundreds of matches, and I thought you could not reduce judging a match to some kind of numerical formula.” Judging, he said, “is kind of biblical....You’re kind of watching for who’s forcing their will on the other person.”

A competitor arose — Compustrike, which provides a similar service to fighting analysts and fans — and in 2010 the UFC essentially endorsed the idea, making Genauer’s company its official statistics provider. Today, despite some early resistance, reports from FightMetric as well as Compustrike have increasingly become the standard tools for analyzing the sport, and are frequently invoked by fans arguing about past matches or trying to ascertain the stakes of an upcoming one.

***

ABOUT A MONTH AGO, Genauer flew to Boston from Washington and stood in front of an audience at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference to give a presentation called, “Fighting With Data: Creating Statistics from Scratch in Mixed Martial Arts.” In attendance at the conference were mathematicians, computer scientists, and assorted data nerds, all of them apostles of the statistical revolution that is transforming the way we think about traditional sports like baseball and football. Unlike most of them, however, Genauer wasn’t at the conference because he had come up with a fresh approach to an old problem — figuring out a way to calculate how well two players on a starting lineup complemented each other on the field, for instance. Genauer had introduced statistics to an entire sport.

Getty Images

But statistics, as any sports fan or stock trader knows, aren’t just a form of measurement: Once you put numbers to something, you start to change the thing itself. Baseball players are well aware of their own home run totals; football players can earn bonuses based on how many interceptions or sacks they rack up. In MMA, some fans worry that the emergence of statistics could mark an unwelcome shift — that as numbers become a more prominent part of how fighters are evaluated, they will distort the sport by giving fighters a reason to play to numerical benchmarks. In other martial arts, such as tournament karate, this kind of approach is known as “point fighting,” and the predictability that often follows from it is part of what led to the birth of the UFC in the first place.

“If you give people these criteria that say, ‘You get one point for doing X,’ then everyone just games the system . . . and nobody actually fights anymore, they merely compete for points,” said Genauer. “That’s the fear.”

But as far as Genauer and other believers in MMA statistics, like Compustrike CEO Bob Canobbio, are concerned, when people worry about the effects of quantification, they’re worrying about something that has already happened. Nineteen years ago, at the dawn of the sport, matches only ended when one fighter knocked the other one out or forced him to submit. Today most fights end with a state-appointed judge’s decision and a hug in the middle of the ring. The sport has evolved, in other words: What was once about two reckless gladiators pounding each other as hard as they could is now about two accomplished athletes trying to defeat each other through wit and skill.

“If you want to watch two guys in hand-to-hand combat, going at each other, and you’re kind of chanting for blood, then yes, putting numbers on the screen is probably going to distract you from that,” Genauer said. “But I think those people are kind of missing the boat.”

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail lneyfakh@globe.com.
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