Mixed Martial Arts is one of the younger sports you’ll see in the national spotlight, and the premier organization, the UFC, is far younger than other mainstream sports leagues. In fact, in 2018 the UFC will turn just 25 years old, a neophyte compared to the MLB (114 years old), NHL (100), NFL (97), and NBA (71). A sport as young as MMA is bound to evolve quickly in its infancy until a more stable and mature state is reached. And it would seem that this future stability hasn’t quite happened yet, but we could be close.
Here we take a look at some key trends that have been steadily changing in MMA, and what that means for athletes, and for the fans who watch them.
Fighters Are More Active Than Ever
The average minute of a UFC fight now contains more striking activity than ever before. Looking at annual Significant Strike attempts per minute in the UFC, the trend over time seems obvious.
The problem with this view is that it’s heavily influenced by other factors. The position of fighters is important with respect to Significant Strikes, partially due to the definition of that metric, as well as the nature of the sport. All standing strikes thrown from a Distance are counted as Significant, whereas only power strikes are counted from the Clinch or on the Ground.
The graph also shows that despite the rise in activity, the gap between Strike Attempts and Strikes Landed appears to be increasing. That means Significant Strike success rates are on the decline, from roughly 55% at the time of the UFC’s purchase by Zuffa, to just 44% today. Are fighters getting less skilled, or just better at defense? Again, other factors could be influencing this, not just the skill of the fighters.
There’s an important driver of both of these trends, which is equally interesting to understand about modern MMA.
It’s Because Fights Are Staying Standing More
If you turn on any UFC fight at a random point in the round, chances are good that the fighters will be on their feet. And that’s a significant change from the early years of the sport, which saw the majority of the action on the ground.
Looking at the time fights are spent in each position, and how that’s changed year over year, the trend is glaringly obvious: fighters (and fights) are spending much more time standing than they used to. The pattern has been fairly consistent since the year 2000, as far back as FightMetric has collected that data. MMA was once defined by the ground game, making it more readily distinguishable from the more popular combat sport of boxing. But nearly two decades later, less than a quarter of all fighting is done on the ground. It’s increasingly a striking-centric game.
Many casual spectators, or just the more impatient fans, have considered the ground game to be the more “boring” aspect of the sport. I’ll leave it to the experts to defend the compelling intricacies of grappling, and simply reduce the obvious question: either fighters are choosing to stay standing more often, or skill changes have forced fighters to remain on the feet more often. Certainly, achieving ground control is highly advantageous for a fighter, and therefore one would assume that fighters are still trying. But perhaps defensive skills have improved so much that it’s just rarer to succeed in a wrestling-dependent strategy.
Now let’s look at strike activity isolated by the Position of fighters.
Here we can still see the obvious trends of increasing action over time. It’s less pronounced in the Clinch and on the Ground, where striking is less important than body control. But in standup, we can see a sizable acceleration of activity over the last decade, which is on pace to be the highest ever in 2017 after a multi-year plateau.
Without dissecting it too delicately, we’ll simply point out that takedown attempts have declined through time in terms of frequency, as well as success rate. It could be that fighters are attempting fewer takedowns because opponents have gotten better at defending. Or perhaps fewer fighters with wrestling or grappling backgrounds are populating the UFC, either due to competitive factors or simply promotional selection. Either way, the two trends are changing the way MMA is fought.
A compounding factor for increasingly busy standup could also be improved fitness of increasingly full-time professional fighters, or conceivably less late-round fatigue associated with spending more time wrestling. An additional underlying factor is the slimming down of the UFC over time, as the average weight of fighters has moved steadily downward with the addition of smaller weight classes.
This analysis also reveals why the Significant Strike increase was so pronounced. Increasing fighter activity, either through strategy, improved fitness, or just promotion, referee or fan encouragement, is combined with fights staying standing more often. The result is more activity, and more fight time spent in the position of highest activity.
The time spent in each position is also the key to the decline in Significant Strike success. Strike success rate at a distance is inherently lower than up close in the clinch or on the ground. So the increasing time spent fighting at a distance is also responsible for a decrease in overall strike accuracy, not necessarily a decline in strike accuracy by position.
Between more strikes being thrown and more strikes being landed, one could argue that fights have never been as action-packed as they are now. And if the sport aims to attract new audiences with more recognizable standup fighting, it appears the UFC has poised its product for success.