FightMetric: Where MMA Meets Statistics
The sport of mixed martial arts (MMA) has exploded in popularity, and while it is still in its infancy, this has not stopped a multitude of fans from developing rabid interest in specific fighters and fighters’ records. Many an Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) viewing is accompanied by heated debates about who will prevail and why. Historically, however, there was no real way to “win” such arguments, because there were no data to back up a fan’s big talk about how many times this fighter had effectively landed a spinning back fist or how many fights that one had finished with leglocks.
Enter Rami Genauer, a political writer for The Hill in Washington, DC, who discovered a love of mixed martial arts purely serendipitously, stumbling upon the first episode of the first season of The Ultimate Fighter while channel surfing. His initial interest in MMA prompted him to find as much information as he could about the fights and the fighters, both as a fan and eventually as a writer for MMA publications. When he discovered there wasn’t much hard statistical data about fighters and fights that he could use to supplement his writing, he took matters into his own hands. According to a recent Popular Science story, Genauer spent hours poring over video of the matches from a UFC event, laboriously recording metrics like number of attempted strikes and strike type, as well as finishing moves.
Thus was created a data set that would eventually give rise to FightMetric, a DC-based “comprehensive mixed martial arts statistics and analysis system that is the official provider to the UFC of fight statistics, and that now provides fight data for multiple uses including academic research, fantasy games, and enhancement of fight coverage.1 This, too, was a matter of serendipity. Genauer had developed his data set for his own personal use, not anticipating it would pique the interest of as wide an audience for as many uses as it has.
Genauer was inspired in his actions and philosophy by author Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, which tells the story of how the general manager of the Oakland Athletics applied statistical analysis to the team’s selection of baseball players. Notably, it also describes how some of the old guard in the baseball world were adamantly opposed to this, as they were more comfortable with the tradition of emphasizing intuition in player selection and placement. Genauer has found some similar resistance in the MMA world, noting that there will always be people who don’t enjoy looking at data or looking at sports through the lens of numbers. Those types of fans, according to Genauer, are “more visceral and want to enjoy fighting in that way.”
But the trend is in favor of the use of data and in a recent conversation with Genauer, he shared his observations with me. “Ultimately people use the numbers because they provide value,” he said. As such FightMetric is committed to shifting the analysis of fights and fighters toward being “rooted in data and demonstrated effectiveness rather than in gut feelings and bandwagon jumping."2 He has found even the most reluctant can be swayed if you show them “something awesome.” Sometimes the data can provide a little extra ammunition for those heated arguments about who is the all-time best.
Genauer cited as an example the already-legendary fighter Georges St. Pierre, lauded for, among other things, the perception that his wrestling prowess is unparalleled. A few years ago, there were no data to back up this perception, but now the evidence bears it out, showing statistically that GSP indeed has higher takedown accuracy than any MMA fighter in history. This provides fans with additional context for things they already sensed they knew.
Regardless of one’s orientation to the use of statistical data in the fight world, the people at FightMetric are exactly the kind MMA fans would want stewarding these data: they, too, are avid MMA fans. Data collection people watch and score the fights, researchers perform analysis on the resulting data, and the technical staff builds platforms and fantasy games.
Genauer noted that scorers come from all walks of life, with varying ages and educational backgrounds. Some of them train and some of them just watch, but they are all fanatics; they are “native speakers” of MMA, not merely possessed of some fluency. So the intensive four to six month process of learning to score fights ends up being a natural extension of their understanding of and appreciation for the sport.
Scoring fights does seem to have a bit of an effect on the scorers’ experiences of watching MMA. Genauer shared with me that he himself started rooting for fights to be over quickly, because every minute that goes by makes more work. “Short fights, short fights” is a FightMetric mantra. In addition, after enough experience scoring, scorers can seem almost prophetic. They must watch fights differently from the way spectators do. They must not only focus on but also anticipate fine details related to the movements of the fighter’s body, Genauer noted. So after a while, if while watching a fight people ask if scorers have seen it before, the answer is that they have, in a way, because the fights contain patterns that are at least partially predictable.
According to Genauer there is enough data on the FightMetric site to keep the interested party occupied for hours and that the work speaks for itself. And not just that, but people are doing interesting things with the data. Far more is coming down the pike, and these data and this orientation are poised to increase the interactivity of the experience of watching MMA. Along those lines, FightMetric has recently launched its mobile site. In the works for several months, the mobile site enables users to look at information on the go. Given how much time people spend on their phones, it was the logical next step.
So if you want to know the hard data about your favorite fighter or just want to wow your friends with some illustrative statistics, check out FightMetric. Chances are you’ll discover data that bears out some of your own perceptions, but you’ll likely find some surprises as well.
Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.