Ultimate Fighting vs. Math: 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.
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.
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.