Posted 12/22/2013 by Mike Fagan in Untethered MMA

Reviewing Fightnomics

We often credit Moneyball for ushering sabermetrics and analytics into mainstream baseball thought. And, well, that’s true. Michael Lewis synthesized baseball’s market inefficiencies with a compelling story about the millennial Oakland A’s and general manager Billy Beane. The result: a best-selling book, an Academy Award-nominated film starring Brad Pitt, and the insane contrarian ramblings of Joe Morgan. A success.

But Moneyball was just the visible tip of the iceberg. Bill James, the godfather of sabermetrics, had been writing about baseball since 1977. Pete Palmer wrote The Hidden Game of Baseball in 1984. Gary Huckabay founded Baseball Prospectus in 1996. Rob Neyer, the Plato to James’s Socrates, started at ESPN that same year. These men, and others, had built the foundation of baseball analytics for over two decades before Lewis shined a big, bright light on their work in 2003.

Reed Kuhn’s new book, Fightnomics: The Hidden Numbers in Mixed Martial Arts and Why There’s No Such Thing as a Fair Fight, is more Jamesian foundation than Lewisian illumination. Kuhn presents a lot of data. (He notes toward the end of the book that there are over 100 graphs.) Some of it is intuitive. Some of it is surprising. Some of it is new. Some of it has been collected from Kuhn’s Fightnomics blog. It’s information worth seeking out for any fan who appreciates MMA past the primal punch-kick-choke violence. Unfortunately, it takes some trying to parse through it all.

Right from the start, Fightnomics has itself a bit of an identity crisis. Kuhn understands that the math side of things needs, for lack of a better term, dumbing down for the MMA audience. That’s great, especially for a fanbase who is likely unfamiliar with the analytics movements currently operating in baseball, basketball, etc. The book, however, doesn’t know if it’s targeting hardcore fans or quote-unquote TUF noobs. For instance, Kuhn makes passing reference in the first chapter to Testosterone Replacement Therapy, common lexicon for the types of people reading this article and a non-starter for your casual fan. Later on in the chapter, however, there are full descriptions of each ground position, which seem necessary only for fight virgins. This Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde game plays throughout. The book would have been made stronger if written specifically for fight fans, and Kuhn could have used annotations if he wanted to make concessions for stat geeks less familiar with MMA.

The writing also felt uneven. Stat/data explanation is often not the most exciting material to read, and the writer who can mix science and wit is a rare breed. Most of Fightnomics is on the drier side, and that’s fine, but every so often there’s a strange attempt at humor with lazy punchlines and pop culture references. It feels…off. The book was written “with” Kelly Crigger, and I wonder if this attempt at “spicing” up the book is his contribution. Because, for instance, the trying punchline style is absent in Kuhn’s latest blog post. If that’s the case, it’s unfortunate, because Reed’s a fine writer – especially in this capacity – on his own. The humor interjections jumble his voice and distract from the content.

Because there’s some great stuff. Kuhn’s written about reach and age advantages on his blog, but it’s still fresh. He quantifies the advantage gained by being southpaw (or, rather, the disadvantage of fighting southpaws). We see further evidence of declining finishing rates in later rounds, and the suggestion that fighters at a reach disadvantage should work to fight on the floor. Fights are lasting longer, and they’re staying standing longer. Kuhn even presents the best argument I’ve read regarding market saturation and fan fatigue. (In short, it’s not a problem of too many fights as much as the constant need to hype said fights.) There’s a lot to learn in here.

It’s just the start. Hopefully, anyway. The rate stats (striking accuracy, knockdown rate, takedown rate, etc.) lack a frame of reference. For instance, in baseball, we know, generally, that .300 is a pretty good batting average, .350 is a pretty good on-base percentage, etc. What’s the average striking accuracy for UFC lightweights? I don’t know. Most people don’t know. I’m not sure people are going to want to remember the average rates for nine or ten weight classes. That’s tough. One solution is to offer a normalized stat like OPS+ in baseball. OPS+ takes a player’s OPS (on-base plus slugging percentages) and puts it on a scale where 100 is average. An OPS+ of 120 is twenty percent better than average. An OPS+ of 80 is twenty percent worse than average. It’s simple, it’s intuitive, and it would solve the problem of having to keep track of ten different variations of each stat.

The biggest step, though, is opponent-adjusted stats. Sports like baseball, basketball, and hockey play enough games that the variations caused by imbalanced schedules largely smooth out. Sports like football or boxing or MMA, however, have limited schedules that don’t allow teams or fighters to compete against a wide sample of opposition. This skews data. For instance, let’s say Welterweight X has a 50% takedown defense rate in five UFC fights. According to Kuhn, the UFC average is 60%. So our man is 16% worse than your average UFC fighter. But what if I told you that Mr. X’s five opponents were Georges St-Pierre, Josh Koscheck, Johny Hendricks, Jon Fitch, and Demian Maia? Now that 50% rate looks more impressive. MMA needs its own DVOA.

If you’ve gotten this far, you’re the type of person who should pick up the book. The book has its issues (I should also mention that the version I read had a handful of editing mistakes), but the information is the first layer of MMA analytics foundation. On a final note, if you plan on downloading the Kindle version, I recommend doing so only if you plan to read on a tablet as the graphs don’t translate well to the Kindle’s e-ink screen.

Mike Fagan is a weekly contributor to MMA Owl. He also hosts Untethered MMA every Thursday at 7 p.m. ET. Follow him on Twitter.  



Mike Fagan