Posted 12/10/2013 by Mike Fagan in Untethered MMA

UFC on Fox 9 Preview

The casual MMA fan must view the flyweight division as a curious thing. For previous Demetrious Johnson headliners, Fox promoted his defenses as “World Title Fights” (or some similar phrase) during NFL games, carefully avoiding any use of the word “flyweight.” The logic goes something like this: John T. Sportsfan hates “midgets” and loves title fights. Ultimately, the generic phrasing amounts to a bait-and-switch, which has diminishing returns. Fox has been more forthcoming during reads for this event.

While Fox buried flyweights by name, the UFC’s buried them as a whole. Johnson last fought in July, successfully defending against John Moraga. In the 14 events since, the UFC has put on ten flyweight fights. Of those ten, two appeared on pay-per-view, two on Fox Sports 1/FX main cards, one Fox Sports 2 main card, two Fox Sports 1 prelims, one Fox Sports 2 prelim, and 2 online prelims. Your super casual fan, one who watches every UFC event but doesn’t seek out the prelims (does such a fan exist?), has seen five flyweight fights over the last five-plus months. Your typical casual fan has likely seen half that.

It’s not just division fodder being buried. Current number-seven flyweight Chris Cariaso fought on the prelims of a Fox Sports 1 card in Brazil. Tim Elliot and Louis Gaudinot, numbers eight and ten, respectively, fought each other on UFC 164′s FS1 prelims. Number-three ranked Ian McCall opened the then-FX prelims of UFC 163.

Growing a division of men who haven’t is difficult. The UFC’s flyweight experiment is nascent; March marks its second anniversary. However, the current strategy seems designed for failure. You can’t expect Johnson, Joseph Benavidez, and others to catch on when their division-mates battle for relevancy on less-than-optimally-accessible programming. It becomes a novelty act, and novelty acts get old.

-Johnson took a split decision over Benavidez to win the inaugural flyweight title back in September of 2012. A split decision usually indicates a close affair, but the stats tell another story. Johnson outlanded Benavidez in every round (both in Significant and Total Strikes), and only rounds two and three were close.

Benavidez’s volume probably swayed the judges in those rounds, and Bertrand Russell in particular, who scored the fight 48-47 for Benavidez. He attempted 259 strikes, which was nearly 50% more than Johnson’s 177. Johnson, however, landed 80% more of his strikes, leading to a 96-53 disparity.

-The biggest difference between the two fights, and one you’ll hear ad nauseam between now and Saturday, is Team Alpha Male’s addition of Duane “Bang” Ludwig. Reed Kuhn, the man behind Fightnomics,* analyzed the “Bang effect” over at Cage Potato. Team Alpha Male numbers are up across the board: accuracy, volume, knockdown rate, finish rate, win rate. Takedown attempts are down, though takedown success is up. Ludwig’s seemingly made all the difference.

There’s some reason for doubt, though. MMA stats always suffer with two issues: sample size and opponent adjustment. The first is unavoidable. The most active fighters might enter the Octagon five or six times a year, and that’s on the very high end. Kuhn used the UFC fights of Urijah Faber, Benavidez, Chad Mendes, Danny Castillo, and TJ Dillashaw, which amounts to sample of 35. A sample of 35 which is then split into pre- and post-Ludwig. A major-league hitter ends up with 35 at-bats in nine games or so.

The next big step in MMA statistics is opponent-adjusted stats. Those familiar with Football Outsiders know about DVOA – Defense-adjusted Value Over Average. The basic idea behind DVOA is simple: stats accumulated against some defenses are more impressive than others. For instance, 300 yards of total offense against the 2012 New Orleans Saints (allowed 440 yards/game) is bad, while 300 yards of total offense against the 1985 Chicago Bears (allowed 258 yards/game) is impressive.

MMA is similar. Taking down Paul Daley three times over fifteen minutes might be expected. Taking down Georges St-Pierre three times over fifteen minutes is miraculous. Striking accuracy and takedown rates are a good start, but, until someone adjusts them for opposition, they’re limited.

We must keep these things in mind when we discuss Duane Ludwig’s effect on Team Alpha Male. It’s likely he’s been a net positive, but how much of the improvement (especially with regards to a binary stat like wins and losses) can we attribute to him and how much can we attribute to luck and fortunate matchmaking?

* – Kuhn has a new book available on Amazon. It’s currently only available as a Kindle book, though the paperback should be released within the next couple weeks.

-It’s hard to feel bad for Urijah Faber. He’s not only had a great career, but Zuffa’s angled him for title fights whenever possible (of ten fights between November 2008 and July 2012, five were title fights; he lost all five), he’s built a successful fight team empire, and he’s become the lighter weights’ biggest crossover star.

Yet, imagine if the UFC’s assimilation of the WEC came four years earlier. Instead of headlining WEC shows on Versus, he could have fought on UFC PPVs. His featherweight title defense against Chance Farrar, for instance, could have been the co-main slot underneath “Rampage” Jackson and Chuck Liddell. His rematch against Mike Brown could have been a third title fight at UFC 100. Perhaps the world wasn’t ready for 135 and 145ers back in 2007, but given his look, his success, and his exciting style and the combined push of UFC exposure and marketing, it’s easy to imagine Urijah Faber taking off.

-Carlos Condit was scheduled to fight Matt Brown on this card. Brown pulled out last week, citing herniated discs in his back. This is significant for two reasons. One, Carlos Condit is not fighting, which is a bummer for everyone. Two, Carlos Condit should not have been fighting Matt Brown.

Yes, Brown’s put together a surprising six-fight winning streak. Yes, that winning streaks has a bunch of half-brains ranking him as the ninth-best welterweight challenger. His wins on that streak: Chris Cope, Stephen Thompson, Luis Ramos, Mike Swick, Jordan Mein, and Mike Pyle. The Bloody Elbow meta-rankings has his best win – Pyle – ranked 16th. None of the other guys are ranked. He’s still the same Matt Brown, a journeyman action fighter able to beat guys who play into his game.

Carlos Condit should have welcomed Ben Askren into the UFC. Askren, ranked eighth in Bloody Elbow’s meta-rankings, last fought for Bellator on July 31st. Bellator released Askren of any contractual obligations in early November. The UFC dragged their feet, Dana White wondering aloud if Askren didn’t need to pick up some more wins outside the UFC. Ultimately, they passed, and Askren signed with Asia’s ONE FC.

It’s inexcusable for the UFC – who pride themselves on the best fighting the best – to voluntarily pass on someone of Askren’s talent. The idea that Askren needs to beat anybody else to earn a UFC shot is laughable (and a Catch-22 given the UFC’s monopoly of talent) when welterweights with names like “Sean Spencer” and “Drew Dober” are taking up space on cards. Askren told Ariel Helwani that his current predicament has nothing to do with his merits and everything to do with the public and private dick-waving between the UFC and Bellator. It’s a failure of the one-promotion model, and one that might never be rectified given Askren’s 2-year, 6-fight deal with ONE FC.




Mike Fagan