Sometime in 2005, Rami Genauer was flipping channels when he happened upon an Ultimate Fighting Championship match. It was a dizzying mix of boxing, wrestling, Thai kickboxing and Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
But there was something decidely missing.
“The lack of numbers was glaringly obvious,” Genauer said. “In football, you can’t go two minutes without seeing a number on the screen. In baseball, they’ll flash a statistic every time a batter comes up to bat. But in mixed martial arts, if a guy got knocked out at 3 minutes, 20 seconds of round 2, that was as far as the numbers went.”
Numbers had never been Genauer’s passion. He was once a journalist who wrote about politics, and then a consultant. But as a lifelong baseball fan, Genauer, who’s 30, appreciated statistics.
“It started as a thought experiment, more than anything,” Genauer said. “I was just trying to see if quantifying such a thing was possible.”
By 2007, after dissecting hundreds of matches, Genauer was ready. He founded FightMetric that August, while he was working full time as a consultant at the Corporate Executive Board in Rosslyn.
Gradually, FightMetric, based in Northwest Washington, assembled a historical record of every fight in the UFC’s 18-year history.
The UFC began using FightMetric as its official statistics keeper in 2008. Since then, other big names like ESPN, Yahoo! Sports and Rogers Communications in Canada have signed on.
“Everyone had been relying on big, qualitative platitudes like ‘it was great’ or ‘there were a lot,’ but there was no way to define how many or how much,” said Genauer. “There was plenty of room to come in and start inserting numbers.”
The UFC began in 1993 as a way to pit kickboxers against karate experts and wrestlers against boxers. Since then, mixed martial arts has evolved into a hybrid sport of its own. Most fighters now cross-train in a variety of martial arts disciplines.
FightMetric’s 15 scorekeepers, all contractors, keep track of every move using video game pads Genauer buys on eBay — how many strikes were there? did they land? which part of the opponent’s body was hit?
“It’s like playing a video game in reverse,” Genauer said. “Instead of pressing a button to make something happen, we watch the screen and press a button when something happens.”
Six scorekeepers are assigned to every match. They watch scenes in slow motion as many times as necessary to make sure they’ve accurately pinpoint every strike attempt and its outcome. Every five minutes of a match takes about six minutes for FightMetric to score.
Genauer took a buyout from the Corporate Executive Board in late 2009 to work on FightMetric full time. The company now has two full-time employees and is in the process of hiring two more.
The company has always been profitable, Genauer said, and revenue has doubled every year since Fight Metric was founded four years ago. By the end of 2012, he’s expecting more than $1 million in revenue.
“We haven’t saturated the market, we haven’t exhausted all of our potential clients, the sport hasn’t plateaued,” Genauer said, adding that Fox began airing select UFC matches earlier this month. “It’s a burgeoning industry and a nascent sport.”
Last month, FightMetric released a beta version of a mixed martial arts fantasy game that’s been in the works for two years.
“Identifying fantasy as an application for statistics was easy,” Genauer said. But figuring out how to translate the company’s raw data into a meaningful game was a challenge — particularly in a sport where speed matters more than volume.
“If you land one punch that knocks the guy out — presumably you’ve done your job better than anyone else did,” Genauer said. “So how do you compare that against the guy who took 25 minutes, landed 100 punches and did not knock out his opponent? Who did better: 100 or 1? Well, it depends on how you look at it.”
In the end, Genauer developed a system for determining how each fighter fared per minute of play. His job at FightMetric, he says, is to study granular bits of mixed martial arts to tell the sport’s larger story.
“When you have two guys who everyone knows is really good, you don’t need the numbers to tell you if they’re good,” Genauer said. “You need the numbers to tell you: Are they good, or are they historically good? Are they the best there ever was?”