A lot happened in mixed martial arts during 2015, and fans are still elated by how the end of the year played out.
The 473 fights that took place in the UFC Octagon at 41 events through the year went down in pretty much every conceivable fashion, resulting in new champions across most divisions. But if these fights seem like a blur, just consider that 2015 saw fewer UFC bouts than the prior year for the first time since Zuffa reorganized for a growth surge in 2003-04. So the decade of constant growth in action has finally come to a steady state, and yet that doesn’t mean we aren’t still seeing plenty of head-turning spectacles in the sport.
While the total number of fights in 2015 was down slightly from the 503 total fights in 2014, the emergence of superstars like Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor still elevated the public awareness of the sport both in and out of the cage, and also attracted maximum eyeballs to some jaw-dropping fight finishes. So let’s take a quick look back at how all these fights transpired, in one graph.
The mosaic (or mekko) plot below shows how fights ended in terms of method, but also what division they took place in. Both the vertical and horizontal axes are proportional, so the widest tiles identify weight classes that had more fights, and the tallest tiles represent a larger share of fights ended by a method within a single division.
Out of 244 fights that didn’t make it to the final bell, 154 of those were due to KO, TKO or doctor stoppage due to legally inflicted damage. That T/KO/Stoppage rate accounted for 33 percent of 2015 fights, up slightly from 30 percent in 2014.
An additional 90 times a fighter was forced to submit due to a choke or lock, or required a referee to intervene when they were no longer able to do to so. The “tap, snap or nap” scenario played out in 19 percent of all UFC fights last year, exactly in line with 2014.
That all means the overall finish rate of 52 percent is actually up slightly from the 50 percent in 2014, despite a continued trend of more fights taking place in the smaller weight classes. Several factors feed finish rates in addition to simply fighter size, but the UFC has seen a general stabilization of the average finish rate around the half-and-half threshold. That small two-percent bump means eight additional potential highlight reel finishes by strikes or submission over the course of the year – always appreciated by the UFC promo editors.
The most obvious trend in MMA is that bigger fighters finish more frequently by knockout. Fighters at middleweight and above finished more than 40 percent of their fights by strikes, while no division below featherweight finished more than 30 percent.
However, the trade off is an inverse correlation between submissions and weight class. The bottom five divisions saw 22 percent of fights ending by submission, while the larger five divisions subbed only 17 percent.
The net-net is that the overall finish rate for the full spectrum of divisions isn’t as extreme as many worried about when the UFC introduced the newer smaller weight classes from 145 pounds all the way down to 115 pounds. The total finish rate for the bottom half of all divisions is 48 percent, while the upper half is 54 percent. So the action-oriented fight fans shouldn’t be ignoring smaller fighters, many of whom had breakout years for the UFC.
The “center of mass” of the UFC remains squarely in the lightweight division at 155 pounds. The division that didn’t even exist for a time held 100 bouts in 2015, accounting for one-fifth of all fights, and more than any other weight class. And 58 percent of fights in the UFC now occur at 155 pounds or less, meaning the larger legacy divisions of yesteryear are now in the minority.
Women’s divisions also didn’t exist until 2013, but women’s bantamweight and straw weight fights accounted for 9 percent of the 2015 total, and also provided some of the most memorable moments. In fact, the newest division of straw weights accounted for 5.1 percent of the annual total, while the female bantamweights fought in just 4.1 percent of fights, meaning the newest division is not even the smallest in terms of competition. The women’s divisions have certainly gained acceptance in the sport, and will continue to grow and evolve rapidly thanks their new superstars.
Out of 20 title fights in 2015, just five of them went to a decision, for a whopping 75 percent finish rate. Despite the elite level of competition in championship bouts, offensive weaponry outweighed defense in 2015.
What’s far more noteworthy was the volatility of holding a UFC title in 2015. Out of 10 UFC divisions, seven saw a new champion crowned, leaving just Demetrious Johnson, TJ Dillashaw and Robbie Lawler as the only fighters to carry their belts from 2014 into 2016. Lawler has already survived his first test of 2016 in a squeaker versus Carlos Condit to kick off the year for the UFC title picture. Meanwhile, Dillashaw is set to take on former bantamweight champ Dominic Cruz in a highly anticipated (and even) matchup later in January, and the longest active reigning champion Johnson is expected to face Olympic champion Henry Cejudo in his next title defense this spring.
Among these title fights we saw some of the biggest championship upsets of all time, as well as the two fastest title fight victories in UFC history. So if the UFC title picture in 2015 taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected, and perhaps not to blink.
In all, 221 fights last year went to the cards for the judges’ decision. But those judges disagreed on the winner on 55 occasions, or 25 percent of the time. That split/majority decision rate is consistent with historical trends, but was much higher in the second half of the year compared to the first.
Among the divisions, the featherweights saw by far the most judge disagreement for their fights, with 42 percent of the decisions at 145 pounds being split or majority. That contrasts with the divisions on the extremes of the men’s weight classes, where the flyweights saw just 17 percent of decisions with disagreement, and the heavyweights who saw all 10 decisions as unanimous, with not a single split or majority.
Dissension among judges continues to be a head-scratcher for fans, fighters and promoters alike, as judges trained to evaluate MMA fights disagree on the winner of at least one round of a decision in the majority of all fights going to the cards. If a fighter wants to control his destiny, he has to listen to Uncle Dana and “never leave it in the hands of the judges.”
Reed Kuhn is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, and strategy and analytics consultant. He is the author of “Fightnomics: The Hidden Numbers and Science in Mixed Martial Arts,” the first book to quantify drivers and performance metrics in combat sports.