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12/26/2015 CageMatch|PopularScience How science is transforming the sport of MMA ghting BY MATTHEW SHAER Posted

How science is transforming the sport of MMA ghting


Posted AUGUST 28, 2012

Greg Jackson, the single most successful trainer in the multi-billion- dollar sport of professional mixed martial arts ghting, works out of a musty old gym in Albuquerque, New Mexico, not far from the base of the Sandia Mountains. On a recent morning, the 38-year-old Jackson, who has the cauli owered ears and bulbous nose of a career ghter, watched two of his students square off inside the chain-link walls of a blood-splattered ring called the Octagon.

One of them was Jon Jones, the light heavyweight champion of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the premier MMA league. In four weeks, Jones would be defending his title against Rashad Evans, an expert ghter and his former training partner. To prepare him, Jackson had set up a sparring session with Shawn "The Savage" Jordan, a heavyset ghter from Baton Rouge.

Jones and Jordan met in the middle of the ring. Jordan threw rst. Jones backpedaled and protected his face with his forearms.

"Look for that space, Jones!" Jackson hollered. "You. Do. Not let him close those angles on you." Jordan threw a urry of blows. To me,



the exchange appeared disorganized, nonsensical—a blur of esh, sinew and the red ash of Jordan's mouth guard.

To Jackson, it was a logical sequence, one with only one possible effective response. "Jones," he said, "move inside." The ghter seemed to hesitate. If he moved within range of Jordan's sts, he risked catching a glove square in the face.

"Go on," Jackson said.

Jones ducked under one st and whipped his right leg out in a short arc. The kick missed. Jordan threw again. This time Jones dropped down, icked his head to the side, and, leaping off one foot, launched a ying jab followed by a knee to Jordan's midsection,

which landed with a wet onto the mat.

. Jordan groaned and crumpled

"Goddamn, Jones!" Jackson yelled. "Exactly correct."

Producing a notepad from his back pocket, Jackson sketched a spiderweb of circles and lines. It was a game tree, he explained—a graph game theorists use to analyze a sequence of decisions. In a traditional game tree, each circle, or node, represents the point at which a decision can be made. Each line, or edge, represents the decision itself. Game trees eventually end in a terminal node—either a tie or a win for one of the players. This game tree, Jackson told me, showed the exchange between Jones and Jordan from Jones's perspective.

At the start, the two men stood a few feet apart. Jackson drew a circle. The node had three edges, or moves that Jackson was training Jones to use. He could execute a leg kick, or a punch, or he could shoot for a takedown (attempt to grab Jordan by the backs of his legs and drive him into the ground). But the initial node was not



"optimal," he said, because it allowed Jordan to swing freely with both sts. Although it seemed counterintuitive, the fast track to what Jackson calls the "damage" node (in this case, Jones's advantageous position following his hard knee) was to move in close, where Jordan would not be able to fully wind up. Another circle, representing Jones's inside position, and a series of edges, representing his potential decisions from there, appeared on the notepad.

"From inside," Jackson said, "he can do a knee, he can do an uppercut, he can do elbows. He could have done anything there, and done it effectively."

Since 1992, when he opened his rst gym, Jackson has been using math to inform his training techniques. Unlike other MMA coaches, he continually collects data while watching live bouts, logs old ght videos to determine which moves work and when, and lls notebooks with game trees to determine the optimal nodes for various situations in a match. "I've always seen the ring like a lab," he says. "I've tried to think rigorously, logically."

"I've always seen the ring like a lab," Jackson says. "I try to think logically."Jackson's attempts to impose some measure of order on the primal, violent world of MMA mirror a larger movement within the sport. Science may not be civilizing cage ghting, but it is re ning it. Specialty rms compile detailed statistics on matches. MMA pros appear on ESPN rigged head to toe with sensors and monitors that measure their striking power and speed. Academics are writing peer-reviewed articles on subjects such as the physiology of top ghters and the role that fear plays in the Octagon. And now ghters, most of them trained by Jackson, are beginning to use this data and analysis to become ever more



brutally effective in the ring.

The very rst UFC event took place before a crowd of about 7,800 in a Denver auditorium in 1993. It was an odd spectacle. Karate masters clashed with boxers. Kickboxers dueled with sumo wrestlers. There were few real rules.

Over the next decade, in an effort to placate critics and state athletic commissions, the UFC introduced a comprehensive set of regulations that outlawed especially dangerous moves such as low blows and hair pulling. The campaign was largely successful, and by the mid-2000s, dozens of states had agreed to sanction MMA events.

TV networks, meanwhile, noticed the UFC's large following and

began to broadcast highlights from the big bouts. A popular reality

show called

. Ticket prices kept increasing. So did the size of the sport's fan base.

artist appeared for the rst time on the cover of

debuted, and a mixed martial

Among the many die-hard UFC fans was Rami Genauer, a journalist

based in Washington, D.C. Genauer had read

Lewis's best seller about Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane and his statistics-driven approach to player evaluation. He dreamed of analyzing mixed martial arts in the same way.

, Michael

"There were no numbers," Genauer says. "You'd try to write something, and you'd come to the place where you'd put in the numbers to back up your assertions, and there was absolutely nothing."

In 2007 Genauer obtained a video of a recent UFC event, and using the slow-motion function on his TiVo, he broke each ght down by the number of strikes attempted, the volume of strikes landed, the



type of strike (power leg versus leg jab, for instance) and the nishing move (rear naked choke versus guillotine, and so on). The process took hours, but the end result was something completely new to the sport: a comprehensive data set.

Genauer titled his data-collection project FightMetric and created a website to house the information. Some UFC fans registered their disapproval on Web forums. "'We don't need math with our ghting,' people would say. I disagreed," Genauer says.

In 2008 he managed to persuade the UFC to use FightMetric data from past matches to support a televised event in Minneapolis. "The idea was that this would be good for the producers, who could use the numbers to illustrate the story," he says. "It'd also be good for the broadcaster—they'd have ammunition, something to rely on just like they do in other sports."

Of cials liked having Genauer's ght data, and when the UFC began spif ng up its broadcasts with more graphics and statistics—part of an effort to make MMA seem like a real sport instead of a series of cage brawls—it hired FightMetric as its statistics provider. Genauer quit his job and opened an of ce in D.C.

Today FightMetric has ve full-time staffers and a rotating cast of 15 specialists who collect a large data set for each ght using a video feed, proprietary software and a video-game controller with which they can record every type of strike. Among the statistics they track: each ghter's number and type of strikes, number of signi cant strikes (de ned as all strikes landed from a distance, as well as power strikes landed from close range) and the accuracy and location of kicks and punches.

The FightMetric team collects the strike and location statistics in



real time. The UFC uses some of the data for graphics during broadcasts and on its website. FightMetric goes into even greater detail on its own website, presenting statistics over outlines of a human body. Colored lines indicate the accuracy of each type of strike, and boxes show which ground move, whether arm bar, kimura lock or triangle choke, each ghter used to try to induce a submission. The analysis is strangely disconnected from the violence of the Octagon—a savage ght broken down into simple, neat gures.

As the available body of data from FightMetric (and its main competitor, CompuStrike) grows, Genauer and others are attempting to analyze it in new ways. Already Genauer and his colleagues have identi ed some clear trends in MMA matches. For instance, the number of ghts that end in decisions, especially at the lower weight classes, has risen from a third in 2007 to half today. That's a signi cant change from the wilder early days of the UFC, when ghters swung crazily and the vast majority of bouts ended in knockouts. It points to increasing skill levels among UFC ghters (knockouts usually happen when one ghter is obviously superior to the other), a factor that could affect ghters' styles and training methods. A lighter-weight ghter, expecting now to go the distance in his next ght, might accordingly develop his aerobic threshold (so he can wear out bigger opponents) rather than his ability to throw rst-round knockout blows.

Earlier this year, John Ruggiero and Trevor Collier, economists at the University of Dayton, and Andrew L. Johnson, an engineering professor at Texas A&M, released a study called "Aggression in Mixed Martial Arts: An Analysis of the Likelihood of Winning a Decision." With data from FightMetric, the researchers estimated the probability of winning based on ghter characteristics like



height and age. From a sample of 946 matches, they measured dozens of variables, including blows attempted versus blows landed, stand-ups, knockdowns and slams. Next they ran that data through a binary response model (a kind of algorithm) to determine which characteristics or approaches most affected a ghter's chances.

Some of the study's conclusions were surprising. For example, in ghts that end in decisions, the number of strikes thrown appears to be more important than the number of strikes landed. This may have something to do with the vantage point of the judges, who can't always see the ghters clearly, and so occasionally in error mark a thrown strike as a landed one. Or it may be that a high number of thrown punches simply contributes to the appearance of dominance. Either way, the study is something a ghter can use: The more punches you throw, the more ghts you'll win.

Researchers studied matches to determine which variables most affected a ghter's chances of winning.Genauer says he is constantly working to improve both the hardware and software

used to collect ght data. As collection methods improve, the data will become richer, analysis will become more granular and the results more useful. That's been the case in other sports such as baseball, which have changed as statistical analysis of in-game

strategies has become more sophisticated (as

highlighted). Stats have suggested, for example, that sacri ce bunting is not as useful as previously thought, leading many teams to attempt it less frequently. In MMA, trainers might nd demonstrable proof that certain moves, like sidekicks or ying punches, are less effective than others, like knees or arm triangles. They might see the consistent success of a shoulder lock or the repeated triumph of the arm bar. They might rely on that data to




engineer a better approach to MMA ghting—one, as FightMetric's website advertises, "rooted in data and demonstrated effectiveness rather than in gut feelings and bandwagon jumping."

"Data and demonstrated effectiveness" is something that Greg Jackson has stressed for years. Unlike other MMA coaches, Jackson holds no belt in any martial art and has no allegiance to any guru. In fact, he had hardly any formal training at all. He opened his rst gym at the age of 17. In the absence of a particular ghting style, he experimented with practically all of them: aikido, karate, Jiu-Jitsu, Muay Thai, kickboxing, straight-up boxing. "All I was doing was looking for empirical evidence," he says. "I'd form a hypothesis and I'd try it out in a ght. If it didn't work I'd get rid of it, and if it did I kept it. It was science at its purest. It was driven by need."

Jackson would have two evenly matched ghters spar 10, 15, even 20 times in a row. Waiting nearby, notepad in hand, he would assiduously track which moves worked in the greatest number of situations. Unlike most trainers, he held no sentimental attachment to any speci c moves. If he found that a ying sidekick didn't consistently do enough damage, he'd stop teaching it.

By the early '90s Jackson had incorporated his results into his own homegrown martial art, which he dubbed Gaidojutsu—"way of the street," roughly, in Japanese. Gaidojutsu combined rudimentary striking with grappling and wrestling. At the time, it was rare to blend ghting styles—most ghters trained in a single discipline. But Jackson's students relished the chance to play mix-and-match, and his stable of trainees grew. A few of them persuaded him to let them compete in bare-knuckle tournaments, where they dominated their undisciplined opponents. By the time the UFC came around,



Jackson says, he was completely addicted to winning competitions.

But he knew the UFC would be a far cry from the bare-knuckle bouts. He'd need to further re ne his methods. One person he relied on for help was Jim Dudley, a close friend and mentor who also happened to be a mathematics lecturer at the University of New Mexico. Dudley gave him private math lessons in the desert, giving him assignments from books on subjects such as discrete mathematics and discussing how he might apply math in an MMA match.

"My rst memory is Greg asking me about fractals," Dudley says. "Then it was game theory. I had no idea at rst that all of this pertained to ghting. When he nally told me, I thought, 'OK, that's odd.' But then again, I knew [math] could be applied to very surprising topics. It made sense that Greg would be nding these interesting patterns in ghting."

The patterns that Jackson found were sequences of moves and positions that most consistently led to success in the Octagon. "I saw these certain positions over and over again: the side-mount, for instance, or the full-mount," he says. "And I started thinking of them in terms of edges. Judging from the data, which positions offered the most opportunities? Which left the ghter in trouble? And which allowed him the quickest path to victory?"

What Jackson was developing was a new way of thinking about ghting, one informed by mathematical and logical frameworks rather than gut instinct. Crucial to that was constant data collection. Where other coaches might drift in and out of the gym, catching snippets of training rounds here or there, Jackson almost never leaves the apron of the Octagon. He is responsible for approximately 60 professional ghters, some champions and some



up-and-comers, and every day he watches almost all of them spar for hours on end. When he is not watching training bouts or traveling with his team, he is clicking through clips of older matches on his iPhone, on the TV, on one of the scarred laptops that sit in his cluttered of ce alongside a photograph of Albert Einstein and one of his personal heroes, the famous logician Kurt Gödel. His desk spills over with handwritten logs of successful ghts, hastily scrawled game trees of sparring sessions, points about form and function and technique.

All of these notes contain usable data. Analyzing his game trees shows him the best moves to make at different points in a match, while logs of his ghters' and their opponents' past matches help him predict how long an upcoming ght is likely to last, when in each round the opponent will strike and what moves he'll make. It's an advantage no other trainer yet has.

In early April Jon Jones defended the light heavyweight belt against Rashad Evans. The ghters were once friends who trained together under Jackson, but they'd had a falling out. In the weeks before the bout, they spent plenty of time trash-talking each other in the media. The ght was a true grudge match, as the UFC billed it, and by the time Jones and Evans climbed into the Octagon at Philips Arena in Atlanta, anticipation (and the noise level) was at a peak.

The ght opened slow. The ghters danced around each other warily. Evans, shorter and stockier than Jones, snapped away with his jab. Jones slipped around him, throwing a mix of "superman" punches (a punch executed while leaping forward) and ying knees.

Near the end of the rst round, Evans caught Jones with his foot,



sending him off balance. The bell rang. Jackson was waiting for Jones in the corner, a red cap pulled over his shaved head. His gaze was intent. He knew Evans had a superb defense and fast hands, limiting Jones's options. He began constructing a game tree in his mind. In the rst node, the two men were squared off against each other. Jones could punch away, but Evans would block most of the blows. He needed to move to another node, one with more edges.

One node appeared optimal: If Jones could manage to get in position to effectively neutralize both of Evans's hands, he might be able to land at least one big shot. Jackson shouted in Jones's ear. His student nodded.

Toward the end of the next round, Jones, heeding Jackson's advice, squared up against Evans and extended both hands, open-gloved. Evans matched him, and for a moment it looked as if the two men were about to play patty-cake. This was the node that Jackson was looking for. Evans was momentarily exposed. In dazzlingly quick succession, Jones threw a right elbow, then a left, then another right. Evans wobbled, and Jones surged forward with a knee and a left hook.

By the third round, Jones had his opponent on the defensive. Evans turned one way, and Jones was there. Turned another, and there he was again. In the fourth, Jones buried his knee in Evans's stomach, and the crowd, more than 15,000 strong, roared its approval.

At the end of the night, Jones was awarded a unanimous decision. He would keep his belt. But it was the work of the FightMetric data collectors, not the judges' decision, that revealed how truly dominant Jones had been. Their report showed that he'd landed 116 strikes, 105 of which were deemed signi cant. Evans, by comparison, landed only 49 strikes, 45 of them signi cant. Jones not



only ran Evans ragged around the ring, but he also doubled his output, continually nding the node where he could throw the most blows.

A few days after the ght, I spoke to Jackson by phone. Already he was dissecting what had happened, picking out the things that Jones had done right to further hone his ght strategies. But he realizes that a time will come when other trainers, eager to gain any advantage they can, will begin to emulate his methods. Eventually more and more mixed martial artists will base their training and match plans on statistical probabilities instead of instinct and tradition, raising the quality of competition.

That means Jackson will have to work harder than ever to stay on top of the sport. But when I asked him how important winning is to him, he got quiet. "Never put a node for victory," he said nally. "That doesn't mean we don't want to win. I want my guys to be thinking about trying to get to the strongest position they can, with the most edges, over and over. Like any science, it's more about the process than it is the outcome."

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