How MMA fights end – submission victories way down
2017 for the UFC was the first full year under new ownership, as the promotion implemented its new state of normal for the sport. And while plenty of interesting things happened inside the Octagon, victories from the UFC’s biggest stars were not one of them. The absence of Ronda Rousey armbar victories and of Conor McGregor entirely slowed some of the momentum the promotion had built in years prior. In fact, the plateau of event pace in 2015 and 2016 took a downward turn in 2017, leading to the fewest UFC events and fights since 2013. The new normal is not quite so busy as it once was.
Perhaps the new controlled pace is intentional, or perhaps the new owners are still getting a feel for how to keep their moneymakers on stage and in the cage. Still, the UFC put on 39 events around the world, in some cases marking new territory, with a healthy 457 fights competed by its roster of fighters. The promotion also added two new women’s divisions, and held inaugural title fights at women’s featherweight and flyweight, upping the total divisions to 12 for the first time. Yet despite more champions on the roster, the 20 total title fights that occurred in 2017 didn’t match the 22 that occurred in 2016. And that undoubtedly hurt the bottom line.
However, instead of diving into the implications of 2017 fights on the business, let’s just try to get a handle on all the action that went down inside the Octagon. First, here’s how every UFC fight ended in 2017, all in one graph. Fights are summarized by outcome method and weight class, with title fights individually noted.
The big picture: How fights ended
About half of all UFC fights will end inside the distance, but far more so by TKO than by submission. The finish rate for 2017 was right at 50 percent, thanks to 146 KO/TKOs and 80 submissions. That’s slightly up from two years spent at a 49 percent finish rate, which we’d assume is within the noise were it not for a separate trend. Higher weight classes see more finishes, and yet despite the addition of two new women’s divisions on the lower end of the size spectrum, the finish rate remained level, or just higher. It would appear that regardless of the mix of divisions in the UFC, we’ll still see an even share of finishes for a while to come.
The UFC was born under the iron grip of Brazilian jiu-jitsu specialists, which drove most fights to be finished by submission in the early days. But that trend has slowly changed as less time is spent on the ground overall. In modern MMA, a finish is more likely to come by strikes via TKO, KO or doctor’s stoppage. And 2017 saw the second highest share of fights finished by strikes in modern UFC history. Only 2013 saw more striking finishes relative to submissions, and only by a (probably crooked) nose. If the trend keeps up, we’ll approach twice as many KO/TKOs as submissions as fighters keep fights standing more often.
When fights do go to the cards, there’s not always agreement from the judges. Of the 225 fights ending in a decision, 58 of them saw disagreement from at least one judge leading to a split or majority decision result. That’s a disagreement rate of 26 percent, up slightly from the year before (24 percent).
With the recent changes in MMA scoring criteria, more 10-8 rounds from judges are possible. In an otherwise close fight, this could lead to more majority decisions and draws. In 2016 we saw a massive spike in the number of fights ending in a draw, but that has subsided in 2017. While still elevated from years prior, draws remain a fairly unexpected occurrence, leading to the dreaded no-hands-raised outcome once a month or less.
A total of 20 division title fights took place throughout 2017, as the UFC inched closer to being able to put two belts up on each pay-per-view event. Despite the injury bug taking its toll as usual, 12 divisions and sometimes even more title holders populate the promotion at any given time. But the downturn from 2016’s total of 22 title fights in an era of just 10 active divisions does hint at an issue with championship matchmaking.
No division from 2016 saw more than two title fights in 2017, and four previously existing divisions saw just one title fight. Whether the McGregor effect of winning a belt and then not defending it is a risk that could become contagious remains to be seen. But certainly, the bottom line noticed the lack of star power stacking the most important revenue generators of the year.
The most dependable winners and finishers among the list of champions were flyweight Demetrious Johnson and featherweight Max Holloway. Each finished two title fights in 2017 the exact same way each time: Johnson by armbar submission, and Holloway by TKO by punches. These two prove that size matters less and less when it comes to exciting fights.
We noted that the women’s featherweight division was a fresh addition to the UFC, but it’s clear from the graph above that the roster building has not followed the newly minted UFC belt. All three fights that took place in the division were for a title, and two involved Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino, the current champ. In a strange turn of events, Germaine de Randamie won the inaugural title, then vacated it after refusing to take on Cyborg as a challenger. That was clearly a sign of things to come, as the UFC has been unable to even find talent to compete for contention in the division.
The last point worth noting is buried in the dark “Other” bars at the top of the graph. A handful of fights each year are stopped early due to a foul, or overturned by the athletic commission altogether due to a banned substance violation. Only one title fight fell into this “Other” category, and it was a doozy. Jon Jones appeared to have fully regained control of the light heavyweight division by defeating rival Daniel Cormier. But Jones was stripped of his title (a second time) due to a failed drug test, and the bout itself that took place at UFC 214 was overturned to a “no contest.” Heading into 2018, Cormier now owns the division with no clear contenders, and no one knows if Jones will make the Octagon walk ever again. Strange indeed.
Raw data is provided by Fight Metric, with graphics and analysis by Reed Kuhn.