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Statistics: The Scourge of MMA Journalism

Did you hear?  Steven Siler has attempted seven submissions in his UFC career, making him tied for 2nd place in the UFC’s 145 pound history!  Well, at least, that’s according to somebody.

In hockey, everybody knows what a shot on goal is.  In baseball, once a pitch has been determined a strike, it’s a strike forever.  And an interception in football?  Everybody knows what that means.

For a myriad of reasons that are not so obvious to me, people love tracking statistics in MMA.  And no doubt, there are important statistics to keep track of.  Unfortunately, the majority of statistics that are reported on are total nonsense.

Going back to Steven Siler’s record: What on earth exactly is a submission attempt?  When a fighter takes the back, invariably they are looking for a rear naked choke.  At what point does the attempt “count”?  If a fighter transitions from an omoplata, to a triangle, to an armbar, and finishes their opponent, is that one submission attempt or three?  None of these questions have defined answers, and yet for whatever reason, somebody is tracking these things, using completely made up criteria.

What is a takedown attempt?  If two fighters are in the clinch, and one fighter motions to sweep the other person’s foot, is that an attempt?  Better yet, what is a takedown?  After Khabib Nurmagomedov’s dominant victory over Abel Trujillo, there was plenty of debate over the actual number of takedowns landed.  If we can’t even figure out what a takedown is, how are we even measuring attempts?

Statistics are supposed to convey meaningful information, yet often, they completely fail to capture the things they are supposed to even be measuring.

Take for instance the idea of “submission defence”.  The classic criteria that is used for measuring this is counting the number of submissions attempted against a fighter, and how well that person defends those submissions.  Unfortunately, this is nonsensical.  Fighters with good submission defense tend not to have submissions attempted on them at all to begin with.

And it’s not just the grappling world where made up terms are used.  Does anybody out there want to let me know what a significant strike is?  Where is the line between a regular strike and a “significant” strike, and who made it up?  Nick Diaz would like to know how many of his punches are “significant”.

At least with wrestling, the concept of a takedown is actually defined — hence the reason for the debate in the Nurmagomedov/Trujillo fight.  However, there is no concept of a significant strike in boxing or Muay Thai.  And somewhat counter-intuitively, there is no concept of a “submission attempt” in any major Brazilian Jiu Jitsu ruleset (albeit some, like the Rickson Budo Challenge, have tried.)  The point is that these are not even concepts that MMA has borrowed from other disciplines.  These are concepts that have been completely made up by MMA journalists — most of whom have no understanding of the original sports to begin with.

Statistics are great because they can make sense of the noise.  But when you’re purporting to measure things that aren’t even defined, you’re just adding noise on top of noise.