Mathematic Martial Arts: Why Stats Don’t Tell the Whole Story of Penn/Edgar

After watching Frankie Edgar score a huge upset on Saturday afternoon in Abu Dhabi, I had three reactions.

  1. Although I’d turn the corner on my stance due to his last two performances, my suspicions have been confirmed that BJ Penn isn’t the same unstoppable force of nature that guys like Georges St. Pierre, Anderson Silva, and perhaps Brock Lesnar are in their respective weight classes.
  2. What a great moment – the scrappy, hard-working underdog went in against insurmountable odds and proved that he not only belonged in there, but he was perhaps the better fighter after all.
  3. Oh boy. Here come the Math pundits.

Penn vs. Edgar at UFC 112. Photo from The LA Times.

Some took a hard stance against one score for the fight of 50-45, which I entirely understand since the first two rounds were most likely Penn’s with the second clearly going in his favor. Of course Dana White, the promoter with no filter, took to Twitter himself to complain of the score. But in the same Tweet, he also hit upon why BJ Penn lost: he fought Frankie Edgar’s fight, and not BJ Penn’s.

Much is being said about the statistics coming from the fight. Mike Fagan over at Bloody Elbow posted the Fight Metric data that, according to their assessment, gave BJ Penn the fight by a score of 49-47. Compustrike also released its assessment, which showed Edgar winning the exchanges standing and therefore the fight.

People have put forth that Fight Metrics have a much more diligent staff that provides a more accurate assessment of fights. That’s nice, but in the fight game, it doesn’t matter. I don’t mean just because judges don’t have access to that information or as clear a viewpoint as folks like us do during or after the fact through a clear High Def camera view. It doesn’t matter because these criteria are not how a fight is, or should be, judged.

As controversial as his views can be, we should go back to what Dana White tweeted about the fight because it’s telling of how that fight was scored and why. At the beginning of every UFC telecast, they give a brief summary of the rules and the judging criteria. Judging for Mixed Martial Arts as established by the Unified Rules established by the New Jersey State Athletic Commission are primarily based around four areas: clean strikes, effective grappling, octagon control, and effective aggressiveness. Organizations like Fight Metrics and Compustrike are nice for hard numbers, but those only account for clean strikes, and although they do count takedowns, one can’t make a decision on effective grappling based on pure numbers alone no matter how many variables you include in the formula.

As for octagon control and effective aggressiveness, forget about it. That’s not to say that these are abstract constructs. Far from it, since they can be measured through observation. It also needs to be noted that striking can’t really be measured solely on contact. If we allow that to happen, we’ll see an influx of fighters who throw nothing but jabs and get decision wins through boring, technical standup that wouldn’t even bruise the cheek of your great-grandmother.

Mathematics may be the universal language, but it can’t be used to solve all the world’s problems and definitively answer all queries. There are problems with judging in MMA to be certain, but in the conversation on how to rectify them we have to be conscious of the fact that Mixed Martial Arts is an objective sport can’t – and shouldn’t ever – become a numbers game.

I haven’t had a chance to rewatch the fight, but while watching the live feed I had it scored 48-47 in favor of Frankie Edgar. Penn may have landed more clean shots in a few rounds, but those were counter-punches that barely grazed Edgar and didn’t do nearly as much damage. Counter-punching isn’t aggression. Additionally, Edgar not only showed greater movement but also dictated the pace and direction of the fight both figuratively and literally. There wasn’t a moment where BJ Penn seemed like he was in complete control of the situation for any significant amount of time. And that, my friends, is what makes a fight.

Debate is a healthy part of MMA fandom. But let’s keep it that way and not rely on data that, while perhaps accurate, doesn’t provide the scope and range necessary to properly educate ourselves and others on the finer nuances of the sport.

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