One of the concepts that has become ingrained in the lexicon of many statistically-minded sports fans, and even statistically-minded people in general, is the concept of “replacement level.” In sports, replacement level is loosely defined as the level of performance that can be readily replaced with a player who is either on the bench, in the minor leagues, or on the street. Because this level of performance can be replaced so easily, it stands to reason that the replacement-level player offers no value above that of the readily available talent pool, and that such a player should be paid either a minimum salary, or something close to it.
In mixed martial arts, the concept of “replacement level” is much harder to pin down. The reason is because, in the UFC, the motivation behind employing fighters goes beyond just how good they are, and moves toward what they do for the company’s bottom line. In traditional sports such as baseball and football, revenue is very closely related to winning, and therefore, a player’s value is very closely tied to his ability to help his team win. In MMA, this is not necessarily the case. After all, Elite XC didn’t center its promotion around Kimbo Slice because he was going to become some sort of champion.
Then we have Stephan Bonnar. Bonnar is a well-known fighter, primarily for the slobberknocker he fought against Forrest Griffin that has been repeatedly referred to as the most important fight in UFC history. In many of Bonnar’s fights, it’s a very good bet that he’s going to put on a very entertaining scrap. But from a standpoint of measuring a fighter’s ability to win in the UFC, I would imagine Bonnar as a very good example of a “replacement level” fighter.
To explain this, I’m going to use SILVA as a barometer of how good a fighter is. According to SILVA, Stephan Bonnar currently has a score of 37.62, which ranks 36th out of the 47 light-heavyweight fighters that have been measured by the system. Here is the list of fighters who rate below Bonnar at 205 pounds:
- Igor Pokrajac
- Seth Petruzelli
- Eliot Marshall
- Alexandre Ferreira
- James Irvin
- Matt Lucas
- Anthony Perosh
- Tom Blackledge
- Karlos Vemola
- Goran Reljic
- Todd Brown
Pokrajac is still in the UFC, but only by virtue of beating Irvin and Brown, both of whom have been cut. Petruzelli, Ferreira, and Reljic are gone. The remaining names – Marshall, Lucas, Perosh, Blackledge, and Vemola – don’t inspire a whole lot of confidence. I am pretty confident that all of these fighters will eventually be cut by the UFC.
Meanwhile, names of fighters rated above Bonnar include Rodney Wallace, Ricardo Romero, and Keith Jardine. I think it’s very reasonable to suggest that Bonnar would be about at the level of a “replacement level” fighter as far as the UFC goes.
But in the UFC, replacement level performance doesn’t tell the whole story about a fighter’s value. From what I can tell, there are three general ways to be valuable in the UFC:
- Winning fights – the UFC can promote you as a threat, even if you’re not particularly exciting
- Being a big name – a fighter that fans want to watch
- Being exciting – causing people who watch your fight to want to watch more fights
Bonnar doesn’t win fights, at least not enough to be of value to the UFC. He’s not a particularly big name, either: people recognize his name, but nobody’s going to buy a pay-per-view because of Bonnar. The reason Bonnar is valuable to the UFC, and still a UFC fighter, is his ability to put on exciting fights. It’s still important to win some fights, but Bonnar does enough of that (7-6 in his UFC career) to survive in the promotion.
And that’s why the UFC leads pay-per-view broadcasts with fights like Stephan Bonnar vs. Kyle Kingsbury. Now, SILVA 1.1 actually likes Kingsbury a lot, assigning him a SILVA score of 70.63, good for 9th in the light-heavyweight division. SILVA sees Kingsbury’s record and likes what he’s put together. It doesn’t hurt that SILVA throws out fights against opponents with fewer than five career professional fights of their own, meaning that Kingsbury’s loss to Tony Lopez is not considered in the system. (Expect me to address that in a future version.) But let’s face it: Kingsbury is fighting Stephan Bonnar because it’s bound to be an entertaining brawl.
For evidence, check out Kingsbury’s last fight, a sloppy but entertaining battle with Fabio Maldonado. It was a pretty close fight, and Maldonado landed a number of hard punches, including quite a few body shots, but in the end, Kingsbury did just enough to win a decision. It’s the kind of fight that highlights the limitations of SILVA: SILVA merely sees it as a Kingsbury win. It doesn’t know that it wasn’t the kind of fight that suggests Kingsbury will be any sort of title contender. It doesn’t help that Kingsbury’s heavily muscled body isn’t well-suited for the sport; he was beet red within two minutes of the fight starting.
SILVA PREDICTION: KYLE KINGSBURY (70.63) OVER STEPHAN BONNAR (37.62)
If you want a 15 minute brawl, this is a very good way to get it. These two are going to brawl, and neither one is likely to go down. Kingsbury will gas out quickly, but Bonnar will probably be ill-equipped to take advantage of it, as the stronger Kingsbury will likely wear out Bonnar as well. If you want to see the most technical, high-quality MMA the sport has to offer, then you won’t find it in this fight. But if you want shameless entertainment, you’ll get plenty of it here.