Sometimes, I write posts that refer to the differences between statistical analysis in MMA and other, more mainstream sports like baseball. Part of what makes using statistics to analyze MMA so difficult is that there just aren’t that many statistics out there. On top of that, for a lot of fighters, there just isn’t enough data to come to any confident conclusions. Some progress has been made in the last few years, but I think (hope) that statistical analysis in MMA is just in its infancy.
So who is the better striker… Alistair Overeem or Chael Sonnen? It probably seems like a bizarre question to ask. They fight in different weight classes, and they have different fighting styles. Many would probably say Overeem without thinking much about it, since Overeem was the K-1 World Grand Prix champion, and is generally regarded as one of the two best strikers in the heavyweight division (with Junior dos Santos). Sonnen, on the other hand, is a fighter with a wrestling background, and as successful as he’s been in recent years, on the surface, it’s hard to argue for him being better at striking than Overeem.
When I’m confronted with this sort of question, my first instinct is to go to statistics. If somebody asks me who the best quarterback in 2011 was, I’ll go to Football Outsiders and answer “Drew Brees.” If I’m asked who the best basketball player in the NBA right now is, I’ll go to Jeremias Engelmann’s adjusted plus-minus statistics and tell you it’s Chris Paul. If somebody wants to know who the most valuable baseball player in 2011 was, I’ll look at Fangraphs’ WAR and argue in favor of Jacoby Ellsbury (despite what the voters thought).
To answer the question of who the better striker is between Alistair Overeem and Chael Sonnen, I naturally want to go to statistics. So I go to Fight Metric, which is the only website to go to for MMA statistics right now, and I get the following striking statistics from Overeem and Sonnen:
- 3.42 significant strikes landed per minute (SLpM)
- 1.61 significant strikes absorbed per minute (SApM)
- 56% strike accuracy
- 66% strike defense
- +1.81 striking margin
- 2.12 strikes landed/absorbed ratio
- 3.24 SLpM
- 0.91 SApM
- 44% strike accuracy
- 68% strike defense
- +2.33 margin
- 3.56 strikes landed/absorbed ratio
If all I had to work with were those numbers, I would argue for Sonnen being the better striker. He has a striking margin of +2.33 per minute, compared to Overeem’s margin of +1.81, and a SLpM/SApM ratio of 3.56, compared to Overeem’s ratio of 2.12.
“But,” you might say, “this looks at Overeem’s whole career. You should only look at his fights since he moved to heavyweight, since he’s been a much better fighter since then.” OK. If I look just at Overeem’s 13 fights since moving to heavyweight full-time, including his no contest against Mirko Cro Cop, his statistics look like this:
Alistair Overeem at heavyweight
- 4.94 SLpM
- 1.77 SApM
- +3.17 margin
- 2.79 ratio
With that adjustment, Overeem lands a good deal more strikes than Sonnen, but he still absorbs a lot more strikes as well. His margin of +3.17 is higher than Sonnen’s +2.33, but his 2.79 ratio is still lower than Sonnen’s 3.56. At this point, it looks like a toss-up.
And one could argue that Overeem’s stats are inflated by facing a number of heavyweight opponents that didn’t belong in the ring or cage with him. What would his numbers look like at heavyweight if we throw out his fights against overmatched opponents like Kazuyuki Fujita, James Thompson, Gary Goodridge, Tae Hyun Lee, and Tony Sylvester?
Alistair Overeem at heavyweight – squash matches excluded
- 4.45 SLpM
- 1.99 SApM
- +2.46 margin
- 2.24 ratio
And, of course, if we’re going to make these adjustments for Overeem’s numbers, we should make them for Chael Sonnen as well. I’ll be extremely arbitrary and, without looking at which fights would be included, filter out Sonnen’s last ten fights:
Chael Sonnen – last ten fights
- 3.61 SLpM
- 0.94 SApM
- +2.67 margin
- 3.84 ratio
At this point, I would still give the edge to Sonnen. Yes, Overeem lands strikes at a more frequent rate, but Sonnen is much better at avoiding strikes, which is arguably more important.
After all of this, there are still two huge problems with this analysis. I’ll look at the big problem first, and then the enormous problem.
The big problem is that this doesn’t incorporate knockouts or knockdowns. In his last ten fights, Chael Sonnen has scored zero knockouts and zero knockdowns. Alistair Overeem, on the other hand, has won by KO/TKO against Brock Lesnar, Todd Duffee, and Brett Rogers, and Paul Buentello tapped out due to strikes. Since moving to heavyweight, even with the squash matches thrown out, Overeem has scored three knockdowns.
The enormous problem is that this whole thing isn’t an apples to apples comparison. Fight Metric’s statistics include all striking, regardless of whether it takes place at distance, in the clinch, or on the ground. Overeem spends the vast majority of his time in fights either at standing distance or in the clinch. Sonnen, on the other hand, spends very little time at striking distance, and instead chooses to enter the clinch or go to the ground. When people refer to striking, they generally aren’t referring to strikes that are thrown on the ground.
In the future, I’d like to see striking statistics do the following things. First, I want to divide striking into three categories: distance striking, clinch striking, and ground striking. Second, I want to adjust each fighter’s performance in those categories based on the quality of that fighter’s opponents. Finally, there needs to be a way to weigh recent fights more heavily, as Overeem in particular is a much different fighter than he was in 2003. Hopefully we’ll see these things happen in the future of MMA.