The Strikeforce Effect: Are We Underestimating Crossover Fighters? – Part 1 May 3, 2013
By Reed Kuhn, @Fightnomics
In January of 2013, Strikeforce hosted its final event before folding the promotion and sending select fighters into the UFC. Top fighters had already been cherry-picked from the Strikeforce roster, perceived by some as Zuffa pillaging the spoils of war for the UFC’s benefit before the 2011 buyout reached its inevitable conclusion. And why not? There were definitely some stars lurking on the other side of the wall.
Another Beta Bites the Dust
This list of early marquis imports included prior UFC veterans and Strikeforce title-holders like Nick Diaz and Dan Henderson. These fighters trickled into the UFC through 2011 and 2012, followed by a large influx of heavyweight talent to boost the UFC’s first all-heavyweight card in May, 2012. In each case, there was no backflow; the pipeline between the promotions only went one way. Then came criticisms that the second strongest MMA promotion would not be able to survive the slow, deliberate bleeding of its best talent, and clear thinning of event card power. Eventually, that reality came to fruition after consecutive cancelled events at the end of 2012. Days later, Strikeforce announced there would only be one more card. On January 12th 2013, Strikeforce officially closed their doors for business. It was at that time that a number of solid fighters, a few of them holding now irrelevant belts but still highly ranked by most observers, finally had to face the reality of a new home that may not be very excited to see them.
Right off the bat however, the first Strikeforce imports to make their UFC debuts turned heads. On the stacked Super Bowl weekend card of UFC 156, three different Strikeforce fighters would enter the UFC Octagon for the first time against incumbent fighters. The initial Strikeforce invasion established a beach-head with three straight victories, including two upsets. The fights led off the preliminary card aired on FX, and one by one Strikeforce fighters commanded respect. First it was the back to back upsets by Isaac Vallie-Flagg and Bobby Green, capped off by a 36-second exclamation point KO by Tyron Woodley.
The Results to Date
Since the December 20th 2012 announcement of the end of Strikeforce, here’s how the crossover fighters have performed in their UFC debuts when facing incumbent UFC fighters. For the purposes of this analysis any Strikeforce fighter making a UFC debut after the date of announcement against a fighter with UFC experience was included. These are considered “forced crossovers,” as opposed to previously “cherry-picked” crossover talent. Strikeforce fighters making their debut against other Strikeforce fighters were not included.
Source: All betting lines are quoted from 5Dimes.eu closing odds. Note: the announcement that the promotion was closing was made on December 20th, 2012, but Strikeforce held their final event on January 12th, 2013.
The buzz of “Strikeforce’s Revenge” is worthy, at least to date. The mixing of bloodlines hasn’t been gentle either, with 70% of these fights ending inside the distance, well above the average UFC finish rate. Even though the win streak that started the trend has since run cold, Strikeforce fighters have gotten the better of UFC fighters more often than not over the first 10 bouts in question. That’s a pretty cool trend on its own. Yet far more interesting is that Strikeforce fighters have outperformed market expectations by a long shot. Here’s how it shakes out when we account for the betting lines.
Crossover vs. Incumbent Record: 6-4
Average Strikeforce Fighter Betting Line: +155
Average Implied Win Rate: 39%
Actual Win Rate: 60%
Total Expected Wins: 3.9
Total Actual Wins: 6
Favorite Record: 2-0
Favorite Expected Wins: 1.4
Favorite Actual Wins: 2
Underdog Record: 4-4
Underdog Expected Wins: 2.5
Underdog Actual Wins: 4
When accounting for the betting line*, we see that most of the Strikeforce fighters entered as underdogs, making their 6-4 run far more impressive than the slight win/loss edge the record alone may indicate. Based on these implied market predictions, Strikeforce fighters should have only won 3.9 fights, but instead won six. That’s why it’s important to factor in the context of expectations rather than just examine the record. We know that there’s a step up in talent in the UFC, it’s the ‘Big Show’ after all. Some Strikeforce fighters were indeed making a leap into deeper waters with much more experienced opponents. Despite all of that, we see these guys succeeding against the odds.
In the two cases where Strikeforce fighters were actually the favorites, both Jordan Mein and Tyron Woodley took dominant first-round victories by (T)KO, justifying the market’s higher expectations for them. Underdogs, who were predicted to earn only 2.5 wins over their eight fights based on market prices, actually took home four victories. Furthermore, the only losses by any of these crossover fighters were all situations where the Strikeforce fighter was already an underdog.
The bottom line is that if you created a betting strategy to simply put $100 on every Strikeforce fighter making his debut against a UFC incumbent, you would have turned a hefty profit during this period. Risking $1000 would have given back $600 of that capital for the six wins, plus another $1,083.83 in winnings for a total of $1,683.83. That’s a hefty return of 68% in just over three months. Betting only the Strikeforce underdogs would have put less capital at risk, with an even higher return rate of 74%. Not bad in this economy, but let’s remind ourselves of the small sample size.
The early results suggest that “we” collectively are undervaluing these Strikeforce crossover fighters. They were the leftovers of a folded promotion, a dead brand. UFC divisions had to clear room for the newcomers, shown by the skyrocketing quantity of roster cut announcements over the past few months. Rather than looking forward to fresh matchups and the showcasing of new talent on a bigger stage, we’re left with a begrudging acceptance of filthy orphans from a deceased organization; the reluctant accommodation of fighters out of their league, who we just have to tolerate long enough for them to wash out. Is that embellishment? Perhaps. Nevertheless, the power of the UFC brand is so strong in MMA that it would be easy to dismiss Strikeforce fighters as having come from an inferior league, with lower standards of talent. Yet we’ve seen them outperform so far. So the question here boils down to why we set our expectations so low to begin with. Why were fans and bettors sleeping on the Strikeforce talent? Well, there’s a good and simple reason for it, that’s why. Please indulge me for a quick science lesson.
Quick Science Lesson: The Case for Bias
In psychology, the term “Halo Effect” refers to positive bias awarded to individuals with some perceived attractive condition. In short, the “fair haired boy” or the attractive lady can do no wrong. We’ll perceive attractive people, or people with impressive titles or affiliations to be superior in ways are unrelated to judging criteria. Some people get the Halo around their heads for whatever reason, and we judge them more favorably forever after. The opposite phenomenon is known as the “Devil Effect,” or the “Horn Effect” (which I prefer). Imagine the Horn Effect as someone who carries the tainted reputation of being related to a criminal, or having been part of a company or team during the time of a notorious scandal. Even if the individual had nothing to do with the scandal, they will be judged as guilty by affiliation. The broader application of this bias to products is known as “contagion,” which can be positive (wearing a shirt signed by a celebrity) or negative (a chair that a killer once sat in).
A common example cited is when jurors treat attractive defendants more favorably, as if looking nice makes someone more trustworthy, intelligent or at least less likely to commit a crime. In soccer, research has suggested a Halo Effect may be inflating salaries of players from Brazil in the British premiership due to the locally perceived superiority (and fear) of Brazilian players. In a brilliant experiment, lecturers introduced to a crowd with impressive (yet fictional) titles and credentials were judged as funnier (and even taller!) than the very same actors delivering the exact same speech to an audience that didn’t receive the same hype. The effect of this bias can be strong, and pervasive, and yet we’ll insist it can’t happen to us. But it does, all the time. To say that you are biased is not meant to be insulting; it simply means you’re human. We are full of psychological and cognitive biases that affect us in many small, but sometimes powerful ways, and that’s just the reality of the human condition.
Why is this relevant here and now? In sports, we often bias our perception of players based on their prior teams or college programs. Though we could readily examine a wide receiver’s 40 yard dash speed and completion rate, we may consider him to be inferior when coming from a Division III program compared to an identically speedy and dexterous athlete coming from a perennial Division I contender. In MMA, having UFC credentials means being part of the elite of the fight game. A newcomer to the UFC is nearly always an import from another promotion, a process by which they are seen as “graduating from the minors” once they make it to the Octagon. But in the case of Strikeforce closing shop with so many fighters still on the roster, there was some forced adoption of fighter contracts under the assumption of a natural shakeout to unfold. This is why there are grounds for bias. Had the Strikeforce promotion continued, the assumption is that most of these crossover fighters would still be there, fighting at the junior varsity level. So when they come strolling into the Octagon against the varsity squad, it’s no surprise that most of the time they’ll be labelled as underdogs.
The last time rosters merged was when the WEC folded into the UFC at the end of 2010. The UFC created entirely new divisions to accommodate the new fighters, with some minor additions to the lightweight division. Larger divisions had already been harvested for the UFC in controlled amounts, which led to some notable additions like Carlos Condit, Chael Sonnen, and Brian Stann. But in the smallest weight classes at least, competition was still drawing from the same pool of talent. No featherweights or bantamweights coming from the WEC faced any stigma in their debuts in the larger UFC Octagon, because for the most part they were still competing against the exact same opponents. Eventually, the merger encouraged some UFC veterans to drop down to more competitive weight classes now that they could do so while remaining in the premier promotion. If there was a bias at work here in the early merger, it would only have been relevant to the lightweight division while WEC fighters made their UFC debuts against incumbents. It’s possible there was positive bias for UFC incumbents dropping down to face primarily WEC-legacy talent. Interestingly, the UFC lightweight division is currently ruled by exactly one of those WEC crossovers, Benson Henderson, whose next challenge will come in the face of Strikeforce import Gilbert Melendez.
So here we are. Strikeforce fighters that performed admirably during their time in the “minor leagues” are now coming over to earn their spot on the UFC roster the hard way, mostly against UFC incumbent fighters. It’s in this context that we might expect the bias of the Horn Effect to take hold, to negatively impact our expectations for Strikeforce crossover fighters. And it is one plausible explanation for the temporary inaccuracy of otherwise historically sound betting lines. More generally, we might ask if fighters making their UFC debut – regardless of prior experience – see more bias either way from the betting public. Or whether cherry picked fighters received undue respect in the odds. Sounds like another data experiment, but I’ll have to get back to you on that one.
I subtitled this piece “Part 1,” because this natural experiment will continue April 20th on the UFC on FOX 7 card. The event is being unofficially nicknamed the “Strikeforce vs. UFC card” due to the clever matchmaking theme of pitting notable Strikeforce crossover talent against incumbent UFC veterans in all four main card events. Although according to the parameters of this analysis, Jordan Mein no longer qualifies as a crossover now that he has a UFC fight. Still, there are a total of seven other Strikeforce fighters making their Octagon debuts on the preliminary and main card, and so the sample size for this hypothesis with nearly be doubled in a single night.
In addition to the 10 fights to date, the next couple months will provide more data to see if the Strikeforce/Horn effect holds true. Will the Strikeforce crossovers outperform again, resulting in more wins than the market predicts? Or has the market caught on to the true quality and competitiveness of these fighters? The unofficial nickname for the FOX card could then be “Reality Check,” but that name was used already by UFC 59 in April of 2006. In that event, Tim Sylvia won the UFC heavyweight title from Andrei Arlovski, and Sean Sherk defeated Nick Diaz… how’s that for a reality check? More accurately, we should refer to this as the “Strikeforce Hypothesis” until we gather more data.
Here are the remaining Strikeforce fighters who will make their UFC debut against a UFC incumbent fighter. Again, Strikeforce fighters debuting against other Strikeforce fighters, like Tim Kennedy vs. Roger Gracie at UFC 162, are not included. And once a Strikeforce fighter has made their debut, they are no longer a crossover.
The rest of this Strikeforce experiment will finally play out over the summer as merger completes, and I will be interested to see the results. The bettors out there can put their money where their minds are by shorting the UFC incumbents if they believe the effect is real, or by ignoring the Strikeforce effect on matchups if they believe it has since been absorbed by the market.
Likely by the end of the July, we’ll have our answer either way. We’ll have no more title mergers, and no more hyped (Gilbert Melendez, Daniel Cormier) or under the radar (Derek Brunson, Bobby Green) crossovers to consider. It will be just one equal Octagon for all of Zuffa’s fighters for the first time in many years.
* End Note: Analysis of betting lines excluded the effect of the “vigorish” or “vig,” which reflects the bookmakers margin. If these were estimated and included in the implied win rates for each fight, the expected wins values would have been slightly lower, which would mean the bias effect is even larger than what I’ve shown here.