“A little bit of data can go a long way.” The above quote hails from Reed Kuhn, author of the new book Fightnomics: The Hidden Numbers and Science in Mixed Martial Arts and Why There’s No Such Thing as a Fair Fight. Kuhn, a former scientific consultant for the United States military, walked away from his career of management consulting to focus on writing this book, which some have compared to Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, a book that helped revolutionize modern baseball statistics. Kuhn understands the comparisons, and responded in kind during a guest appearance on my podcast, The Verbal Submission, earlier this week:
“Moneyball was more of a story about a guy who used numbers and the Sabermetrics system for a sport. This book is a bit more foundational because I’m trying to define all the variables at play. Fightmetric is quoted quite a bit on TV, but a lot of people don’t really know what the data holds like I do because I work with that data. This is supposed to be covering some of that and it’s also telling a story about what you can do with that whether it’s testing hypothesis, debunking things, proving hidden trends within the fight game that maybe we weren’t even aware of.”
So let’s get down to the nitty gritty. Is Fightnomics worth your hard earned cash? Short answer: absolutely. Unlike sports like baseball, where you can’t go more than 30 seconds without having a new statistic thrown your way, mixed martial arts is still relatively new, which means statistics have yet to take a foothold in the overall viewers’ conscious. The possibilities are endless, but thankfully Fightnomics starts small and builds along the way. Early on, the book simply explains what got Kuhn interested in this niche within a niche to begin with, then elaborates to the history of organized combat, bringing all sorts of examples from the old Greek Olympics all the way back to ritualistic displays of dominance in the animal kingdom. Talk about being thorough. Kuhn plays it smart and doesn’t overwhelm the audience early, focusing on simple statistics at first, like how fights are finished, explaining what goes into the creation of Fightmetric data before advancing to something everyone can understand, striking statistics. Visuals are important, as Kuhn loads up Fightnomics with a plethora of charts, graphs and pictures to reference nearly all important points. It’s only after the reader has begun to absorb the data that things start to get really juicy. What began with something as simple as the finishing rates of fights quickly evolves into complex issues like specific success rate of different types of submissions and eventually Kuhn begins attacking all different sorts of commonly held notions like the Southpaw advantage, ring rust and how important it is to fight in your home country. Data concerning each topic is analyzed and thankfully, all important conclusions are then bolded to help them stand out. Nothing is sacred. Kuhn tackles everything from the affect of aging on a fighter to what types of submissions are more likely to result in a fight night bonus. I found it very interesting to learn that while older fighters tend to finish their victorious fights at the same rates as they did in their youth, the complete opposite rings true when they’re on the losing end. As the age of a fighter increases, the chances that they get finished when they lose skyrockets. Perhaps that was a commonly held assertion, but now Kuhn presents the data to back it up. This type of information is not only important to know if you’re a fan or coach, it could be vital to the MMA gambler. In fact, Kuhn devotes an entire chapter to betting on MMA and how betters can utilize data to make a few bucks. Granted, the Vegas odds are historically an accurate assessment of picking the correct winners, but Kuhn searches for and finds meaning in the instances where the betting public got it wrong. As solid of a read as it was, Fightnomics isn’t perfect. Granted, my copy was an early review edition, but my inner editor did get alerted every once in a while to occasional grammatical error. Also, the Foreword of the book, written by co-author Kelly Crigger, undercuts some of the important data by incorrectly referring to former UFC Heavyweight Champion Mark Coleman as a former Olympic silver medalist in one of the opening sentences (Coleman won a silver medal in the 1991 World Freestyle Wrestling Championships but placed seventh in the 1992 Summer Olympics). Putting each fight in context is also important. That being said, the overall buffet of information presented far outweighs any minor errors in the early going. Is Fightnomics for everyone? I enjoyed it immensely, but I have to say no. If you’re the type of fan who embraces the technical aspects of mixed martial arts, you will absolutely love this book. From hardcore MMA fans to curious casuals, this book is definitely for you, but as much as Kuhn wishes it was the case, the “Just Bleed” bloodlusters who are only watching the fights to see the car wrecks are not the target audience. Overall, however, Fightnomics does a fantastic job of tackling the myths of the sport and presenting new and potentially revolutionary theories. There’s a ton of information to digest here, but it’s worth sifting through to find each golden nugget of truth behind the numbers. Ultimate Fighting Championship just celebrated its 20th anniversary late last year, and with detailed analysis and modern statistics from books like Fightnomics leading the charge, the next 20 years look very bright indeed. Editor’s note: I co-host The Premium Oddscast betting show with Reed Kuhn, but I made sure to be as objective as possible when reviewing this title, something a results-driven person like Kuhn would surely appreciate.