Just How Improbable was Dan Henderson’s Comeback Win over Shogun? A Statistical Analysis

He got knocked down, but he got up again. You’re never gonna keep him down. Oh, Danny boy! The lyrics to the 1997 pop hit “Tubthumping” by Chumbawamba were cycling in my head on Sunday night while watching the rematch between Dan Henderson and Shogun Rua. Dan Henderson got dropped in the very first round of the fight. Although he survived to the end of the round, some media observers called it a 10-8 round, and were anticipating the pending demise of Hendo. The second frame repeated the violence with Dan getting floored a second time, but again rallying to survive and even get back to his feet before the bell. Entering the third round, Henderson had been dropped twice and was a +2000 live betting underdog. Then something improbable happened: Dan won the fight. With one vicious overhand right (the famous “H-Bomb”) Henderson fractured the nose of Shogun Rua, who was sent careening backwards in a somersault. Dan pounced and the fight was stopped. Despite being knocked down twice, Dan Henderson got up and won. Not since Danny Larusso miraculously overcame a knee injury from an illegal “leg sweep” at the 1984 All-Valley Karate Tournament has a Danny Boy pulled off such a miraculous upset. The FightMetric stats confirm that the first two frames were decidedly in Rua’s favor, with one knockdown scored in each round. But clearly not all knockdowns are equal. While Rua was unable to convincingly earn a stoppage via strikes, Henderson’s revenge salvo in the third round had referee Herb Dean quickly waiving off the fight. It was crazy. It was improbable. But just how improbable was it? A first answer is that when a fighter scores a single knockdown in a fight, he goes on to win 81% of the time. That means that 19% of fighters who get dropped still find a way to come back and win, whether it’s by surviving and grinding out a decision, or by getting a miraculous finish. In my book “Fightnomics” I estimated a “puncher’s chance” at around 10-15%. This quick analysis supports that estimate given the resiliency of UFC fighters in taking a beating, then coming back to win. Fighters may be down, but not out. That means no fighter who has any striking skills should ever be more than a 10:1 underdog. And even when a guy gets dropped once, there’s still that 19% chance he could still come back to win. But just dropping a guy once isn’t what happened here. Henderson was knocked down twice, a much more rare and devastating occurrence. This particular sequence of events has only occurred in 0.1% of all UFC fights historically. So on any given fight night, there’s only a 1% chance of seeing a fight go down like this. However, if we take a closer look at slobberknockers where one fighter scored two knockdowns we see that the fighter getting dropped still comes back to win a remarkable 7% of the time. Amazingly, those +2000 live odds for Henderson in the third were close to being on target (and technically should have been lower). It’s actually more like 10% if we include suffering multiple clinch knockdowns but coming back to win. However, two knockdowns seems to be the limit in the UFC, as no fighter has ever taken 3 knockdowns and still gone on to win. Here are five other fights where a guy came back to win after suffering two knockdowns from a distance in the same fight:

 Historic Comebacks

Two interesting things pop from this table. First, Pat Barry has been on the losing end of otherwise dominating performances twice. And second, Dan Henderson is not just the latest fighter to overcome two distance knockdowns, he was also the first fighter to do it in the UFC nearly 16 years ago. Amazing how history repeats itself! Now let’s move past the knockdowns factor. In terms of Significant Strikes, Henderson ended the fight with only 23 strikes landed compared to 48 for Rua. Significant Strikes Landed are pretty indicative of who won a fight, and who lost. Just looking back at UFC fights throughout history, the fighter that landed more strikes won about 80% of the time. But fighters who landed substantially more strikes are even more likely to have won. For example, in fights where there was a differential of at least 10 Significant Strikes Landed, the guy who landed more won closer to 90% of the time. This is a simplification, of course, but it’s still a measure of how much Rua was winning going into the third round. The 25 Significant Strike differential favoring Rua in this fight typically leads to a win rate of 94%. So when looking at the box score from the fight we see pretty lopsided stats, despite the knockout. But we also see multiple historical trends that say Henderson still had an appreciable chance of pulling off the upset once round three started. So while the odds of seeing a crazy fight like this were really low, the probability of Henderson’s upset was still in the neighborhood of 5-7% after accounting for the whipping he took in the first two rounds. Frankly, I’m a little surprised by how high that is, so it’s a great reminder of the resiliency of fighters and the fact that crazy comebacks can and do happen in MMA. Although the particular sequence that occurred was extremely rare (the 0.1% of all fights where a guy is dropped twice but comes back to win), once the first two rounds had concluded, there was definitely no reason to turn off the TV or count Old Man Henderson completely out.   And That’s Not All Henderson-Rua 2 was pretty crazy, even for an MMA fight. But UFC Fight Night 38 was even more crazy than just a wild comeback knockout in the main event. The evening was also record setting for upsets. Underdogs went 9-1-1 on the night. Those nine upsets according to the odds were the most on a single fight card in UFC history. It’s worth noting that the UFC used a smaller cage that night, and smaller cages have historically led to a little more action, and more finishes. Whether fighting in tighter quarters contributed to the 7 out of 11 fights ending inside the distance, or the extremely high number of upsets is uncertain, but it’s definitely interesting to consider. Among those upsets was Thiago Santos, who won despite being a +660 underdog against Ronny Markes, making it the single biggest upset in UFC history (at least according to Several Bookmakers closing odds). That’s another record broken at UFC Fight Night 38. For more huge upsets, see page 221 in the Fightnomics book. And there you have it. On an unsuspecting Sunday night card with no titles at stake or even title implications, the UFC ended up delivering some exciting fights that were not only improbable, but historic in nature. I guess the old adage is true, MMA really is like a box of chocolates. And sometimes you get a whole box of surprises.

Written by Reed Kuhn

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