By @fightnomics MMA fights are a volatile proposition. A single punch can change the course of a fight, ending it abruptly, or doing damage that leads to a lopsided performance. It doesn’t matter if the underdog is a 10-to-1 longshot, any UFC fighter is capable of winning on any given fight night. For bettors, this volatility can be frustrating. A strong outing one night can be followed by a defeat in the next, and vice versa. But who has really stood out over the last few years as a fighter who consistently delivered on fight night? Let’s consider a different look at fighter performance, one that factors in the betting odds. Donald Cerrone has been the most active fighter in the UFC since 2011. He has 17 appearances during that time, the most by a longshot. And his 14 wins in the UFC has certainly benefited his betting backers out there over the years. But how has he performed against expectations? And who else has delivered more than their fair share of wins? Wins above expectation is based on the closing Several Bookmakers market odds for a fighter in each fight. Coming in as a +100 underdog means the market gives you exactly a 50% chance of winning. Winning that same fight means you’ve delivered 0.5 wins above expectation (1 win – .5 expected wins on the night). Using this view of fighter performance, we can look at fighters who were consistently active from 2011 to 2014 (i.e., had at least one fight in each of those years), and see which ones delivered the most wins above their market implied win expectation. Winning as a big favorite doesn’t move the needle very far (e.g., 1 win compared to 80% win probability = +0.2 wins versus expectation), and neither does losing as a big underdog (e.g, 0 wins – 20% win probability = -0.2 wins versus expectation). In the grand scheme of things, all fighters will average out to close to zero in terms of wins versus expectation, because historically (and in the long run), odds are fairly accurate. But right now we’re interested in which fighters have deviated the most from expectations, in this case, in a good way. Who beat their odds to biggest extent, and who are the biggest overachievers in the UFC?
The names on this list should all be familiar to any serious MMA fan. They’re veterans of the sport and they’ve been appearing on UFC cards routinely over the last four years. But more than that, these are guys who won a lot more than were expected to, meaning they turned a few heads and raised some eyebrows. Consider Chris Weidman at the top of the list. He was an underdog in both title matchups against Anderson Silva, but got the win in both fights. He’s also been flawless as a betting favorite over the years. While his perfect UFC record is impressive, it’s even more impressive when compared to the expectation that he should have only won five or so of those eight fights based on the odds. If anything, it’s possible we’ve been underestimating Weidman, despite his title and undefeated streak. Matt Brown is a fan favorite for his aggressive fighting style, and he’s also been a high earner for those bettors who had faith in him. In his 10 UFC appearance during this time period, he was only expected to win half of those fights, yet pulled off eight actual wins. Moving down the line are a number of dark horse fighters who have somehow managed to get the “W” on fight night, even with the odds stacked against them. And if 2015 performances were included, we would see a big bump for new Lightweight Champion Rafael dos Anjos, and also Donald Cerrone. Dos Anjos defeated Anthony Pettis despite being a +400 underdog, which would add a sizable 0.8 to his wins above expectation, moving him to the top of the list at +3.8. But also consider that Donald Cerrone won twice in the month of January, once as a -150 favorite over Myles Jury, and again as a +140 underdog against Benson Henderson. These two extra wins are one above expectation for a grand total of 3.5, moving him to second place behind Dos Anjos. Regression to the mean can be harsh. So the fact that these fighters overperformed for a given period doesn’t guarantee that they will continue to do so over in the future. But for fans of these select few, the ride sure has been nice. And certainly, supporting this crop of high overachievers has been better than betting on guys who failed to live up to betting expectations, like Shogun Rua (2.3 wins below expectation) and Gray Maynard (-2.1). Is there a reason some guys get undervalued? Perhaps a low-key personality? The names on the list above certainly tend towards understated personalities. So maybe that’s something to consider when viewing a matchup of contrasting hype. We’ll see this scenario reach an apex soon when Hype-man extraordinaire, Conor McGregor, takes on the often understated champion Jose Aldo at UFC 189. Don’t forget to check the “Fightnomics” book to learn all about MMA performance metrics.