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Fightnomics: Looking Behind the UFC Numbers

"I still enjoy the fights, especially when it's two new guys. I don't
know either one of them, I did not make a prediction, and I just get to
appreciate the fight." - Reed Kuhn

I’ve got to be honest. Even if I hated Reed Kuhn and Kelly Crigger’s book Fightnomics, I’d still have to admire their efforts simply because I know what it’s like to dig through reams and reams of stats trying to figure out what means what, if anything.

But there’s no hating going on when it comes to this book, simply because Kuhn has taken something that is foreign to most of us – pure statistical data – and not only found a way to have it make sense, but to also add a story to it.

For me, that makes him not just one of the hardest working men in the fight business, but the Bill James of MMA. If you’re not familiar with James, he was one of the first to dig deep into the statistical history of baseball and make it not just thought provoking, but entertaining to the masses that weren’t looking to become mathematicians but just wanted to get a deeper knowledge of the game. He went on to become a Senior Advisor on Baseball Operations for the Boston Red Sox, and suffice to say that if you’re a baseball fan and don’t know his work, then you’re missing a huge chunk of knowledge about the national pastime.

You can now add Kuhn’s name to that list when it comes to must reads on the fight game. According to his website,, his background is as follows:

Reed Kuhn is a Washington D.C.-based strategy consultant with over a decade of professional experience.  He has experience providing strategic counsel to leading global companies across a variety of industries, as well as in mergers and acquisitions, private equity, and venture capital.  As a former scientific consultant for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), he supported research programs related to pushing the limits of human performance.

Now you know why I reprinted that verbatim. Kuhn is a smart guy. In 2009, he began analyzing MMA, eventually picking up a research fellowship with FightMetric, the official stats provider of the UFC, and it just snowballed from there.

“The science background was always what was driving me,” said Kuhn. “The analytics are just a way to figure out if there's an answer there, and it's not always the perfect answer. There are charts and stats and they're great and they certainly help put an objective quantification of what the answer really is. But they're not going to be perfect and they're going to change. Five years from now, certain trends and patterns I've identified may be different.”

That’s the nuts and bolts of Kuhn’s work. The interesting part is when he takes those numbers and charts to tell a story of a trend, or to figure out why certain fighters are more successful than others. It’s here where Fightnomics shines.

“I wanted to be able to tell a back story of why this was interesting,” he said. “Consider reach and the wingspan-to-height ratio. (UFC light heavyweight champion) Jon Jones is literally a freak of nature. He has the highest ratio in MMA history and not shockingly, he does quite well with his reach. It's actually a huge advantage. So when you look at fighters throughout history, why is that trend going up and up and up? Clearly there's something of value there. So I examine the back story and identify that key force that's at work, quantify it, understand it, pit it against something else head-to-head, see how they work, and that was the riddle that I wanted to solve.”

One of many in his fascinating tome, one written with Crigger, who will be familiar to fight fans as the author of several books, including Title Shot, Dark World, as well as two instructional MMA manuals written with renowned coach Greg Jackson. He was on board with Kuhn’s work immediately.

“It didn't take long to make me a believer, and I got fascinated with all the work he was doing and I wanted to be a part of it,” said Crigger, who is always quick to send more questions his buddy’s way for investigation.

“I will occasionally send him a question, like 'hey, does your data back up this question?' And he'll send me a data set,” he laughs. “We were just talking about the jet lag effect and whether fighters who have to travel east have a harder time than fighters who have to travel west.”

“That's a hypothesis,” interjects Kuhn with a chuckle. “That's not something that's tracked in FightMetric's databases.”

But what is in the FightMetric’s ever-growing database is an open field for Kuhn to run through and analyze. If it sounds like a thankless and endless task, it may be to everyone else but Kuhn, who really lives this stuff. That’s great for the fans, because we just reap the benefits of that work.

“My background in the sciences is to come up with a theory and then try to pinpoint and test it,” he said. “And if I can prove myself wrong, great, throw it out and create a better theory. If not, maybe there's something to it and I'll go deeper. Sometimes there was just so much information in front of me and I was manipulating it so quickly that things popped out. I very quickly wanted to benchmark pretty much everything meaningful. Sometimes I just got led down these rabbit holes where I was just figuring stuff out. But the good thing is that I'm very quick with creating charts, so I now have a library of several hundred pages of graphs, many of which were not in the book. Every time I learned something, I would create a graph or save it and then keep going. It allowed me to understand the system a little bit better, and then I would come back with more specific ideas.

“There were days when I was up at five o'clock in the morning, lying in bed staring at the ceiling like 'I wonder if...' and I would just get up and start working. (Laughs) And days would go by and my wife was in Med school. She would come home at 11pm and I was still sitting there, cranking away. I wouldn't move.”

Not until he got his answer. And those answers have garnered him a huge following, not just among hardcore fans, but fighters as well.

“It (the reaction from fighters) has been very positive,” said Kuhn. “And I have been working with a few on a consultation basis. I was doing that years ago, but I got away from that to write the book. I've been getting back into it again, and fighters want to know some of these things. They want to know the weakness of their opponent. They want to be able to know, is this guy as good as he says he is in a certain area. And there are very specific metrics that we can detail to the wrestling or the striking or the jiu-jitsu, and even nuances within those specialties. We can get a very particular metric for striking. Is a guy a good striker? Yes. But what is it about his striking that is good? Maybe he's high volume. Maybe he's a counterstriker that's very powerful. Maybe he's very accurate. Each one of those scenarios is something that you can actually exploit if you fully understand it. And if you eliminate the uncertainty of thinking 'well, he's a good striker, that's a threat,' you can say ‘okay, well he's a good striker when he does this, but he also does this poorly.’ Now you can use that information to your advantage. So the fighters that I've been working with have been overwhelmingly positive and responsive.”

And when a fight comes on television and what Kuhn has predicted and researched comes true, that’s a payoff like no other. Of course, there’s the other side too.

“Now I usually have some vested interest in some of the fighters,” he said when asked if he’s still able to sit back and enjoy a fight as a fan. “I either work with them, or I know them or are friends with them, so the longer I've gone doing this, the more of these guys I know and I feel personally attached to, and it's very hard to watch somebody you know and like in the cage. I wrote about that in the book. Then there's also the quantitative point where I'm doing models, I'm doing predictions, and so now I want those predictions to be right. (Laughs) But I still enjoy the fights, especially when it's two new guys. I don't know either one of them, I did not make a prediction, and I just get to appreciate the fight. I get to go back in time to the beginning and just see a fight for what it is, and that's still fun for me. So I'm glad to know that I'm still a fan, even after all of this and even after looking behind the curtain and seeing underneath everything. It's still fun to watch.”

And when you’ve got that little bit of James-ian knowledge to throw at your buddies between rounds? Now that’s fun.

For more information on Fightnomics, visit