Do Better Wrestlers Make Better Fighters? A Statistical Analysis

Mixed Martial Arts sees the arrival of more amateur wrestlers with each passing year. Some of these wrestlers have little experience past high school…

By: Coach Mike R | 12 years
Do Better Wrestlers Make Better Fighters? A Statistical Analysis
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

Mixed Martial Arts sees the arrival of more amateur wrestlers with each passing year. Some of these wrestlers have little experience past high school and some competed on the Olympic stage. For some of these fighters, their success fighting in a cage vastly outstrips their success as an amateur wrestler while some fighters never capture the incredible levels of success they experienced as elite wrestlers.

The lack of perfect correlation for some individual’s wrestling success and fighting success leads some to question whether there is a strong relationship between wrestling pedigree and fighting success or even whether a meaningful relationship exists at all. Without such a relationship it could be the case that a college wrestling career is superfluous to the development of a mixed martial artist or worse, a harmful diversion.

I would like to argue that the opposite is true. To do this I have analyzed the statistical relationship between wrestling pedigree and MMA success.

Keep reading after the jump to discover how numbers may show that better wrestlers make better fighters.

I‘ve made charts and graphs that should finally make it clear. I’ve prepared a lecture on why I have to leave elite wrestling accomplishments have a statistical relationship to accomplishments in MMA.

I’m a teacher by trade and one of the subjects I teach is wrestling. Thanks to Bloody Elbow, I have a medium by which I can also teach about wrestling. This alone does not satisfy me. It is not enough that I teach the subject matter and allow the readers to draw their own conclusions; I desire to persuade, to convince my audience that my way of thinking about the matter at hand is the right way .Here I indulge myself in the single greatest vice in the teaching profession, that of foisting my own viewpoints and opinions upon my pupils. The particular opinion being foisted: that elite wrestling accomplishments do relate very strongly to MMA success i.e. the better amateur wrestler, the better the fighter.

A common, and poisonous, notion among young people is that all opinions are equal. As a youth I often experienced the extreme annoyance of an over-matched peer attempting to neuter my carefully weighed and considered position on an issue with the foul bromide, “Well that is just your opinion.” I have no clue from where this idea of opinion egalitarianism arose, but it is the refuge of the intellectually weak and needs to be disposed of. As a teacher I feel it is my sacred duty to inform my students in no uncertain terms that not all opinions are created equal. Some opinions are better than others, particularly those opinions supported by facts. Elite among even the exceptional class of fact based opinions are the greatest and most unassailable of all opinions, those supported by numbers. One of the greatest lessons a teacher can impart to a young student is that you can’t argue with the scoreboard.

This is why I intend to not just foist my viewpoint about wrestling credentials in MMA, but to support it with statistics. With numbers on my side anyone who is paying attention will have little choice then to concede to my position. Statistics provide me the opportunity not just to force a way of thinking on those I am trying to teach, but to force the very best opinion. Below I have compiled statistics on current UFC fighters and their level of wrestling accomplishment and have provided analysis supporting my assertion that the greater the level of amateur wrestling accomplishment, the greater the likelihood of mixed martial arts excellence.

It bears mention that this entry has nothing to do with how wrestling credentials affect effective MMA wrestling. I have much to say about high level amateur wrestling and how it translates to MMA wrestling, but that is not the topic of issue. This is an analysis of wrestling pedigree and how it corresponds to MMA success, it does not attempt to answer the questions as to why and how the relationship exists.


There are three standards of MMA accomplishment I could choose to use as a metric for MMA success. I first thought to use wins and losses as a measurement but quickly realized that this was going to skew results by the very nature of the UFC. Few fighters with a losing record in the promotion enjoy the luxury of staying in the promotion. Next I looked to current or past title holders. I only counted twenty-eight of these and I figured this as too small a sample and prone to create misleading results. Finally I settled on awarded title fights. This is a tangible UFC accomplishment, reflective of success in competition, and the group of title shot recipients is substantive at fifty-five members.

For the sake of simplicity I included only the UFC for this analysis. I realized that the choice to include some promotions other than the UFC but not others would only be made arbitrarily so it was really a choice between the best promotion or all promotions. The choice for the former was easy.

In my first step in gathering data for this analysis I have divided UFC fighters into eight statistical categories based on wrestling accomplishments[i]. I have created these categories based on my own wrestling knowledge and judgement as to appropriate intervals of success in amateur wrestling. With each successive category the field of fighters will be continuously whittled down.

Statistical Group 1: All Fighters

All 355 fighters including current roster members as well as recent cuts and retirement(s)[ii]

Statistical Group 2: Confirmed Serious Wrestling Background

For this category I included and fighter with legitimate wrestling participation indicated documented in their past. What I deem as legitimate is sort of like obscenity, I know it when I see it. There is a fairly high likelihood I have accidentally omitted some fighters from this statistical tier. In the interest of transparency and potential correction by readers I have listed the fighters on the UFC roster who are in this group but not in narrower classifications. I will do the same for each additional category. This class includes seventy seven fighters including:

Andrew Craig
Diego Sanchez
Dan Miller
Melvin Guillard
Dennis Hallman
Darren Elkins
Jonathan Brookins
Sean Sherk
John Dodson
Demetrious Johnson
Pat Schilling
Michael Chiesa

Statistical Group 3: College Wrestling Background

This group includes any fighter possessed of experience in college wrestling including those programs outside of NCAA division one, there are some problems with this classification which are discussed in the next section of this entry as well as the end notes. This class includes sixty four fighters.

Efrain Escudero
Tyson Griffin
Mike Massenzio
Kamal Shalorus[iii]
Daron Cruickshank
Mike Rio[iv]
Shane Carwin
Tito Ortiz
Jon Jones
Quinton Jackson
Vladimir Matyushenko
Tom Lawlor
Rick Story
Jake Ellenberger
Jake Hecht
Danny Castillo
Ramsey Nijem[v]
Mike Brown
Ricardo Lamas
Dominick Cruz
Ken Stone
Tim Elliott
Jake Shields
Clay Guida
Ben Henderson
Tony Ferguson [vi]
Marcus LeVesseur
Joseph Benavidez

Statistical Group 4: NCAA Division 1 Background

This includes any fighter who was on an NCAA division one team. This category bothers me as it includes several fighters who were only division one wrestlers in the flimsiest sense possible (sort of like me). In the end, however, this concern will help prove an interesting point. This class contains thirty six fighters. This includes 36 fighters.

Brandon Vera
Tim Boetsch
Jim Miller
Jamie Varner[vii]
Matt Grice
Rich Attonito
Johnny Bedford
Matt Riddle
Dennis Bermudez
Clifford Starks

Statistical Group 5: NCAA Division 1 National Tournament Qualifier

This category really separates the wheat from the chaff in terms of division one accomplishment. This is for fighters who during their wrestling career qualified for the (typically) thirty two man a weight national wrestling championship. There is no pretending at this point, division one qualifiers are all extremely good wrestlers. twenty six fighters are in this category.

Dave Herman
Stipe Miocic
Dan Henderson
Jon Fitch
Mike Pierce
T.J. Dillashaw

Statistical Group 6: NCAA Division 1 Round of 12 (Received second loss one match away from All American Status)

The blood round. That is the nickname for the consolation quarter finals of the NCAA tournament. One more win and a wrestler achieves All American status. Arriving at this point is a major accomplishment in itself as it indicates that a wrestler has won at least two matches in the toughest tournament in all the land. This category holds twenty fighters.

Rashad Evans
Frankie Edgar
Charlie Brenneman
Scott Jorgensen
Urijah Faber

Statistical Group 7: NCAA Division 1 All-American

A top eight finish at the NCAA tournament earns the classification as a collegiate wrestling All American. This is the elite of the elite. The UFC claims thirteen division one All-Americans

Cain Velasquez
Ryan Bader
Jacob Volkmann
Chad Mendes
Shane Roller
Gray Maynard
Chael Sonnen
C.B. Dolloway
Chris Weidman
Matt Hughes
Aaron Simpson

Statistical Group 8: NCAA Division 1 National Champ

First place at the NCAA tournament. There are four in the UFC.

Phil Davis
Mark Munoz
Josh Koscheck
Johny Hendricks

Current Title Fight Recipients

Next I have listed every fighter on the current roster who have participated in a fight for a UFC championship. There are fifty five in all. [viii]

Patrick Cote
Frank Mir
Gabriel Gonzaga
Junior dos Santos
Cain Velasquez
Alistair Overeem
Tito Ortiz
Rashad Evans
Forrest Griffin
Lyoto Machida
Jon Jones
Quinton Jackson
Dan Henderson
Mauricio Rua
Phil Davis
Rich Franklin
Vitor Belfort
Anderson Silva
Yushin Okami
Chael Sonnen
Jake Shields
Matt Hughes
Josh Koscheck
B.J. Penn
Georges St. Pierre
Diego Sanchez
Thiago Alves
Jon Fitch
Matt Serra
Demian Maia
Carlos Condit
Dan Hardy
Nate Diaz
Frankie Edgar
Gray Maynard
Sean Sherk
Ben Henderson
Kenny Florian
Leonard Garcia
Mike Brown
Jose Aldo
Manny Gamburyan
Chad Mendes
Chan Sung Jung
Rani Yahya
Urijah Faber
Scott Jorgensen
Miguel Torres
Dominick Cruz
Brian Bowles
Eddie Wineland
Takeya Mizugaki
Joseph Benavidez
Demetrious Johnson

Results of Analysis

>Now that I have compiled the data, my goal is to find the number of title shot recipients there are per statistical category, calculate the percentage of each in its respective category and graph the results. If my hypothesis is correct, percentages should go up with each sequential statistical category. Here are the results.

A few things on this chart stand out. First is that the percentage jumps a huge interval when wrestling backgrounds are in introduced. The second is that there is little change from from category two to four, then a huge jump in category five. This tells me that simply participating on the division level does not distinguish a fighter from wrestlers of advanced accomplishment in high school and lesser collegiate classification; one must standout on the division one level to predictably stand out in MMA. I find the drop in category seven to be suprising and I think the sample is too small in category eight to draw any conclusions. What stands out most, however is categoy six, the round of twelve.

Sixty-five percent of the twenty UFC fighters who have reached the round of twelve in the NCAA tournament and beyond have been awarded fights for UFC titles. This is impressive upon first glance and warrants additional investigation. I decided to measure this statistical category against all the fighters in the UFC and all the fighters who have fought for titles and this is what I came up with:

The inner ring of this graph shows that these round of twelve fighters make up five percent of all the UFC roster members considered for this entry, but comprise almost four times as high a percentage of all fighters who have received title shots. This category of fighter is represented in title fights far out of proportion with its population

Problems with the Analysis and the Potential for better Analysis in the Future

I am under no illusions that this is analysis is thorough and comprehensive. I have not done very little and I know that this analysis can be improved and has its problems.

  • This analysis experiences a “time-slice” problem. It only considers the present and fails to account for the past and future distribution of wrestling accomplishments in the UFC. What I would like to track the changes in these numbers from the pas until now and continue to track them in the future to help prove my point, unfortunately I can only get records for a little more than a year ago and the future is yet to happen.
  • I had no way of uncovering a number of fighters actual wrestling credentials, Roy Nelson’s for example, so I had to leave them out of any list. It is inevitable that I have improperly excluded some in the non-college category (category two).
  • The college only category contains wrestlers from divisions of various qualities (listed in, what is in my estimation, ascending order of prestige: NWCA,NJCAA,NAIA, NCAA D III, NCAA D II) separating these divisions into different statistical categories would potentially leave us with samples so small as to make analysis useless.
  • Additionally, the college only category contains wrestlers of much greater accomplishments then some listed in the division one category. There are several wrestlers in the DI category who accomplished almost nothing in DI, Grice for instance, particularly when compared to wrestlers like Marcus Levesseur, Tom Lawlor, and Vladimir Matsyuskenko, the former two being the best their division has ever seen and the latter being a Russian national champ in Freestyle.
  • I am no statistician. In my nine years of higher education I never took a single course in statistics. I fear the stats I have unearthed here are terribly unsophisticated. The data I collected can probably be manipulated and exploited in much more meaningful ways. My findings may lack scientific credibility. I do not recall the importance of standard deviations and forget the standard for a true statistical correlation. I have even been careful not to use the word correlation throughout. I am open to suggestion from more more statistically savvy readers as to how I can improve my work here.
  • I’m a hopelessly biased shill for college wrestling much in the way Michael Wilbon and Dick Vitale are for college basketball. I have an agenda in that I never want to see a day when athletes forego what would have been a successful college wrestling career because they feel it is unnecessary or even unhelpful for MMA achievement.

Reasonable Conclusion

It is my opinion that the strength of the relationship in the All-American category will increase significantly in the next few years. The MMA world outside the UFC is littered with extremely promising former division one All-American fighters including three recent Olmypians and an Olympic alternate. Within the UFC itself are several All-Americans with potential title shots in the relatively near future.

Even if this were not the case I think the findings here paint a compelling picture and in the very least it is reasonable to conclude that there is a statistical relationship between amateur wrestling success and MMA success up to at least a certain level of wrestling. Larger samples, more time and data, and more advanced analysis techniques would no doubt create more definitive results, but this is a step in the right direction. Until further data reveals itself the numbers seem to favor the notion that the better wrestler makes the better fighter.

[i] I considered adding a ninth group for wrestlers who fit my criteria for world class status, but since there are only three in the UFC I did not bother.

[ii] Kenny Florian

[iii] I included Kamal in this category, he did not wrestle in college, I probably should not have put him here.

[iv] Which is my name, minus four letters

[v] Ramsey wrestled for Utah Valley State University which has achieved full division 1 status but had not yet finished this process while he was on the team.

[vi] Though Ferguson and Levesseur technically started their collegiate careers at division 1 schools, they spent the vast majority of their careers elsewhere so I have not included them in the D-1 group

[vii] I’ll be honest, I’m not entirely sure that Varner even wrestled for Lock Haven

[viii] I excluded Nogueira because he only fought for the interim title. I included Zuffa era WEC champs at 145 and 135. I included fighters who have recently fought in designated title eliminators.

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Coach Mike R
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