The UFC brings its tentpole shows back to Vegas tomorrow when Zuffa-undefeated welterweight champion Kamaru Usman headlines UFC 258 against challenger Gilbert Burns who hasn’t lost since moving up to welterweight in 2019 and most recently cruised to a 50-45/44 victory over former champ Tyron Woodley.
As former training partners, these two should be intimately familiar with each other’s games. So let’s get more familiar with the statistical sides of their games as we jump into the numbers.
Remember, what you’re about to read are not official UFC statistics. They’re alternative stats generated from official statistics designed to (1) give more weight to the recent present than the distant past and (2) not let one huge or horrible performance dominate the data. See the notes at the bottom for definitions of certain statistics.
Kamaru Usman vs. Gilbert Burns
Usman will be making his third welterweight title defense tomorrow night in a main event with two elite fighters who spread their time nicely over the three positions of distance, clinch, and the ground. But only one statistically “pops” when it comes to fight positioning.
Usman is pretty much the definition of a fighter who can dictate where the action takes place. If he wants to throw down in mostly open space, he can – spending over 18 ½ minutes fighting at distance with Demian Maia and almost 24 minutes busting up Colby Covington’s jaw. If he wants to pressure you against the cage or work from top position on the canvas (17-19 total minutes each versus RDA, Tyron Woodley, and Jorge Masvidal), he can do that as well with his 90% and 100% clinch and ground control time, respectively.
When Usman and Burns operate at distance, their power volume’s about the same, but Usman leads with 14.0 more head jab attempts than Burns per five minutes in the position (P5M) and connects at a fantastic 40% to Burns’ 23%. This leads to a +5.1 head jab differential for Usman P5M while Burns tends to run a deficit of -1.5.
But when we consider power strikes at distance, things flip. While both fighters throw similar volume (36.7-37.5), land at similar percentages to the head (31-33%), and absorb similar percentages to the head (31-34%), it’s Burns who sports a +4.0 power differential P5M to Usman’s deficit of -1.5. This largely comes about because Burns mixes in 15% and 18% body and leg strikes and has been much more adept at landing to his opponents’ body while protecting his own.
If we escalate things to stopping power, Usman and Burns actually look pretty similar with, if anything, a slight statistical edge to Burns. Burns drops opponents in 10.9% of his rounds and with 2.4% of his standing power head strikes landed while Usman runs 8.1% and 2.1% in those same areas. And when it comes to bloodying up faces, Burns gets credited with damage in 8.9% of his rounds to Usman’s 8.8%.
If a position change to the ground comes from a takedown rather than a knockdown, it’ll likely be coming from Usman considering that he’s never been taken down himself and Burns has a glaring statistical deficiency when opponents shoot from distance where he’s succumbed seven of 10 times. Now granted, nine of those attempts happened in the Jason Saggo days or earlier while Burns was competing as a lightweight, but the latest was from Demian Maia just this past March.
If they clinch, it’s generally Usman controlling the action with cage control 90% of the time and a work rate where he lands 64% more power strikes P5M than the typical welterweight and 142% more than Burns. Usman’s been known to just grind from the clinch, as he did last time out against Masvidal or, if he’s confident against Burn’s submission game, he could implement his higher than normal takedown activity and 57% success rate.
While the clinch statistically looks to be Usman’s, the distance and ground games have the potential for things to get interesting.
We’ve already seen why at distance. On the ground, both fighters tend to be top-position MMA grapplers (100% Usman, 88% Burns), even though Burns is extremely dangerous anywhere. If Burns can get top position, he’s in half guard or better 45% of the time. While his submission attempt rate hasn’t been abnormally high, he’s finished an impressive 4-of-8.
A nice element for MMA of Burns’ sub attempts is that more recently he’s been attempting those with less positional risk – things like rear naked chokes, kimuras, d’arces, and arm triangles – which are less likely to leave a fighter in a bad spot if they can’t finish. But even when he attempts things like armbars which could easily leave someone in a bad position should they fail – he just doesn’t fail, going 3-for-3 on those submissions.
No doubt these two have a good feel for how their games match up with each other, and now we have a feel for their numbers. We’ll find out what works and what doesn’t tomorrow night, and while the full card might not be the most exciting for a PPV show, the main event sure is.
Bring on the glorious fights!
Statistical Notes: A bout closeness measure towards zero means a fighter tends to be in blowouts (win or lose) and towards 100 means they tend to be in very close fights. Strike attempts are per an entire five minute round in each position (P5M) and are categorized as jab or power. A jab is just a non-power strike. Strikes are documented based on where they land or are targeted (head, body, legs), not the type that is thrown (punch, elbow, kick, knee). Visible damage rate is per five minutes the fighter is not on his back. It’s hard to bust up someone’s face while lying on your back. Damage percentage is per power head strike and distance head jab landed. Knockdown rate is per five minutes at distance or in the clinch off the cage. Knockdown percentage is per power head strike landed while standing. It’s really hard to knock someone down if they’re already on the ground. Knockdown/Damage round percentage is the percentage of rounds with at least one knockdown or busted up face, respectively. Clinch control is having the opponent pressed against the cage. Ground control is having top position or the opponent’s back. Submission attempts are per five minutes of ground control minus time spent in the opponent’s guard plus time spent with the opponent in guard.
Paul writes about MMA analytics and officiating at Bloody Elbow and MMA business at Forbes. He’s also an ABC-certified referee and judge. Follow him @MMAanalytics. Fight data provided by FightMetric.
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