The final PPV event of what should end up as the best financial year in UFC history goes down this Saturday night in Las Vegas. Now that McGregor madness is on the sidelines for the moment, Dustin Poirier’s calendar has cleared up for him to get back to the business of fighting the best-of-the-best. And lightweight champion, and underdog, Charles Oliveira is happy to oblige for his first title defense.
In the co-main event, we get to see how long challenger Julianna Pena can survive against one of the very best to ever get locked inside a cage, double champ Amanda Nunes. At +600 as of this writing, the odds makers have Pena as the biggest underdog to ever stand toe-to-toe with Nunes. But hey, this is MMA where 1/3rd of favorites get humbled. Does Pena have the skills to pull off a monumental upset? Let’s see what the stats think.
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.
Charles Oliveira vs. Dustin Poirier
Who do you root for in this fight? Poirier’s a fan favorite while Oliveira’s a grinder who powered through his early losses, didn’t get discouraged, and kept learning and improving, learning and improving. I mean, if anyone deserves a Modelo commercial… or the Brazilian equivalent.
Strap in because both men like striking volume and submission attempts, and they can each can drop opponents at any moment while being very hittable themselves.
Oliviera’s career makes the case for alternative stats as he’s gone from a lifetime +1.0 distance power strike differential per five minutes in the position (P5M) to +8.3 when weighted for recency. Meanwhile his knockdown round and strike percentages have basically doubled lifetime to alternative: 9.4% to 18.8% knockdown round percentage and 3.0% to 5.9% knockdown (strike) percentage.
For someone known as an elite grappler, Oliviera’s willing to spend a good amount of time striking at distance every round (2:07). But it doesn’t come without cost. Oliviera eats 35% and 41% of opponent jabs and power strikes to his head, significantly more than an average lightweight’s 27% and 29%. But every second Oliviera’s there, he can drop an opponent at any time or shoot for one of his 4.1 distance takedowns P5M with 65% accuracy.
And what can you say about Poirier? Like Oliviera grinded throughout his career, Poirier grinds through a fight, often letting his edges accumulate as he takes opponents into deeper and deeper water.
Poirier gets his face busted up in 11.1% of his rounds, but he busts up the other guy in 15.9%. Poirier absorbs 24.9 P5M and 49% of his opponents power strikes at distance, but he dishes the same out at 29.0 P5M and 53%. If they clinch up, those same striking numbers have Poirier absorbing 13.3 P5M and 73% while returning fire with 16.9 5M and 80%.
Where Poirier tends to have a much bigger edge is in power, dropping opponents in 10.4% of his rounds and with a 0.21 knockdown rate (0.16 average). But against the champ Oliviera, that edge seems to statistically disappear, or even turn negative. Oliviera’s been on a knockdown tear of late with four in his last five bouts.
Yet Oliveira’s still very much about getting the fight to the ground. He only spends 14 seconds of every five minutes in the clinch while attempting takedowns at an inordinate rate and landing 64%. Once on the ground, Oliveira’s only had 45% top control over the course of his career, but with more recent alternative stats he’s controlling on top 60% of the time (58% of that time in half guard or better). And when he gets top position, he excels at keeping opponents’ backs on the canvas and in constant danger.
Olivera’s submission attempt rate, while solid and better than average, isn’t exceptional. But if he locks a choke in on you, there’s a 50% chance you’re tapping or going to sleep (13-of-26). Another display of Oliveira’s pressure and control on the ground is that his opponents have only been able to safely get back to their feet at a rate 57% below the lightweight average.
Meanwhile Poirier just keeps grinding out a statistical edge on the ground: 51% control time, 33.3 power strikes landed P5M to 17.7 absorbed, an extremely high submission attempt rate but only 3-of-23 finished with three more classified as “tight.” Also being submitted twice himself with two other tight sub close calls.
So which grinder do you have leaving with the belt on Saturday night, the career grinder or the fight grinder? I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to find out.
Amanda Nunes vs. Julianna Pena
A strange stat about Pena is when she loses in her UFC career, she gets tapped out. Will that continue on Saturday night? Probably not, but would you have thought Shevchenko or de Randamie would sub Pena before their respective fights? Probably not, again.
Pena will step into the Octagon against the women’s GOAT and a jiu-jitsu black belt who also happens to bust up opponents’ faces in almost 25% of her rounds (3.4% average) while carrying a knockdown rate and percentage that run 3x and 4x the women’s bantamweight average, respectively. Meanwhile Pena’s never bloodied up a face or knocked a single opponent down.
Then again, power striking isn’t really Pena’s game.
Pena spends only 55 seconds of every five minutes at distance where she throws a better-than-average volume of head jabs and power strikes, yet lands a paltry 13% and 23%, respectively. With only 2.2 of her 51.4 power strike attempts P5M targeting the body or legs, she’s a classic head hunter. But she’s not necessarily trying to damage the head, or even open up takedown shots where she has a subpar 14% success rate. For the most part, Pena uses her distance and volume game to initiate a clinch where she only has cage control about 50% of the time, yet she’s still able to attempt 6.2 takedowns P5M (3.3 average) and land at an impressive 58% clip.
Once on the ground, you might expect Pena to have substantial control time, but she’s only on top 55% of the time. Yet when she’s in that top position, it’s often an advantageous one with 50% of her top control coming from half guard or better. Pena’s got solid volume from the ground – landing about 50% more power strikes P5M than the typical women’s bantamweight – and she’s finished or threatened to finish two of her five submission attempts. The biggest problem is the other fighter inside the cage will be Amanda Nunes.
Nunes only spends 20 seconds of every five minutes in the clinch, and only five of those seconds have her back against the cage. While opponents have had some success with clinch takedowns on Nunes, she defend 66% of them (55% average) and is almost 50% better than the typical women’s bantamweight at getting back to her feet.
Another way of looking at this is Nunes has spent around 10 ½ minutes on her back in her fully-documented Zuffa career (one Strikeforce bout, 15 UFC). More than nine of those minutes came in her first seven fights. Since then, in her last nine fights from Miesha Tate on, Nunes has been on her back for just over a minute. Pena might be able to put her back there on Saturday night, but she’ll have to run the gauntlet of Nunes’ striking and power first.
We’ve already mentioned Nunes’ exceptional ability to bloody faces and drop opponents to the canvas. She’s also never been dropped herself and, while she’s not at a Floyd Mayweather level of “hit and not get hit,” her alternative stats differentials are all improved over her lifetime versions. With distance head jab and power strike differentials of +4.4 and +21.1 P5M, Nunes should be able to make it costly for Pena to work for the clinch. And if she ends up there, every time Nunes escapes to open space it’ll be another opportunity to run up the tab.
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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