UFC 278 goes down Saturday night in Utah with the return of pound-for-pound #1 ranked champion Kamaru Usman. He’ll square up in a rematch with Leon Edwards, seven years in the making.
The co-main event features a long-awaited return of former UFC and Strikeforce middleweight champ Luke Rockhold who hasn’t fought since before the world knew what Covid-19 is, and hopefully has had ample time for his chin to recover from some devastating knockout losses.
So let’s jump into the numbers for UFC 278’s headliner fights.
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. Leon Edwards
Edwards and Usman are both are coming in on very nice winning streaks. Usman last tasted defeat over nine years ago when he was choked out on the undercard of CFA 11. And the last time Edwards lost, it was almost seven years ago to Usman – in the early prelims of UFC on FOX 17, two fights after Francis N’Gannou opened the show in his promotional debut.
So it’s definitely been a while.
While they’ve each had long streaks, the dominance edge easily goes to Usman. Even though Edwards has been winning, his scraps tend to be much closer. Put another way, the most statistically dominant fight of Edwards’ 14-bout UFC career was his last-second KO of Peter Sobotta in 2018. Meanwhile, Usman’s had eight showings in his perfect 15-0 UFC career that have been even more dominant than Edwards at his best.
This is partly because Usman has the ability to dominate opponents in multiple ways. In four of his wins, he had over 10 minutes of ground control. In one of his wins, it was over 10 minutes of clinch control. And in three of his wins, he did his thing at distance for over 18 minutes. While wrestling is Usman’s bread and butter, he’s an extremely well rounded fighter.
But all rounds start at distance where Usman and Edwards both tend to spend around three of every five minutes, yet in different ways. Edwards isn’t much of a jabber, throwing 34% fewer head jabs than the average welterweight and 40% fewer than Usman. Edwards also throws a slightly less than average power volume, but when he unleashes those attacks, he’s accurate.
Edwards connects with half of his power strikes at distance. This is partly because he’s accurate to the head (41% vs Usman’s 37%) and partly because he does a good job mixing in more higher percentage shots to the body and legs (75% head, 15% body, 10% legs). Tagging your opponents is a good thing, but one issue Edwards has had is that opponents don’t tend to fall when he lands with power. While Edwards has four total knockdowns to his name, once we account for his time in the Octagon and activity levels, his three knockdown metrics come in 41-56% lower than the typical welterweight and 73-80% below Usman’s.
Meanwhile Usman is more active and accurate with head jabs and, while his power volume makes up for slightly less accuracy, Usman’s relative knockdown power was just shown above.
The end result, though, is that Edwards appears to be very much a live dog at distance. But if the fight moves to the clinch or ground, the numbers don’t crunch in his favor.
While both fighters spend 41 seconds to a minute of every round clinched up, Usman is the controlling fighter 74% of the time to Edwards’ 42%. And since damage is what really matters, while he’s there Usman blasts a +10.9 power strike differential (per five minutes in the position, P5M) to Edwards’ +2.8. And then there are takedowns. Usman attempts clinch takedowns at an average rate but completes a rock solid 60% (46% average). He’s also never been taken down anywhere, at distance or the clinch.
If Edwards does hit the canvas, in spite of his average to slightly better than average takedown defense, Usman’s maintained 100% top control during his time on the ground (68% for Edwards).
It’s hard to compare power strike differentials in this world since Usman’s only been controlled for basically a rounding error amount of time – 2 seconds of his 78 ground minutes – but his offensive GnP game connects with opponents 55% more than an average welterweight and 134% more than Edwards.
While the submission game is certainly a possibility – both guys have tapped out one opponent in the UFC – they don’t attempt them with much frequency and neither has been tapped in their time with Zuffa.
So how does this fight go down? In what should statistically be one of Usman’s worlds or at distance where the stats are much less certain of the outcome? I can’t wait to find out.
Paulo Costa vs. Luke Rockhold
The co-main event also has streaks, but not the good kind. Costa and Rockhold each enter the cage Saturday on two-fight losing skids.
While Costa was the victim of an Israel Adesanya “Flawless Victory” two years ago, he at least took 2-of-5 rounds against Marvin Vettori last year. The concerning thing for Rockhold is he’s been on the receiving end of highlight reel knockouts in three of his last four outings.
When they start at distance, Rockhold still maintains small but positive head jab and power differentials. He also mixes in body and leg strikes extremely well. But Costa’s got a nasty power volume and differential. Spending 4:30 of every five minutes standing in open space, Costa throws almost twice the power volume of a typical middleweight and he out-strike’s his opponents with a +14.8 differential P5M.
Against recent-Rockhold, it’s very possible that only one of those 14.8 will be needed to shut the lights off. Costa’s knockdown round percentage is more than double the average middleweight, and in alternative stats, so is Rockhold’s rate of getting cracked – his knocked down round percentage.
If Rockhold takes Izzy’s advice and tries to “start wrestling straight away,” he’s probably going to want to clinch up first. Costa’s defended 15-of-16 takedown attempts at distance while Rockhold’s only landed a measly 1-of-18. Rockhold’s at least been better in the clinch, going 5-of-15 on lower body takedown attempts. And while Costa’s only faced three such attempts in his UFC career, he’s twice succumbed and only once successfully defended.
While in the clinch, Rockhold tends to be the fighter with control against the cage (59% to Costa’s 4%), and if he’s able to take the fight to the ground, he’s the top position fighter 61% of the time to Costa’s 32%. And we know the danger Rockhold poses from there.
Rockhold’s got a nasty +47.1 power strike GnP differential from the ground (P5M) and he throws up 2.4 sub attempts per five modified ground minutes (see notes below) completing 43%. That means he attempts 72% more submissions than a typical middleweight and has a 70% better completion percentage.
The man is dangerous on the ground.
But will Rockhold ever have a chance to get there without it being for Costa’s finishing blows? That’s the big question which leads me to say:
Bring on the glorious fights!
Statistical Notes: 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). 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.
About the author