UFC 292: Two of the best fighters ever meet in main event

A detailed breakdown of the position-by-position statistics to watch out for in UFC 292’s Aljamain Sterling vs. Sean O’Malley main event this Saturday.

By: Paul Gift | 1 month ago
May 6, 2023, Newark, NJ, Newark, NJ, United States: Newark, NJ - May 6: Aljamain Sterling prepares to fight in a Bantamweight bout at UFC 288: He'll face Sean O'Malley at UFC 292
IMAGO | ZUMA WIRE by Louis Grasse

UFC 292 Grudge Match

The grudge match we never knew we needed is almost upon us as UFC 292 heads to Boston on Saturday headlined by two title fights: Aljamain Sterling vs. Sean O’Malley for the bantamweight strap and Weili Zhang defending her women’s strawweight belt against hard-charging challenger Amanda Lemos.

Sterling and O’Malley have been going at it on social media with trash talk about sleep, among other things, and it’s possible one of them could end up going to sleep in the cage on Saturday. That’s the fight we’re focusing on today as Sterling’s being called the greatest bantamweight of all time and O’Malley’s racked up some super impressive stats thus far in his 6-1 (1 NC) UFC run, but some would also add he’s only recently stepped up his level of competition.

So let’s jump right into the numbers. Remember, what you’re about to read are not official UFC statistics. They’re alternative stats generated from official statistics and designed to (1) give more weight to the recent present than the distant past and (2) minimize the effects of one huge or horrible performance more quickly as time goes by. See the notes at the bottom for definitions of certain statistics.

Aljamain Sterling vs. Sean O’Malley

The main event will pit 245 in-octagon minutes (Aljo) against a more paltry 95 minutes (O’Malley), but “Sugar” doesn’t necessarily need a lot of time to do his thing.

So far in his UFC career, O’Malley’s been a master of busting up faces (damage rate 160% better than average and Aljo), dropping opponents in over 1/4th of his rounds (versus zero knockdowns for Aljo), and incredible efficiency when striking at distance.

Probably the most impressive part of O’Malley’s efficiency is he doesn’t sacrifice volume to do it. Sugar lands 49% of his distance head jabs (28% average, 37% Aljo) while still making 24.2 attempts per five minutes in the position (p5m). Most bantamweights throw around 17-18 head jabs in that same time frame.

Then with distance power strikes, O’Malley connects with an utterly incredible 63%. The vast majority of those strikes are to the head where 57% land versus 30-36% for an average bantamweight and Aljo. O’Malley also remembers to tenderize the body where 70% of his shots land, and when he attacks the legs with power, he basically doesn’t miss (97% accuracy vs. 79% average). And he does all this while throwing a slightly better than average power strike volume.

That’s just O’Malley on offense. He does all that work at distance while only absorbing 19% and 24% of opponent jabs and power strikes to the head (28% and 30% averages). The end result is a +10.5 head jab differential p5m and +11.6 power strike differential.

Those are some serious striking stats.

Can Aljo clinch up?

Statistically speaking, this is what the fight likely boils down to.

Aljo’s not a chump in distance striking. He’s got impressive accuracy numbers, solid volume, and ends up with differentials of +3.8 for head jabs, +2.9 for head power, and +3.8 for body power. He pushes a high pace, mostly with power strikes. But he also pushes a high pace with takedown attempts, and this is where things get interesting.

There’s a huge difference between an Aljo takedown attempt from distance versus the clinch. And the same goes for O’Malley’s takedown defense.

At distance, Aljo only lands 17% of his takedown shots while O’Malley defends 83%. Yet once they get clinched up, everything changes. The second they’re physically touching each other in the cage, Aljo now lands 50% of his takedowns and O’Malley only successfully defends a puny 21% – basically nothing.

O’Malley almost always gets controlled in the clinch and ground

If Aljo can make it to the clinch, he’ll enter a world where O’Malley almost never has control (only 1% of the time) and he can put his +6.8 power strike differential p5m to work along with the takedown advantages already discussed. And if any of those Aljo takedowns succeed, they’ll transition to a position where O’Malley gets controlled on bottom 90% of the time.

These definitely aren’t the kind of clinch and ground control stats we usually see from a UFC title challenger.

The one bright spot for O’Malley is he rarely lets his opponents advance position to half guard or better. He spends 88% of his bottom time with full guard, so he’s at least got that going for him. But Aljo also spends 68% of his top control time in half guard or better, so something’s got to give. For perspective, a typical bantamweight ends up in half guard or better with 33% of his top control time.

Another silver lining for O’Malley on the ground is he’s been almost 100% better than average at getting back up to his feet from bottom position and Aljo’s roughly an average fighter when it comes to keeping opponents down. And while O’Malley’s never been tapped out, it’s because he’s yet to face a submission attempt in his entire UFC career. Meanwhile Aljo’s finished 31% of the 13 subs he’s been able to lock in.

None of this says that Aljo can’t end up outstriking O’Malley at distance or getting a knockout blow, or that O’Malley won’t catch a sub from the clinch or the ground. But this is a statistical preview, and we use it to help think about the likelihood of these things happening.

Fight gods willing, a few things we know for sure: These two will throw down on Saturday night, the fight could be all over the place, and it should be a skilled scrap wherever the action takes us.

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). 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. Clinch control is having the opponent pressed against the cage. Ground control is having top position or the opponent’s back.

About the author: Paul writes about MMA analytics and officiating at Bloody Elbow and MMA business at Forbes Sports. He was also formerly licensed as a referee and judge. Follow him @MMAanalytics. Fight data provided by FightMetric.

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About the author
Paul Gift
Paul Gift

Dr. Paul Gift is a sports economist with a research focus on mixed martial arts. A licensed MMA referee and judge himself, Dr. Gift’s interests pertain to many facets of the MMA industry including behavioral biases and judging, the role of financial and environmental factors on fighter performance, determination of fighter marginal products, and predictive analytics.

A regular MMA business contributor for Forbes, Dr. Gift also writes about MMA analytics and officiating in popular press for SB Nation and co-hosts the MMA business podcast Show Money. His sports research has been cited in the Wall Street Journal, ESPN’s Grantland, and popular media including Around the Horn, Olbermann, and various MMA and boxing podcasts.

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