Skills and strength coaches for many of the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s best fighters attended an invitation-only meeting on June 16 at the UFC Performance Institute. Representatives from the facility gave six separate presentations on what the institute offers and what they have learned in its first year of existence. It was all done in an effort to further build a support network between the institute and fight camps.
Trainers attending this information summit -- including Firas Zahabi, Mike Thomas Brown, Jason Parillo and Eddie Bravo -- were invited via email by UFC Vice President of Athlete Development Forrest Griffin. All of the attendees received a 45-page companion PDF document titled, “A Cross-Sectional Performance Analysis and Projection of the UFC Athlete.” Sherdog obtained this document, which includes a breakdown of UFC fight stats from 2002 to 2017 and a review of the organization’s ideologies on maximizing a fighter’s abilities in training and fights. The seven-chapter PDF was meant to give further context and be used as a companion booklet for the six-section presentation given at the meeting.
Tony Ricci, the sports science advisor and strength coach at Longo-Weidman MMA, was in attendance. Ricci revealed that Dr. Duncan French, the institute’s vice president of performance, opened the summit: “What are sports scientists for? What are coaches for?” he asked. “To find out how athletes win in any sport.” It set the tone for what was presented at the meeting and offered in the document.
The data from chapter one, “Winning in Today’s UFC,” was pooled from over 3,900 bouts in the UFC. From 2002 to 2008, the average fight length was just over eight minutes. However, fight durations climbed to nearly 11 minutes by 2017 -- an increase of 32 percent. Among the company’s divisions (women’s flyweight and featherweight are not in these statistics due to a lack of sufficient data), heavyweights average the shortest bouts at around nine minutes, while strawweights stay in the cage the longest at 12 and half minutes. With bouts being longer, it comes as no surprise that the number of fights ending in a decision has risen exponentially. In this same period, decisions have grown by 28.3 percent, with just over half of the bouts going the distance in 2017. Knockouts and technical knockouts, which represented 54.7 percent fight results in 2002, dropped by 31.9 percent in that time. Submission victories reached their highest point in 2007, at 31.6 percent of bout results.
While improvements in fighting techniques have grown, strikes per minute have doubled over the 15-year period. Despite fights being longer and with more punches thrown and landed, decisions still are up. However, these are total strikes landed, not significant strikes. Another interesting fact -- yet not surprising -- is that while heavyweights throw the least amount of punches in bouts, their knockout rates are the highest. A theory mentioned in the chapter several times is how bigger bodies lead to higher impact.
The next chapter of the document and section of the meeting covered a key facet in combat sports: injuries. Dubbed an “injury audit” by Ricci, the institute’s director of physical therapy, Dr. Heather Linden, aimed to inform the trainers on what injuries “happen most commonly in sparring and what happens most commonly in fights,” Ricci said, along with techniques to try and prevent these occurrences. This information came from assessments from the 220 fighters treated at the facility over the last year. Based off of those findings, 77 percent of injuries occur during fights, while 12 percent occur in the “other” category: a mix of pre-existing injuries, overuse injuries and non-MMA related injuries. Only 10 percent came from training.
Striking is the leading cause of injuries in fights at 64.9 percent, and there seems to be a clear correlation to the body part with the highest injury percentage in fights: the wrist and hand at 17 percent. Fight and training injuries combined occur most to the head and face, followed by the aforementioned wrist and hand, furthering the connection striking has to injury rates.
Along with breaking down fight numbers in today’s UFC and the injury history of many on the roster, the summit covered ways to optimize training. “That was done by Bo [Sandoval], and he did a really good job,” said Ricci, crediting the institute’s strength and conditioning director. Going hand-in-hand with Sandoval’s input was a presentation by Dr. Roman Fomin on the cross-sectional overview of the performance attributes in UFC athletes. “They establish norms, [like] ‘What is the normal vertical jump of a UFC middleweight?’ [or] something like that,” Ricci said. Think the NFL Combine for MMA.
Clint Wattenberg, the facility’s director of nutrition, also spoke during the meeting and touched on “weight management, effective performance and, of course, making the weight,” Ricci said. In the coinciding digital document, there were many tips to address the ongoing weigh-in issues surrounding the promotion. The document notes that, “the recommended fight night weight [should be] within 10 percent of a fighter’s contracted weight class” and that “fight camp should focus on weight descent and optimizing energy for training and recovery.” Another worthwhile suggestion in the document: “Most UFC fighters should be losing no more than 2-3 pounds per week throughout a weight descent.”
The meeting and its associated literature was put together to convey three points to the assembled coaches, according to Ricci. “Mission one is, ‘What is the UFC PI doing [and] what are they offering?’ Mission two [is] to show the information they have built. Mission three [is] to share it with us [and] to exchange ideas.”
The UFC Performance Institute does not consider itself a new gym in line with American Top Team or Roufusport. Instead, it functions as a facility to support all the gyms connected to the promotion through its roster of fighters. This meeting was meant to set up a greater sharing network between those gyms and the facility.
“I credit them for this,” Ricci said. “They are out to share everything they have learned, [to] collaborate with the camps for the purpose of increasing fighter performance, reducing injury risk and having the fighter arrive safely at weight.”
The New York-based Ricci was encouraged by what he learned during this summit and views the facility as a useful asset in optimizing the potential of the athletes fighting under the UFC banner.
“My end impression is, I thought for the one year that they’ve been open they have done an outstanding job,” he said. “They were given a $30 million facility, but no one said here’s what we want from you, so they had to create a purpose and how to implement the purpose.”