I have a brand new laptop to deal with (no annoying Paper Clip mascot has weighed-in on my sentences yet, but I’m waiting), and feel like writing some sort of epic post to herald a new library of sports-handicapping material.
What could be more epic than martial arts? No one could have dreamed back in the “Karate Kid” era that martial arts would come to dominate Las Vegas and online sports betting on Saturdays throughout the year. They especially would not have foretold that martial artists and wrestlers – legitimate wrestlers not TV stunt-people – would be hailed among the top celebrity names in prizefighting. Conor McGregor is an “SEO” term in the 21st century, but many boxing champions are not.
And yet others – including Chinese sports fans and pundits – would be hesitant to admit that Conor McGregor is a real martial artist. To the Buddhists and Samurai legend-tellers of Asia, only the pure forms of the arts will do, not some “mixed” variety that includes western boxing and wrestling.
I’m not among the state-side prizefighting bloggers who laugh at China for its skepticism of MMA and western boxing superiority. Americans are overly skeptical of Asian sports – that’s why MLB stat leaders are described as having the best form “in all of baseball” prior to the annual “World Series” of North American clubs. (By contrast Finland is 500% more humble, calling its hockey prize the “Canada.”)
In fact, UFC lost something when it turned out purist Kung-Fu and Karate masters were getting destroyed by fist-strikes and brutal choke-holds. I bought the very 1st UFC pay-per-view because I wanted to see a Ninja fight a barroom brawler and find out who would prevail. I didn’t already know that Mixed-Martial Arts would produce explosive results and threaten to destroy centuries of combat-sports tradition. Maybe nobody really knew at the time.
The delusions of the hold-outs decades later – those who think a few hours per-day of specialized open-hand striking practice (plus a black belt in “Ninja”) is better combat training than practicing jiu-jitsu and muay thai vs cage fighters in a gym – are funny as hell. There’s no denying that. Any veteran UFC fighter has dozens of hilarious stories about crushing egotistical Sensai-types who aren’t even in shape.
But the myths of the East still affect how outcomes play-out in the Octagon – believe it or not.
An MMA Gambler’s Path to Beating the Bookmaker
Las Vegas handicappers have the athletic prowess of prizefighters pegged pretty well. Any significant mass, power, agility or reach-advantage will be exploited in opening lines and in the odds attached to moving markets. UFC betting sites were correct, for instance, in making Max Holloway a favorite over Frankie Edgar at UFC 240, given the former’s amazing balance and defensive skills against Edgar’s rugby-like running take-down attempts. Holloway could probably defend those moves in his sleep, and did not have to wage an inspired comeback or emotionally plead to stay in the match.
But psychology – there’s the most overlooked aspect of handicapping the Octagon. I’ve struggled to keep up with my shiny college football and FIFA records when making UFC picks for the blog, but have also shown a knack for predicting big fights like Rousey vs Nunes or McGregor vs Mayweather in the same time frame. Those fights were promoted in headlines every day…that helped. It was hard not to notice the psychology of the fighters, and (just as importantly when placing bets) the psyche of the media and the public surrounding the contests.
Undercard fights aren’t covered as much, and it takes a microscope to look into the lower combatants’ state-of-mind and career trajectory before and after an MMA card.
Fighters can be distracted by many things – personal life, confidence issues, changing coaches and trainers. But there’s a new factor that should take more and more precedence in handicapping fights, and that’s a phenomenon called “cross-training mania” or CTM for short.
CTM will cause a terrific kickboxer to try to wrestle like Brock Lesnar – and wind up looking more like C.M. Punk. Cross-Training Mania will make wrestlers try to become 5-round stand-up strikers, too, with the result being that the grappler never plays to his own strengths in the cage.
Gurus haven’t gone away just because nobody listens to “Ninja” charlatans anymore. The new gurus of UFC convince combatants to stop dancing with what brought them, and learn exotic new disciplines that look better in sparring sessions than in a match for a title belt.
If you get a mind that a fighter is fancying herself the opposite of what she is – whether a mat wrestler or a power-pugilist – it’s time to bet on the opponent’s moneyline.
Experiencing a Breakthrough in UFC Handicapping
Joe Rogan might be the strangest sports pundit in America by the sheer fact that he doesn’t consider himself to be one. Rogan is a UFC prizefighting commentator and has a history of hosting and participating in a few different combat/novelty sports. But outside of Octagon battles, boxing, wrestling, and a few odds and ends, he doesn’t follow or comment on any competitions around the world.
Tell Picasso to get into blue – he’s going to get deeply into blue. Joe’s UFC analysis is almost unparalleled thanks to a specialized sports gig combined with 1st-hand experience and a who’s-who roundtable of MMA veterans on his podcast. I won’t play you any clips of the Joe Rogan Experience because so much of the content is edgy and NSFW. But on a recent episode, Joe and the usual crew of UFC-obsessed insiders led by Eddie Bravo brought up what happens when fighters abandon their strengths, under the illusion that a new training regimen has made them into a new combatant.
In my favorite anecdote from the show, mixed-martial artist Gerald Strebendt is described as having been bowled-over by a “spiritual” striking coach after 6 months of training prior to his 1st UFC bout, to the point of dubbing himself “Bangkok Ready” and engaging in Eastern religious ceremonies in the Octagon.
I have to imagine veteran UFC gamblers who had taken Strebendt to defeat Josh Thompson that day had to have buried their heads at that point.
It’s a strange contrast with boxing. Those who peak in their 20s in the squared circle tend to try to hold on to their “original” form forever, associating any change in style with age and decay.
That’s what made George Foreman’s comeback so brilliant – it cracked the standard narrative as a wiry brawler became an un-KO’able tank in old age.
Big George spent several years honing a new style, though – successful UFC combatants must do battle with intense rivals while developing skills on company time.
Do the smartest fighters spend a lifetime perfecting their strengths, improving weaknesses only to parry an opponent successfully into taking over rounds? Or is it possible to knock 10 guys out with punches, then tap-out the next 10 fighters thanks to a mid-career change in tactics?
If it’s not, then UFC bettors would be wise to dive deep for certain tips months ahead of matches.
UFC Analytics: Outcomes Following Changes in Style
Analytics are supposed to include numbers, but sometimes the numbers are deceiving, and logic prevails.
For instance, a UFC combatant who has recently changed coaches (and styles) might tell you to look at the positive W/L record of fighters who make changes and develop new skills prior to an appearance. Without doing a research study, I can tell you it’s a valid point. Fighters often win their next booking after making a change in the coach’s chair and/or training regimen.
But consider that:
- A – The sample-size involved is skewed, since combatants are more likely to switch coaches (or gurus) after a loss in a match.
- B – Of course the “after” record will look better than the “before” record of fighters sampled in the scenario, since relatively few athletes become disgruntled and fire a coach after a win.
- C – Fighters who lose are less likely to be booked into a marquee match against an elite opponent at the next UFC event. Of course they’re more likely to win.
In truth, the most-consistent UFC moneyline winners tend to stick with their coaching and training teams for reasonably long periods of time, work on accentuating their strengths in the Octagon for long periods of time, and focus on sewing-up weaknesses as an ancillary strategy to ward-off opposing counterattacks, instead of “falling in love” with a new weapon (the CTM virus) and making it a go-to.
What’s left to the bettor is the knowledge that probably 10% or 20% of the fighters on a card are overpriced (and their opponents hence undervalued by Las Vegas) thanks to making too many rapid changes to their team and training regimen. A combatant becomes overconfident when new techniques work on the sparring mat, confusing the vibe of friendly bouts with the perils of shoot-fighting.
CTM is the perfect deadly cocktail, with a likely upset in the mix.
An Identity Crisis in the Octagon
The media has its own cross-format mania. Ronda Rousey’s public sulking and preening prior to the Amanda Nunes loss wound up in mainstream tabloid headlines in addition to sports pages, but in reality “Rowdy”s issues were just an exaggerated version of something that happens all the time – the fighter who’s gotten off their game in 1 way or another.
When Lesnar and Rousey (and the 0-100 Punk) vacillate between MMA and professional wrestling, it’s the most visible kind of identity crisis. But when someone out-and-out quits UFC, that can only pay off on prop betting boards – not the moneyline at a PPV.
More-subtle crises occur right in the Octagon when fighters lose their nerve and abandon their strengths. You hear a lot of cliché in UFC interviews, but you hear a lot of innuendo about methods too. Listen for combatants boasting about skills that really aren’t in their wheelhouse. Also, the presence of a coach with a specialty in grappling or striking is a bigger tell-tale than any prefight commentary.
Sure, there are grapplers who become feared strikers through years of practice, though immediate results don’t always make gamblers happy – unless they’re taking the underdog.
Look at a guy like Urijah Faber, whose early MMA career was marked by wounded opponents and vicious submission holds. Faber threatened to dominate the WEC Featherweight division with an epic winning streak between 2005 and 2008, but felt he needed more stand-up striking ability to continue to prevail in his 30s. Perhaps he was right – but a focus on striking and kick-boxing meant that rivals who cut their teeth scoring TKOs had a better shot at an upset.
Faber walked into WEC 36 in late 2008 as a strong moneyline favorite and got into a 1st-round boxing slugfest with Mike Brown, losing the belt in a shocking 2 minutes and 33 seconds.
Then there’s the version of CTM where 2 feared brawlers at once fancy themselves able to get-by with total finesse and a low-stress decision victory. It’s like when the French and German armies decided not to fight a war and played soccer instead.
Hardcore UFC fans probably know which 2018 bout I’m referring to, but here’s a brief-as-needed post-mortem for newbies:
"I am not proud of my last performance. I have carried my fear from the last fight to this one."
— UFC on BT Sport (@btsportufc) July 9, 2018
Oh, well. At least those victory-by-decision prop bettors had a low-stress half hour.
Don’t Overlook the Chinese Position…Completely
A few sober fight analysts from China have been taking the middle road, arguing that we have no way of knowing if MMA brawlers would beat up Bruce Lee or any of the great traditional martial artists of the past – especially ancient warriors who were trained to kill, not score points or bragging rights. So-called “old school” martial arts has become performance art, unsuited for actual combat.
That’s true in many respects, but what’s scary is how many Kung Fu and Tai Chi practitioners believe that their post-Hollywood “ornamental” style is still a match for ruthless modern tactics.
In another infamous bout, a rotund “Judo master” spends an entire fight swinging ape-like at a Chinese mixed-martial artist, who makes a point of not even bothering to block the blows. But a chubby old guy doing Andy Kaufman’s windmill-punch at a bodybuilder tells us nothing about how a real-life Pai Mei armed with exotic weapons would fare vs Brock Lesnar in a back alley.
What we know is that the “lure” of magical and mysterious fighting styles still tugs at UFC fighters in 2019. UFC matches are as hard for fighters and coaches to predict as for long-time handicappers, and the “answer” for making a good combatant great often seems whispered in the wind.
As golfer Greg Norman once said, “I changed my style trying to get to a new level, and I did. It was a new level 3 or 4 bars below the old one.” Athletes who change their game too quickly are vulnerable to the upset loss – it’s a truism across the spectrum of sports, and also at the betting board.