Knockout Ramifications: An Experiential Perspective

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The knockout, a fan favorite in any combat sport, is as beautiful as it is violent. While knockouts are clearly bad for the fighter on the receiving end, there may be strategic ramifications beyond what occurs to the brain that may impact fighters differently. In Knockout Ramifications: A Statistical View, Jason Burgos uses statistics rooted in case studies of Andre Arlovski and Alistair Overeem to explore the potential impact of knockouts on fighters’ strategic approach. In contrast to his statistical analysis, this article will seek to explore the ramification of knockouts through the perspective of an athlete/coach with almost 25 years of experience in combat sports.

Famed leadership guru James Maxwell is quoted as saying, “Change is inevitable.  Growth is Optional.” This seems apropos in a sport growing up in front of the eyes of the world. No major sports’ growth in history is as clearly documented as that of MMA given the explosion of media and technology over the last few decades. As such, fans and fighters have been witness to the evolution (or lack thereof) of styles and fighters as MMA rapidly evolved from a jujitsu dominated sport to one controlled by true mixed martial artists who apply dynamic skill-sets balanced in striking and grappling arts.

Famed leadership guru James Maxwell is quoted as saying, “Change is inevitable.  Growth is Optional.”

Styles have not only evolved throughout the history of the sport; they are also evolving within each fighter’s history. This evolution can actually be measured using a widely established index called Herfindhal index. This index, commonly used as a strategic analysis from business market competition to industry alliances and warfare, has been applied in MMA and allows for increases in a fighters’ versatility to actually be quantified. In fact, Hooman Estalami’s book Predictors of Victory and Injury in Mixed Martial Arts Combat: A Scientific Study of Professional Fight Records,  demonstrated many aspects of MMA can be measured, such as:

Knockout Ramifications
ANAHEIM, CA – JANUARY 24: Affliction fighter Fedor Emelianenko (L) knocks out Andrei Arlovski during the first round of their Heavyweight bout at “Affliction M-1 Global Day of Reckoning” at the Honda Center on January 24, 2009 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images)
  • What are the effects of height and reach ‏advantage on a fighter’s likelihood of winning an MMA fight?
  • Does age affect how a fighter wins?
  • Is there a hometown advantage?
  • Do fighters’ pre-fight rituals affect the ‏way fights end?
  • Do southpaw fighters have an advantage ‏over their orthodox opponents?
  • How does a fighter’s weight effect the ‏types of injuries experienced in a fight?
  • Are fighters from certain countries better than others? ‎‏
  • How accurately can fight outcomes be predicted? ‎

According to the study, as fighters age, the data suggests they become less likely to win and more likely to become injured. Specifically, fighters in their 30s have about a 50 percent higher chance of injury. Another compelling stat is that a fighter who has lost their previous fight is actually statistically more likely to win the next one. In terms of knockouts, 54.03 percent of heavyweight fights are ended by KO. Compare this with the 29.54 percent KO rate at featherweight, and it is clear that being a heavyweight is substantially more dangerous in terms of knockouts.

According to the study, as fighters age, the data suggests they become less likely to win and more likely to become injured.

Given the many variables involved in victory and injury, it becomes difficult to accurately predict whether a KO actually changes any fighter’s strategy, or if there are other aspects at play like improved versatility through training, age, coaching, conditioning, a fighter’s self-efficacy, etc. Because of the variability, my notions are completely subjective as they are based on my personal experiences as a professional MMA coach…not science. Many people believe knockouts are more likely to occur as a result of fighter absorbing an accumulation of punches as their career progresses. Others believe knockouts are more likely to occur as a result of psychological hurdles related to getting “caught” while sparring or fighting. While there are some patterns evident, science tells us two things that must be kept in mind related to this topic: getting hit in the head is bad, correlation is not causation. That being said, here are some of my thoughts:

  • Fighters who experience a “flash” knockout seem less impacted physically and psychologically.
  • Fighters who experience a concussive knockout (i.e. out cold, can’t remember the fight) seem more impacted physically and psychologically.
  • Fighters who are knocked out later in their career seem more likely to question their age rather than their strategy.
    • Some fighters (not all) are negatively impacted by a knockout and become “gun shy” as their self-efficacy (belief in their ability) is negatively impacted
    • “Gun shy” fighters tend to be less relaxed, take less calculated risks, and throw less offense.
  • Fighters who are knocked out early in their careers seem more likely to question their strategy, not their ability or age. The more determined fighters use knockouts as a learning tool (i.e. crisis is opportunity).
  • Fighters with high self-efficacy are more likely to use knockouts as a learning tool.
    • Fighters with high self-efficacy tend to be those who have many successful experiences sparring and fighting.
    • Fighters with higher self-efficacy are more relaxed and tend to perform better than their less confident counterparts.
    • Relaxed fighters get hurt less (think of the drunk who survives the car accident).
  • Fighters who base their style on athleticism seem to have a more difficult time coming back from a KO in their advanced age.
  • Fighters with longer reaches who routinely use their jab seem to absorb less punishment and therefore are able to maintain relevance longer in combat sports.
  • Fighters who have been “stunned” during sparring within proximity of a fight seem more susceptible to KO’s in a fight.

Even with the large amount of data available coupled with my personal experience in the field, it’s very hard to determine how being KO’d impacts fighters physically and mentally, and whether a fighter’s strategy changes as a result of the brain rattling events. Or if it’s simply a result of the evolution of the fighter and the sport. While it’s interesting to analyze given the information available, advances in medicine and sports science will eventually tell a more accurate tale.

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