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If you didn’t watch the first three fights at UFC on ESPN 10 on Saturday in Las Vegas, you didn’t miss much but you also missed a lot.
The combined fight time of those three fights was 1:53. In those 113 seconds, however, Christian Aguilera short-circuited Anthony Ivy with a monstrous overhand right, Tyson Nam starched Zarrukh Adashev with a straight right counter and Julia Avila overwhelmed Gina Mazany with a ferocious flurry against the fence. In MMA, a lot can happen in not a lot of time.
Almost immediately, fans and media began attributing the back-to-back-to-back sub-minute finishes to the smaller Octagon. The UFC Apex, where this event and the previous two were held, uses a 25-foot cage, whereas the regular Octagon is 30 feet in diameter.
The idea that smaller cages mean more finishes is not without merit. There’s an intuitive sense that less space to move around leads to more action, and more action naturally leads to more finishes. In his 2013 book “Fightnomics,” former Sherdog analyst Reed Kuhn looked at all the World Extreme Cagefighting and Ultimate Fighting Championship bouts from 2005 through the halfway mark of 2012 and found that “finish rates are higher in smaller cages, and this is true for all the weight classes where we have good data.” In a more nuanced and methodologically rigorous analysis in 2015, Bloody Elbow’s Paul Gift similarly noted that in smaller cages “we should see more fight finishes, fewer decisions and more upsets.” As Gift points out, less space pushes the action of the fight toward the fence, which results in more damaging shots since the fence restricts the most instinctive defensive evasion: moving backward. Smaller cages, Gift also notes, produced more choke attempts, specifically guillotines and rear-naked chokes.
This was broadly true of the three events that took place at the UFC Apex. In the three events with a 25-foot cage, 54.5 percent of fights ended in a finish. In the previous 11 events in 2020 that used a 30-foot cage, that number drops to 45.7 percent. At least part of that could be chalked up to sample size: Comparing 33 fight results to 127 without controlling for weight class is obviously crude and inexact, but useful details can still emerge from a fuzzy overview. Plus, all three of the UFC Apex events had half or more of the fights end in a finish; only three of the previous 11 events could say the same. Interestingly enough, 30.3 percent of UFC Apex fights ended by technical knockout, slightly lower than the 31.5 percent of fights that ended via TKO in 30-foot cages. However, submissions nearly doubled in smaller cages: 24.3 percent of fights in 25-foot Octagons ended in a submission, compared to 12.6 percent of fights that ended in a submission in 30-foot cages. This aligns with Gift’s analysis pretty well.
Late replacements don’t account for much difference, either: Sixteen percent of the fights in the larger cage involved a replacement fighter, whereas 12 percent of the UFC Apex fights did. In both cases, however, fights with replacement fighters ended in a finish about half the time—in nine of the 20 cases for the first 11 events this year, and in two of the four in the most recent three shows. Fights where someone missed weight are similarly negligible: Four of the five fights where someone missed weight in a larger cage ended with a finish, and three of the four fights where someone missed weight in a smaller cage ended with a finish. Even if the frequency of late replacements and botched weight cuts differs, the net effect on the overall finish rate is broadly the same.
Yet UFC President Dana White is not a small Octagon believer. He was asked about smaller cage sizes at the post-fight presser. His response? “It’s all an illusion,” White said. “It’s bulls---. It’s not true.” He might be right. While the general trend of more finishes in smaller cages tends to hold up, it may not be as explanatory as some have made it seem.
The three under-a-minute finishes at UFC on ESPN 10 looked more like the result of lopsided mismatches than a function of cage size. Aguilera-Ivy looked fine on paper. Both were making their UFC debuts and boasted solid records, but closer inspection shows Aguilera not only had nearly twice the amount of professional experience than Ivy, but he has it against significantly better opponents in higher-quality regional outfits. Then there’s Nam, a legit veteran who has faced the bantamweight division’s best since 2006, taking on a late replacement fighter with a 3-1 pro record who missed weight. As for Avila, she was one of the biggest betting favorites on the card. She’s a genuine talent and inevitable title threat. She’s basically undefeated other than a freak injury loss in Invicta Fighting Championships two years ago, holding decisive wins over respectable UFC veterans like Marion Reneau and Nicco Montano. Mazany entered the fight 1-3 in the UFC with two first-round losses. Hindsight is what it is, but it’s hard to think larger cages would have made any difference in the Nam-Adashev fight, or that they would have done more than prolong the inevitable in the other two.
It’s also worth noting that Hannah Cifers single-handedly accounts for several different data points: one TKO loss against a replacement opponent in a large cage and two submission losses in a small cage, one of which as a late replacement herself. While her resolve to get paid by getting crushed is somewhat laudable, her repeating presence also suggests a non-negligible asterisk for such a small data set. It should go without saying that numbers only capture a rough outline of otherwise fluid and messy real-world action.
There was also an interesting inversion in the rates of finishes on the undercard versus the main card. In the 11 big-cage events, undercards composed 55 percent of all fights but only 47 percent of all finishes. In the three small-cage events, undercards composed 51.5 percent of all fights and 61 percent of all finishes. This lends itself to the mismatch hypothesis. Undercards, especially ones constructed under the unusual restraints of a global pandemic, more naturally lean toward mismatches. That’s where prospects make a name off of old-timers, where dark horses in need of an opportunity distinguish themselves from novices who got their opportunities too soon.
If there is in fact a significant uptick in finishes, it’s probably more about specific matchups and limited fighter availability to fill undercard spots. Still, that’s not to say the smaller cage sizes aren’t playing any part whatsoever. They may be exacerbating the mismatch, leading to one-minute finishes, whereas larger cages may have resulted in slightly more drawn-out affairs. It’s an analytical flaw to look at competing variables in an either/or lens. In reality, they often intersect and compound each other.
Eric Stinton is a writer from Kailua, Hawaii. His fiction, nonfiction and journalism have appeared in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat, Medium and Vice Sports, among others. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint, or find his work at ericstinton.com.