Of all the sports wagering I do, I am far and away most successful betting on UFC fights.
Over the course of 16 years following the UFC, I believe I’ve identified some patterns that allow me to predict winners in a sport with a large number of variables at play in any given fight.
However, the sport is always evolving, so one must stay on top of changing trends and fighting styles.
In 1992, when the UFC debuted, nearly every fighter was one dimensional, specializing in a single form of martial arts or fighting.
There was a boxer, there were street fighters, karate, and then there was Royce Gracie.
UFC 1 was where the world was introduced to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and it was quickly evident that ground fighting was superior to striking, if the striker didn’t know how to grapple or stop a
Next came the era of the wrestlers, when the Randy Couture’s and Matt Hughes’ of the world ruled the cage. These guys were able to neutralize Jiu Jitsu with dominant positional control. They
pressed their opponents against the cage, or took them down to the ground and controlled the fight by slowly grinding their opponents down.
Now we are in a new era. Most of the fighters grew up training for MMA, rather than a specialized discipline. Almost everyone is well rounded and at least competent in every aspect of fighting.
The strikers can all defend themselves on the ground, or at the very least defend the takedown to keep the fight standing. Most of the Jiu Jitsu black belts can hold their own standing and
So in this new era, how do we handicap fights?
It’s not as simple as before.
I’ve compiled a list of eight criteria to consider before wagering on a bout.
While the fight game can be unpredictable, particularly in MMA, I have found that these factors are reliable predictors of who will win, and where the smart money is bet.
Location, Location, Location
They say it’s the first rule of real estate, but it also applies to handicapping fights, for several reasons. Before the fighters are even weighed in or in the cage, there are certain conditions
at play that strongly influence the outcome of the fight.
Is an athlete fighting in their home country, or in front of a hostile crowd?
What is the elevation of the city the fight is taking place in?
When it comes to home field advantage, I’ve found that Brazilians fighting in Brazil will have to nearly be murdered to lose a decision. So if you can identify I fight between fighters with small
finishing percentages, you can predict that fight will be going to a decision.
At that point, you just need to bet on the local fighter, and you’re pretty likely to have a winner on your hands.
Another factor related to the location of the fight is the altitude. Anyone who watched Cain Velasquez versus Fabricio Werdum in Mexico City will remember the dramatic impact altitude can have on
A handicapper that did their research before the fight would know that Werdum went to Mexico City two months before the fight to get acclimated to the environment. Meanwhile, Cain stayed in San
Jose for his entire training camp, only getting to Mexico City shortly before the fight.
He didn’t give himself enough time to acclimate, and he gassed and was submitted with a rear naked choke for his troubles.
But there’s more to consider with altitude. If you are relatively familiar with the fighters beforehand, you don’t necessarily need to know what altitude they train at.
Some fighters are known for their cardio, others are known for their lack thereof. Sometimes that is all you need to know, their reputation. If the fight is in Utah or Colorado, that may be
Full Camp vs Short Notice
Probably the most frustrating part of being a UFC fan is the sheer volume of scheduled fights that never end up taking place.
The training requirements for a UFC fight are incredibly grueling, and as such, tons of fighters end up getting injured before fight night.
When this happens, the UFC will typically attempt to find a late replacement opponent rather than scrap the bout altogether.
The replacement fighter is then typically at a large disadvantage to the fighter that has gone through an entire fight camp. But there are exceptions.
There are times when a fighter is preparing for a particular type of opponent, for example, a heavily wrestling based fighter. If the late replacement presents an entirely different style, the
more thoroughly trained fighter could still be in trouble.
Size of the Cage
The square footage of the area in which a fight will be taking place is hugely important. The smaller the area of the cage, the more likely the fight will end in a stoppage.
The fighters are forced to engage more. The UFC utilizes two different sized cages. The smaller enclosure is roughly 518 square feet, while the larger of the two is 746 square feet.
Finding out which cage is going to be used is an important bit of information to have when handicapping your fights.
In a smaller space, you may want to bet that underdog slugger with knock out power and a punchers chance.
Whereas in a large cage you are looking for more movement oriented, rangier fighters.
For the reasons mentioned above I also tend to prioritize cardio less in the smaller cage. In a large cage, you need fighters that can go the distance.
But in the small cage, the likelihood of the fight going to a decision or later rounds is less likely.
The Weight Cut
If you are going to bet on MMA, you need to watch the weigh-ins. They can tell you an incredible amount about how prepared the fighters are and how they will perform.
A fighter that struggles to make weight is at a disadvantage.
Some fighters will attempt to gain an advantage by being larger than their opponents on fight night. They do this by dehydrating themselves to extreme levels, cutting up to 25 pounds at times.
However, this dehydration can also be to their detriment.
For fights in the United States, fighters are no longer allowed to utilize IV’s after weigh-ins to rehydrate. This makes it harder to rehydrate completely. Fighters that cut too much weight often
run out of gas faster and in extreme cases are knocked out easier.
There are also times that an athlete will miss weight altogether. This gives you some decent insight into the type of training camp they had.
If they weren’t even able to get down to the weight they needed, what are the odds they are actually prepared? This is why I bet against Johny Hendricks every chance I get.
Sometimes the right strategy is just to ride the hot hand. If a fighter is on a solid winning streak, that’s relevant data to keep in mind regardless of their opponent. An athletes confidence is
of the utmost importance, and the longer a fighter’s winning streak is, the more confident they are likely to be.
One caveat to this is the level of their competition. In the amateur ranks, fighters will sometimes pad their record against fighters that have no business being in the cage with them.
So when checking on a fighter’s recent history, make sure to verify that these are legitimate wins.
(Don’t) Say Cheese!
This is a weird one, but it also has actual research to support it. During the face-off after the weigh-ins, a fighter
that smiles at his or her opponent is more likely to lose the fight. The more intensely a fighter smiles, the more likely they are to lose.
They hypothesize that this is that the smile predicts a lack of aggression and/or submissive behavior. This also encourages the opponent to attack more aggressively and with more confidence.
So before making your bet, make sure your fighter wears a nice poker face.
If they’re too smiley,
There are times when a bout is scheduled as a way to show off one fighter, rather than an even match-up. Organizations will occasionally do this to pump up a promising young fighter that they
think will sell a lot of tickets.
They also will give these fights to veteran fighters that are coming off a loss but are still very marketable.
The odds for these fights are typically heavily skewed towards the favorite, but they can still be valuable. For instance, when Conor McGregor fought Dennis Siver, nobody thought Dennis Siver had
a chance to win.
I typically stay away from these fights.
The underdog has little to no chance, and the favorite doesn’t get odds worth betting. The only exception is when the odds are so lopsided that tons of people bet on the underdog, hoping for a
lottery ticket miracle. When that happens, bet the favorite!
Know “Where” the Fight Will Take Place
When considering “where” a fight will be taking place we are trying to determine which fighter will be able to impose their game plan on the opponent.
A recent example is Damian Maia’s title challenging fight against Tyron Woodley for the Welterweight belt. Damian Maia is the best pure Jiu Jitsu fighter in the UFC, but Tyrone Woodley has better
stand up and the ability to neutralize Maia’s strengths.
The only way for Maia to win was to get the fight to the floor where he could work his grappling.
However, Woodley’s wrestling takedown defense was too strong, and the fight stayed standing where he had an advantage.
Being able to control what kind of fight will be taking place is hugely important. It didn’t matter how great Damian Maia’s ground game was because the fight never once went to the ground.
Betting on UFC fights can be a very lucrative and exciting venture. Thanks to short notice fights and readily observable variables, value bets can easily be found on any card.
Of all the sports to handicap, data in MMA is probably the easiest to collect and make decisions from.
The most important factors are the environment the fight will be taking place in, and each fighter’s preparation.
Over time, a good handicapper will refine which factors they prioritize more for which fights.
And as always, take advantage of casual money pouring in and creating favorable odds for your educated bets.