Authors: Chenghao Ma
School of Humanities and Social Science, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen, China
2001 Longxiang Blvd.,
Shenzhen, China 518172
Chenghao Ma is now at the School of Humanities and Social Science, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen.
Age, regional distribution, and fighting styles of elite mixed martial arts athletes
This study aims to analyze the age, regional distribution, and fighting styles of 174 top-ranking Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) elite athletes to encourage the long-term success of coaches and athletes in terms of athletic development, talent selection, and training strategies. It uses frequency and descriptive statistical analysis to reveal age, nationality, and differences between fighting styles. A t-test was conducted to identify the age differences of male and female athletes within the same weight divisions, and a one-way ANOVA test was applied to see if there were significant differences between these weight divisions. Results showed that the athletes competed within a wide age range (23-42 years old), with a mean age of 31.82±3.77 years (male: 31.75±3.70; female: 32.00±3.99). There was no significant difference in the ages of male and female athletes or between weight classes, and most athletes were aged between 26 and 35 years, which accounted for 80% of the total number. Athletes represented 33 different countries, with more from the United States and Brazil (58.6%). They displayed 13 different fighting styles, categorized into styles in which either mixed, striking, or grappling were dominant, accounting for 44.9%, 32.7%, and 22.4%, respectively. The resultant data showed that UFC elite athletes compete with mixed fighting styles, with striking styles being more widespread, which is different when compared with the early stages of the event when grappling or wrestling styles were dominant in competition.
Key Words: combat sports; UFC; athletic performance; talent selection; training strategies
Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is a bare-handed combat sport where athletes use martial arts techniques, including striking and grappling, within unified rules (4, 16). Mixed martial artists tend to come from different martial arts disciplines which include: boxing, Muay Thai, karate, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, judo, kickboxing, and wrestling (20). MMA is also known as “cage fighting” because athletes usually fight inside an octagon. In MMA competitions, two athletes compete in an arena (usually an octagon) using different fighting techniques to knock out or force their opponent into submission (5). The variety of styles allows athletes to show off their unique skills, making the competition an exciting spectacle to watch (11). MMA fights occur within specific weight divisions, and athletes can win a contest by knockout, technical knockout, submission, or referee’s decision (21).
The origin of MMA probably dates back to the 33rd Olympic Games, which took place in 648 B.C. when athletes fought with their bare hands in what was known as Pankration (3). Modern MMA competitions originated in Brazil as Vale Tudo and were later introduced into the United States. In November 1993, the first modern MMA event took place when the first Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) event was held in Denver, USA. The purpose of the event was to find the “Ultimate Fighting Champion” by holding a single-night tournament comprising top athletes from different martial arts disciplines, with the tournament’s winner crowned as champion (9). The UFC adopted the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts in November 2000 in order to ensure the safety of the athletes as well as fair competition (32). Since the creation of the brand in 1993, after over 20 years of development, the UFC gradually formed a sports event brand with MMA competitions as the core product. MMA has since been in the public eye and become a mainstream sport, with the UFC becoming the leading organization for these events (24). The tremendous commercial growth accompanying has also led to an increasing number of athletes from other categories of combat participating in MMA competitions and dreaming of being able to compete at the UFC. Against this background, a study concerning top-ranking UFC athletes would seem both reasonable and meaningful.
The age at peak performance is pertinent in elite sports, as it is very much connected with the long-term success of athletic development (1, 10, 19). The first article concerning the age-related peak performance of elite athletes was published in 1988 (26). Researchers have used one of three typical approaches, including calculating the age of top-ranking athletes competing at top-level sports events, identifying the age at which the athletes achieve their peak performance, or modeling by using athletes’ age-related performance data (1). Previous studies include various sports, such as running, baseball, cycling, and tennis as the basis for research (7, 17, 28). The uniqueness of MMA skills makes the sport different from other combat sports that rely only on limited fighting techniques. This distinction means that athletes can come from different regions with a variety of fighting styles and can therefore specialize in different martial arts techniques (18, 22, 23). Researchers have therefore been able to examine the effects of different fighting styles on combat sports performance (6, 8).
The main three research questions of this study are:
- What are the age profiles of top-ranking UFC mixed martial artists?
- What is the regional distribution of these athletes?
- What are the main fighting styles currently used by these athletes?
Differences in gender and weight divisions are also compared in this study, which analyzes the age, regional distribution, and fighting styles of UFC elite athletes in order to provide information for martial arts coaches, athletes, and fans alike. It is hoped that the rapid development of MMA worldwide and the rise of the UFC will give this study a high research value and significance.
The data concerning the chronological age, nationality, and fighting style of male and female MMA athletes participating in the Ultimate Fighting Championship were collected in August 2022 from publicly available sources, namely, the official UFC ranking database website (https://www.ufc.com/rankings) (31). A total of 174 athletes (male:127; female:47) who are UFC champions and rank in the top 15 took part in the sample data. MMA athletes were divided by sex (male and female) and weight division (Strawweight, Flyweight, Bantamweight, Featherweight, Lightweight, Welterweight, Middleweight, Light Heavyweight, and Heavyweight).
Archived databases from open access websites have been used for investigations similar to the present study, without ethical issues in the analysis and interpretation of the data, as they were obtained in a secondary form and not generated experimentally (10, 13, 15). In addition, the personal identification of individual athletes is avoided in this study, thus ensuring anonymity and confidentiality.
This study conducted frequency and descriptive statistical analysis by using the SPSS 24 software package, with data being presented as minimum, maximum, mean, and standard deviations. As this analysis reveals differences in age, nationality, and fighting styles, gender, and weight divisions are analyzed separately. A T-test was conducted to identify age differences between male and female athletes within the same weight divisions, and a one-way ANOVA test was also applied to detect any differences between the different weight divisions within each sex category. This study also categorizes age groups and fighting styles in order to present the distribution of primary age and styles of combat.
As shown in Table 1, the minimum age of the athletes was 23 years, and the maximum age 42, with a mean age of 31.82±3.77 years, an age range of 19 years, and a standard deviation of 3.768. Among these, the mean age of male athletes was 31.75±3.70 years, with a minimum age of 24 years and a maximum age of 42, an age range of 18 years, and a standard deviation of 3.697; the mean age of female athletes was 32.00±3.99 years, with a minimum age of 23 and a maximum age of 41, with an age range of 18 and a standard deviation of 3.989.
The results of the Shapiro-Wilk test showed that the data obeyed a normal distribution, so the independent-samples t-test and one-way ANOVA were used. As shown in Table 2, the t-test showed no significant difference between male and female athletes within the same weight division in terms of age: t = -1.445, p=0.153, 95% CI (- 3.57-0.57). Table 3 shows no significant age difference in male athletes within weight divisions: F=1.60, p=0.143; and no significant age difference in female athletes within weight divisions: F=0.29, p=0.285. Results indicate no significant age difference between male and female athletes and weight divisions.
As shown in Table 4,the athletes were divided into five 5-year age groups: 21-25 years, 26-30 years, 31-35 years, 36-40 years, and 41-45 years. As shown in Table 2, the results were seven athletes 21-25 years old (4.02%), 63 athletes 26-30 years old (36.21%), 77 athletes 31-35 years old (44.25%), 25 athletes 36-40 years old (14.37%), and two athletes 41-45 years old (1.15%). The age distribution of male athletes was as follows: four athletes were 21-25 years old (3.15%), 49 athletes were 26-30 years old (38.58%), 54 athletes were 31-35 years old (42.52%), 19 athletes were 36-40 years old (14.96%), and one athlete was 41-45 years old (0.79%). The age distribution of female athletes was as follows: three athletes were 21-25 years old (6.38%), 14 athletes were 26-30 years old (29.79%), 23 athletes were 31-35 years old (48.94%), six athletes were 36-40 years old (12.77%), and one athlete was 41-45 years old (2.13%).
As shown in Table 5, the athletes represented from 33 countries. Of these, 72 athletes (41.4%) were from the United States, 30 (17.2%) from Brazil, and 14 (8.0%) from Russia, which comprised the top three regional distributions. In addition, there were eight athletes from the United Kingdom (4.6%), five from China (2.9%), and Australia (2.3%) and Mexico (2.3%), each had four athletes. Nigeria and Poland had three athletes each (1.7%), while Czechia, France, Georgia, Iran, Jamaica, New Zealand, and Sweden each had two (1.1%). Angola, Austria, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Cameroon, Ecuador, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, South Africa, South Korea, Suriname, Switzerland, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan had one athlete each (0.6%).
As shown in Table 6, MMA athletes have a wide range of fighting styles: 57 MMA (32.8%), 21 Jiu-Jitsu (12.1%), 20 Free Style (11.5%), 18 Muay Thai (10.3%), 17 striking (9.8%), 10 boxing (5.7), 8 wrestling(4.6%), 7 Kickboxing (4.0%), 5 Karate (2.9%), 5 Grappling (2.9%), 3 Judo (1.7%), 2 Sambo (1.1%), and 1 Kung Fu (0.6%).
As shown in Table 7, according to the technical characteristics of the different styles of combat and martial arts techniques, the technical styles of MMA athletes can be divided into three categories: 78 (44.9%) were mixed fighting styles, 57 (32.7%) striking-dominant, and 39 (22.4%) grappling-dominant. There were 61 athletes who practiced mixed fighting styles (48.1%), 37 striking-dominant athletes (29.1%), and 29 grappling-dominant athletes (22.8%). Female athletes had 17 mixed fighting styles (36.2%); 20 striking-dominant (42.6%); and 10 grappling-dominant (21.3%).
Research into the age-related development of humans has shown that different biological capacities peak at different times in an individual’s life (25, 27). The age of athletes is an essential indicator for talent selection, long-term training plans, and athletic management (1, 12). The following characteristics were presented after analyzing the statistics of the ages of 174 athletes competing in the UFC. First, there was a wide age range: the minimum age of male athletes was 24 years and the maximum 42, with an age span of 18 years; the minimum age of female athletes was 23 years, and the maximum 41, also with an age span of 18 years. Secondly, the independent t-test and one-way ANOVA tests showed no significant difference in the age of male and female athletes over different weight classes. Thirdly, the age groups were divided into five-year age spans, namely, 21-25 years, 26-30 years, 31-35 years, 36-40 years, and 41-45 years. Out of a total of 174 athletes, there were 103 males and 37 females in the 26-30 and 31-35 age groups, accounting for 80% of the total number. The results showed that the mean age of the top-ranking mixed martial artists was 31.82±3.77 years (male: 31.75±3.70; female: 32.00±3.99). Age is one of the most critical indicators of elite athletic performance, and MMA requires athletes to be extremely fit to enable them to withstand the rigors of competition (30). Most MMA athletes can expect to reach the peak of their careers in the 26-35 age range with their potential for peak performance occurring earlier or being maintained later on. An age analysis of current UFC elite athletes provides a valuable reference for coaches involved in talent selection and overall training and competition strategies (2, 14, 29).
A statistical analysis of the regional distribution of 174 athletes showed the following: first, there were more athletes from the United States and Brazil, with 102 athletes accounting for 58.6% of the total. Among these, 72 (41.4%) were American and 30 (17.2%) Brazilian. This statistic is mainly related to the development sequence of modern MMA and the promotion by the UFC carried out in the United States and Brazil at its inception. Russia had 14 athletes amounting to 8.0% of the total and the United Kingdom had eight, accounting for 4.6% of the total. The present data showed that the regional distribution of the athletes is concentrated in countries and regions at an earlier stage of the development of MMA. Owing to its rapid development, elite athletes are beginning to appear in more countries and territories worldwide. With the global promotion of MMA and the international development of the UFC, the distribution of top-ranking athletes is bound to become more widespread, and more elite athletes are expected to emerge from different nations and regions in the future.
The statistical analysis of the fighting styles of 174 athletes indicated the following: first of all, there was a wide distribution of fighting styles, with 13 different categories, including MMA, Jiu-Jitsu, free Style, Muay Thai, striking, boxing, wrestling, kickboxing, and karate. Secondly, the distribution of fighting styles differs between male and female athletes, with the top three fighting styles for male athletes being MMA (33.9%), Jiu-Jitsu (13.4%), and free Style (13.4%), whereas the top three fighting styles for female athletes were MMA (29.8%), Muay Thai (19.1%), and striking (10.6%). Thirdly, based on the technical characteristics of combat sports and different martial arts techniques, fighting styles can be divided into three main categories, namely, mixed fighting styles (MMA, free style, and Kung Fu), striking-dominant fighting styles (Muay Thai, striking, boxing, kickboxing, and karate), and grappling-dominant fighting styles (Jiu-Jitsu, wrestling, grappling, judo, and Sambo), accounting for 44.9% (male: 48.1%; female: 36.2%), 32.7% (male: 29.1%, female: 42.6%), and 22.4% (male: 22.8%; female: 21.3%). The data reveal that, unlike the early stages of MMA when Jiu-Jitsu was the dominant style, the current preference of UFC elite athletes is mainly for a mixed fighting style, with striking fighting styles being more popular among top-ranking athletes.
In the early stages of MMA promotions, the focus was often on the competition between different martial arts and a comparison of which martial art won in any given championship. Unlike early MMA competitions, today’s MMA fighters usually learn multiple fighting techniques. Through continuous integration, three main fighting styles have emerged: mixed, striking-dominant, and grappling-dominant. Each of these three fighting styles has its advantages and disadvantages. The advantage of the mixed/free fighting style is that it is comprehensive, although it is likely to have no technical characteristics or to show a mastery of a specific technique. The advantage of the striking-dominant style is the striking technique, where the athlete’s standing striking techniques are strengthened through long-term training and competition, with the disadvantage being wrestling and grappling techniques. The advantage of the grappling-dominant type is the wrestling and grappling techniques, and the athlete’s wrestling, grappling, submission, and ground techniques are strengthened during long-term training and competition, while the disadvantage is mainly in using standing striking techniques.
In regions where MMA was developed later on, few athletes are directly involved in MMA training, and fighters of striking-dominant and grappling-dominant fighting styles are still in the majority. On one hand, in order to develop striking-dominant techniques, athletes must strengthen their wrestling and grappling techniques, especially anti-wrestling and grappling, while focusing on the strengths of striking techniques. On the other hand, grappling-dominant athletes must focus on enhancing their various striking techniques while applying their strengths to wrestling and grappling. In short, athletes must avoid developing technical shortcomings in their training and must strive to create a balance between strengthening their talents and compensating for their weaknesses by using diverse fighting techniques. Technical features are essential and making every technique into a “masterpiece” is challenging, with athletes with well-developed technical characteristics being more likely to play to their strengths and win in MMA competitions. It should be noted that that, regardless of an athlete’s particular fighting style, it is vital for him or her to play to his or her strengths to curb an opponent’s strengths in a competition, as seeking for overall mastery is likely to lead to a decline in an athlete’s original strengths. An opponent’s fighting styles and techniques should therefore be analyzed in order to conduct more targeted training.
There are some limitations to this study, the first being that, although the UFC is in fact a global leader in promoting MMA, the sample used here was drawn merely from a single organization. The second limitation is that the top-ranking athletes will change over time, and might lead to differences in ages, regional distributions, and fighting styles in the future. Future research could use similar methods to study athletes from other MMA organizations, or by observing one sports organization at different times to be able to make generalizations from the findings.
This study analyzed age of top-ranking elite UFC athletes and concluded that the age range of mixed martial artists is a relatively wide one (23-42 years old), with a roughly 19-year difference from the youngest to the most senior. It also suggests that mixed martial artists are able to maintain their peak competitive abilities and compete in top-level events over a relatively long period. In addition, there is no significant difference in the age of male and female athletes within the same weight groups and no significant difference among weight divisions. Most athletes were in the 26 to 35 age group, accounting for 80% of the total.
This research also found that the majority of UFC elite athletes come from the United States and Brazil, accounting for 58.6% of the total, primarily because the sport of modern MMA was first formed and developed in these two regions, with athletes being given earlier opportunities to participate in MMA training and competition. With the international growth of MMA and the worldwide promotion by organizations such as the UFC, more athletes are expected to join the sport from a wider geographical area. In addition, because of the inclusive nature of MMA, athletes showed 13 different fighting styles, echoing its wide geographical distribution. Based on their technical characteristics, fighting styles can be divided into mixed fighting styles, striking-dominant fighting styles, and grappling-dominant fighting styles, accounting for 44.9%, 32.7%, and 22.4%, respectively. The data also revealed that the fighting styles of top-ranking UFC athletes are primarily mixed, with striking fighting styles being more widely used by elite mixed martial artists.
APPLICATIONS IN SPORT
The analysis of the age profile of elite athletes can provide a valuable reference for the long-term success of coaches and athletes with regard to athletic development and training strategies. This information could also benefit sports administrators enabling them to make decisions concerning talent selection as well as for sports organizations that allocate funding and other resources based on an athlete’s chances of winning. In addition, analyzing region distributions and fighting styles may provide the development and up-to-date technical and tactical trends of elite MMA athletes.
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