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Crunching Numbers: Is Taking Back to Back UFC Fights Too Risky?

Anne-Marie Sorvin, US PRESSWIRE
Anne-Marie Sorvin, US PRESSWIRE

Brian Ebersole had a tough fight against T.J. Waldburger at UFC on FX 4. He won, but it was fairly grueling with tough moments in all three-rounds. He was slightly favored to win and it appeared odds makers had the right inclination heading into the bout.

James head was supposed to face Claude Patrick at UFC 149, but Patrick withdrew due to injury. Who replaced him? Brian Ebersole. And why not? Oddsmakers, media and fans largely believed Ebersole was far better than Head and had a superb chance at victory. The fights were only a month apart, but the risk appeared to be low.

Yet, none of what was expected to happen actually happened. Not only did Ebersole lose, but he barely resembled the fighter fans knew him to be. He wasn't able to execute many techniques he had previously used with success against equally qualified opposition. He looked tired and slow. For a fighter flirting with the idea of a drop to lightweight, this was hardly proof such a move was possible. Many in the MMA community wondered: was it really a good idea to take two fights in the UFC so closely together?

It's an important question, but one where it's exceedingly difficult to find a clear answer. Let's look at the record of the 18 UFC fighters who've tried to make quick turnarounds and fight twice within a six-week period or less since 2005.*

The Losers

Brian Ebersole - defeats T.J. Waldburger by unanimous decision at UFC on FX 4 in late June. He then loses to James Head by split decision at UFC 149 one month later.

Rick Story - defeats Thiago Alves at 130 by unanimous decision in late May of 2011, but loses to Charlie Brenneman at UFC on Versus 4 by unanimous decision less than one month later.

Tito Ortiz - defeats Ryan Bader by submission in round 1 at UFC 132 in early July of 2011, but loses to Rashad Evans by TKO at UFC 133 just over one month later.

Anthony Johnson - defeats Yoshiyuki Yoshida at UFC 104 in October of 2009 by KO in round 1. Loses to Josh Koscheck by second-round submission at UFC 106 in November.

Lavar Johnson - defeats Pat Barry in early May of 2012 at UFC on Fox 3 by KO. Later that month faces Stefan Struve at UFC 146 and loses by first-round submission.

Mike Brown - drops a split decision to Diego Nunes at UFC 125 on January 1, 2011. Loses again in the same month to Rani Yahya by unanimous decision at UFC: Fight for the Troops 2.

Dustin Pague - defeats Jared Papazian in June of 2011 by first-round rear naked choke at UFC on FX 3. Drops a split decision later in the same month at UFC on FX 4 to Ken Stone.

Al Iaquinta - on May 25th, Iaquinta defeats Vinc Pichel after two-round of what is technically exhibition action. One week later, he was submitted in the first round by Michael Chiesa.

Joe Riggs - defeats Chris Lytle by TKO (cut) at UFC 55 in early October of 2005. Lost at UFC 56 to Matt Hughes via first-round kimura one month later. Riggs also failed to make weight for this bout.

Xavier Foupa-Pokam - loses a three-round unanimous decision to Denis Kang at UFC 97 in April of 2009. Loses again one month later at UFC 98 to Drew McFedries via first-round KO.

The Winners

Chris Leben - defeats Aaron Simpson in the second round by TKO at The Ultimate Fighter 11 Finale in late June of 2010. Two weeks later, he defeats Yoshihiro Akiyama at UFC 116 by third-round submission.

Jon Jones - defeats Ryan Bader at UFC 126 in February of 2011 by second-round submission. Approximately five weeks later, defeats Mauricio Rua by third-round TKO at UFC 128 and earns the UFC light heavyweight title.

Danny Castillo - defeats Shamar Bailey at UFC 139 by unanimous decision in late November of 2011. Approximately five weeks later, defeats Anthony Njokuani by split decision at UFC 141.

Daniel Pineda - in his UFC debut, defeats Pat Schilling by first-round rear naked choke at UFC on FX 1 in late January of 2012, Six weeks later, defeats Mackens Semerzier by first-round triangle-armbar at UFC on FX 2 in early march.

Josh Koscheck - drops a unanimous decision to Thiago Alves at UFC 90 in late October of 2008 (which is a fight he took on short notice). Defeats Yoshiyuki Yoshida approximately six weeks later by first-round KO at UFC: Fight for the Troops.

Dan Miller - defeats Rob Kimmons in late September of 2008 at UFC Fight Night: Diaz vs. Neer by first-round rear naked choke. Five week later defeats Matt Horwich by unanimous decision at UFC 90.

Krzysztof Soszynski - defeats Brian Stann by first-round kimura at UFC 97 in late April of 2009. Approximately one month later, he KO'd Andre Gusmao at UFC 98 in the first-round.

Jason MacDonald - loses to third-round rear naked choke to Demian Maia at UFC 87 in August of 2008. Rebounds against Jason Lambert one month later at UFC 88 in the first round.

Given this information, what are the takeaways?

It's fairly obvious taking a fight without adequate preparation carries risk, but is there clear and unequivocal evidence doing so within a six-week turnaround time frame is uniquely a bad idea? Not really, or at least no one can say for sure. The truth is what facts we have at this juncture are too inconclusive.

I went into writing this column thinking there would be clear evidence that taking two fights in quick succession in the UFC was a bad idea. After seeing Ebersole look languid against Head at UFC 149, I wondered what the larger UFC record on that really was. There are cases - like Ebersole's - where fighters simply don't look like themselves in their second fight in short succession.

Rick Story has the performance of his career against Thiago Alves, but looks nothing like himself against Charlie Brenneman. Mike Brown loses a close split decision to Diego Nunes and tries to double down against Rani Yahya, only to lose to a fighter many observers thought he easily outmatched heading into the bout. And so on, and so on. In a sport where peaking is critical, some admixture of over training and injury appears to make winning twice in the UFC within a six-week timeframe exceedingly difficult.

Yet, there are almost as many situations where that's simply not the case.

Chris Leben dispatches with Aaron Simpson and a mere two weeks later has a tough but outstanding performance where he puts away Yoshihiro Akiyama. Jon Jones walks through Ryan Bader and a month later destroys Shogun to become the youngest UFC champion ever. Even fighters who put in a full three rounds of work in their first bout, e.g. Danny Castillo, can still manage to earn another win in another grueling affair.

None of this proves taking two fights in close proximity to one another in the UFC is a good idea. It's clearly a doable project, but as much as we need to be careful about suggesting it's not necessarily a bad idea, we have the same obligation to underscore it's hardly a good one either.

The larger lesson may be that we can look at the particular dynamics of what's happened in the six week period in question as well as where the fighter is in their career. Are they coming off of injury? Are they burned out in training? Is the second fight a bad style match-up irrespective of training or injury? Did the fighter take the bout for competitive reasons or financial need?

One consideration in improving the data is cobbling together information that matters. Fighters routinely accept bouts in close proximity on the regional circuit of mixed martial arts, but the level of competition and pressure is so far removed that using it could undermine any significance in the finding. And at the professional level, is there an organization outside of the UFC that places this kind of pressure/offers this kind of opportunity? Bellator's tournament would be a good example, but again, the level of competition is very dubious even in their more stacked weight classes.

All in all, the one revelation here is that the automatic knee jerk reaction that taking fights too closely together leads to bad results isn't necessarily true. It can be and it can't be. Until there's more data, fighters will have to understand why they've elected to take fights in short order and whether it's really a good idea. The rewards can be high, but the challenge is also great. The UFC might even forgive them for losing when they're helping their employer in a pinch, but loses can be physically devastating and ruinous to a career.

Accept those kinds of bouts with caution.

*if I missed a fighter who fits this criteria, please list them in the comments.

All quantitative data provided by FightMetric except where otherwise noted.

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