Expert Analysis

Fight Science: The Reach Advantage

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Co-authored with Dr. Alex Edmonds and Behavior Analyst Francisco Gomez

In our previous articles we broke down styles into three classifications and provided a brief description of the behavioral characteristics. To further illustrate styles, let’s look at champions and popular fighters who will serve as standards in boxing and Mixed Martial Arts (MMA).  After, we will examine the importance of understanding style match ups.

  • Short-range style:
    • Boxing = Mike Tyson, Joe Frazier, Floyd Patterson
    • MMA = Brad Pickett, Quinton Jackson, Ross Pearson
  • Mid-range style:
    • Boxing =J ulio Cesar Chavez, Felix Trinidad, Oscar De La Hoya
    • MMA = Donald Cerrone, BJ Penn, Robbie Lawler, Alistair Overeem, Mike Brown, Tito Ortiz
  • Long-range style:
    • Boxing = Vladimir Klitchko, Tommy Hearns, Tyson Fury, Larry Holmes
    • MMA = Anderson Silva, Lyoto Machida, Conor McGregor, Nate Diaz, Junior Dos Santos, Rory MacDonald, Stephen Thompson, Dominick Cruz

Note:  Because mixed martial artist’s are able to use kicks and knees as part of their arsenal, short-range styles in MMA will likely never be as pure as those employed by boxers. Fighters like Ray Leonard and Frankie Edgar are good illustrations of how a combination of styles can be effectively applied.

Fight Science: The Reach Advantage

Case Examples:  

Style adjustments for fighters to that of their opponents’ can literally be the difference between winning and losing. In many cases reach can be the defining factor. To illustrate the point, consider the fight between Nate Diaz and Donald Cerrone.  On paper, Cerrone appears to be the more advanced striker given his superior kickboxing  and muay thai background. His striking prowess is punctuated by a 13-0 amateur record, and 28-0-1 professional record. However, Diaz, widely known as a BJJ practitioner, actually out struck Cerrone landing 82 percent of his 314 punches, compared with Cerrone’s 33 percent connect rate from 200 attempts.  The difference, we would argue, can not only be found in Diaz’s effective use of his reported three-inch reach advantage, but also by Cerrone’s failure to adjust his style to compensate for Diaz’s reach.  And why would he, given his past success? He is an amazing striker!

But consider how this fight would have differed if Cerrone had used more head movement (characteristic of short-range defense) to slip inside of Diaz’s reach to allude strikes, while firing off his own arsenal.  If you can find the fight, watch it. You will probably note Diaz peppering him with long punches, and Cerrone just missing his counters. What might have been the outcome if Cerrone had, for this fight, modified elements of his defense and striking based on the characteristics of his opponent?


A similar example of this is the first fight between Nate Diaz and Conor McGregor.  In this fight, Diaz capitalized on his reach and height advantage.  While McGregor overcame his height disadvantage early in their second fight, by employing low kicks, we would argue that McGregor’s failure to adjust his style based on Nate’s reach and height advantage, resulted in his demise in their first fight. McGregor’s style, predominantly a long-range style by our classification, was highly successful at a lower weight class where he was the taller, rangier fighter.  In their second fight, McGregor adjusted for his reach and height disadvantage by increasing his use of leg kicks.

Style adjustments for fighters to that of their opponents’ can literally be the difference between winning and losing.

Research on “Predictors of Victory and Injury in Mixed Martial Arts Combat” (Estelami, 2014) demonstrates that fighters with a larger reach advantages are significantly more likely to win.  Take a look at the probability of winning based on reach and height advantage.  This data was collected from 1,178 MMA fights held in Nevada from 2003-2010:


However, if you are the shorter fighter with less reach, do not be disheartened. We would be remissed if we didn’t mention those fighters who have, on average, a shorter reach than their opponents but are still successful.  We would posit that a reach advantage can be turned into a disadvantage using the correct style. One need only look at fighters like Mike Tyson and Joe Frazier.  Their forward movement and effective head movement illustrates the truth of this.  Moreover, in MMA there are many more options for winning a fight. For example, Daniel Cormier always has the reach disadvantage but he overcomes this by closing the distance with a pressured style of attack coupled with outstanding grappling. As MMA continues to evolve, we are likely to see more application of techniques associated with short-range fighters, especially for fighters with a grappling background who are seeking takedowns.

The amount of time and energy devoted to the learning and coaching of a technique is an investment on the part of the fighter, the coaches and the entire training camp team.

Styles are very dynamic and made up of many key elements.  These include posture, body angle, hand positioning, footwork, punch output, and trunk rotation. While there is no one style that is better than another–each has its own strengths and weaknesses–it is critical that the fighter’s style be identified.  The amount of effort the fighter invests in learning a skill plays a significant role in the successful adoption of a technique.  In behavioral science, we call this response cost. The higher the response cost is, the more punishing or difficult the learning becomes. As a result, the skill is less likely to be successfully adopted. However, the closer the skill being taught is to the fighter’s preferred style, the more reinforcing the skill will be. As a result, the fighter is more likely to successfully adopt and apply the skill.

The amount of time and energy devoted to the learning and coaching of a technique is an investment on the part of the fighter, the coaches and the entire training camp team. Like any other business venture, a coach should always be looking for the highest and fastest return on investment. Consequently, choosing techniques that fit within the fighter’s style is a fundamental business decision.

In closing, remember this article is intended to get the reader to theorize styles through the proposed classification system. Assessing fighters and opponents through this conceptual lens can be potentially useful.  Especially when applying “fighter-centric” approaches through the differentiation of training regiments, to meet the strategic needs of fighters.

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