MMA-Fighting Smart, AI, and The Data Revolution

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In a recent upload to his YouTube channel, the former Middleweight King, Israel Adesanya, spoke of a revolution underway in his training regime. It centers around the application of sporting technology in a bid to recapture the inspiration that led him to four consecutive defenses at 185 between 2019 and 2023.

In the mini-documentary, he discusses incorporating performance data and advanced analytics to “optimize himself.” This comes from a fighter who is most often defined by his cerebral approach to the sport, to such an extent that some fans have chalked his losses up to the prioritization of tactics over that killer instinct he displayed in wins against Robert Whittaker and Paulo Costa.

Outside the cage, Adesanya admits to his unscientific approach to training, where he was “able to get away with it” (“It” being definitive but dull title defenses) owing to him “being better than everyone else.” But, like any fighter with ambitions of longevity, he has inevitably come up against a wall of lousy fortune, fatigue, and stale ideas.

A Scientific Turn for MMA

Einstein’s definition of Insanity involves repeating the same actions and expecting a different result. This certainly applies to the fight game, as to escape a competitive rut, the key is to learn to fight smart, not hard. Certain fighters who were near infallible at their peak, such as Cody Garbrandt and Tony Ferguson, have suffered because they failed to take on this lesson, instead assuming that simply fighting harder is the solution to complex and deeply subjective problems.

So, it’s certainly refreshing to see a fighter who has already planted his flag at the summit of the game taking up the benefits of sports science to face his shortcomings head-on.

In the video, Adesanya undergoes stringent physical tests at the University of Waikato. His oxygen and lactic acid levels, explosive power, and upper body strength are all measured in order to generate a physical program that Adesanya describes as a “pre-season.”

The Wider Reality

The term “pre-season” is telling, as it’s usually reserved for the types of sports leagues (the NFL, NBA, and Premier League), where the staggering wealth of the franchises enable year-round individual programs in service of optimal performance and collective objectives.

Likewise, with the introduction of large data sets and the advanced engines necessary to analyze them, these leagues have found themselves amid a revolution, where possession of your own data analysis unit and perhaps Artificial Intelligence is becoming the new benchmark for future success.

Being an individual sport still in its professional adolescence, MMA is of course (rightly in my opinion) not riding this cloud of accelerationist optimism. But as Adesanya points out, access to these strategies and their accompanying technology can be a serious boon to fighters looking for answers to what are often highly specific questions, inseparable from a fighter’s intuitive understanding of their own game.

Aside from personal preferences, MMA lacks the infrastructure necessary to incorporate the technologies at the cutting edge of the NFL or Premier League. MMA gyms have always been defined by innovation through poverty, forced to rely on the coaches’ minds and the fighters’ application in lieu of the infrastructural crutches afforded to the modern franchise athlete.

A Brave New World

However, far above the striving, cash-poor reality of regional MMA gyms, the UFC continues to feast on its exorbitant business model, recording yet another significant profit increase of 13% in 2023. These are not merely highfalutin figures rolled out to please the shareholders. The UFC has always been capable of throwing together infrastructural projects on a moment’s notice, recalling the extraordinarily successful “Fight Island” at the height of a global pandemic.

So, it’s no stretch of the imagination to assume that if they wished to, the UFC could set up several international sports institutes fitted with the databases and sports science equipment that could fuel the next generation of international fighters. After all, the UFC has already set a precedent with their Las Vegas-based “Performance Institute”, which comes with the bioenergetic measurement tech, nutrition diagnostics, and data profiles commonplace amongst the major sports leagues with which the UFC wishes to compete.

Furthermore, the UFC is at least aware of the value of analytics from a presentational standpoint, as the PI (Performance Institute) website includes a 483-page paper containing findings on systems-based training theory, skill acquisition, and technical details on all UFC fights between 2017 and 19.

These are exactly the kinds of resources that would do wonders at the regional level, giving both emerging prospects and young fighters access to tailored information only currently available to a select few champions. This would also undoubtedly aid the UFC in its attempts to streamline international talent acquisition and signal a move away from the ad hoc, hodge podge programs such as the Contender Series or “Road to UFC”.

By setting up regional performance institutes, the UFC can assume a flagship position in the next phase of mixed martial arts, where access to advanced biometrics and training data can be utilised to lengthen the career of the average MMA fighter, provide readymade training data for the next generation of MMA practitioners and enhance the quality of the fights themselves.

The New MMA Meta

This is where the merits of AI technology begin to emerge, as advanced neural networks can sift through hundreds of hours of fight footage as an assistive tool for fight preparation.

Hypothetically (most likely by using Convolutional Neural Networks for analysis), MMA camps could devise even finer game plans. These would still be tailored specifically to the tendencies, techniques, and physical profile of opposing fighters, but now built upon a deluge of case studies concerning how an opponent responds to specific scenarios, their average output, fatigue trends, and cage cutting and movement patterns.

This is no techno-optimistic fantasy; in fact, it’s already happening. In 2018, the Chinese Communist Party identified the need to apply big data and AI to the sport of mixed martial arts as one of their “sunrise industries.”

In a 2021 paper for the International Conference of Machine Learning, Dr Di Zhang provides examples of the innovations going into this sporting renewal project —specifically, developing an AI training system to model opponents, using virtual simulation training, and creating intelligent training suits to monitor biometric performance.


Naturally, there are logistical issues to consider, as I doubt any MMA fan has an appetite for prying governmental eyes, especially at the training level. However, these infrastructural projects take time and money, and creating such institutes would doubtless involve a degree of regulation and oversight into fighter usage that may make the UFC brass queasy.

So, it would be worth seeking out investment from some of the wealthy tech magnates who are both fans of combat sports and well-versed in data science; Peter Thiel and Mark Zuckerberg come to mind. Unfortunately, this would most likely only occur on a camp-by-camp basis, with Zuckerberg in particular having strong ties with the City Kickboxing Gym.

The Bottom Line

It’s right to be skeptical about the effects of big data and AI on sports. A common criticism put forward by fans of the NBA and Premier League is that thanks to advanced data, coaches, and players supplicate to the prognostications of machines rather than the paying fans in attendance, leaving everyone, bar the statisticians, underwhelmed.
MMA is a sport of flesh and blood, so mechanistic thinking is bound to be anathema. Instead, these technologies should be used as a backup, crunching vast amounts of fight footage and assisting the athletes in optimizing their bodies ahead of their fights. If the UFC is searching for the next leap in the evolution of the fight game, this is undoubtedly it.

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Noah Ricketts is a writer and a third year student at Oxford University. He has previously written for the Medievalist magazine and has collaborated with the Oxford Blue. In his spare time, he trains Jiujitsu and wrestling, along with being a keen chess player.