Tall, Long, and Lanky: The Effect of Reach Advantages in MMA
By: Akilan Arunachalam
Throughout the history of combat sports, there have always been a few key statistics shared about each fighter to help set the scene of a fight. Of course, the fighter’s age and the weight class they compete with is shared, but there is one statistic that has variability: reach. We often hear that fighter X has a reach advantage over fighter Y, but exactly how much advantage does reach truly give? Is reach an important factor to consider when choosing a winner of a fight or is it just a meaningless statistic that just helps set the stage?
To examine this question, I decided to examine all UFC, United Fighting Championship, fights from 1993-2021. I then plotted the percentage of fights won by the fighter with the reach advantage, for various differences of reach. When looking at all fights, the fighter with the reach advantage won 51.65 percent of the time. Holistically, the fighter with a reach advantage has a slight advantage over his opponent. As the reach advantage increases, we see that the win percentage also increases. When the fighter has a reach disadvantage of more than 7 inches, they only win about 37.4 percent of the time.
With reach, we see there is a slight advantage in terms of winning overall but when we separate the weight classes we see a very clear trend. When looking at the percentage of matches won by fighters with a 3+ inch reach advantage, we see as the weight class goes up the percentage of wins goes up as well. In fact, in the lower weight classes, 125 and 135, the fighter with the reach advantage is actually more likely to lose. However, for the rest of the weight classes, we see a clear advantage to the fighter with the reach advantage. In the Light Heavyweight division, we see that the fighter with a 3+ inch reach advantage wins a whopping 68 percent of the time.
The main reason people say reach matters in combat sports is the principle that one person is in reach to hit the opponent, while the other will be out of “reach”. In the lower weight classes, the fighters carry less power which means that even though they will be able to hit their opponent, the lower level of power will allow the fighter with a disadvantage to weather the storm. However, in the higher weight classes, just a few punches will be enough to win the fight, making the advantage in reach that much more important.
Another aspect that I explored was how reach advantage affects the higher level fights. At the highest level of the sport with the most elite fighters, does reach have an added advantage? From the data above, it is clear to see that is the case. At each unit of reach advantage, we see that in title fights, the win percentage goes up by about 10 percent. This is a drastic difference from what we see in normal fights. In the higher level fights, it is safe to assume that these fighters are better equipped to take full advantage of their reach advantage. Those at the highest level of the game know how to position themselves and play the distance game and be able to hit and not get hit leading to the increase in win percentage that we see.
Expanding on reach in the highest level, the graph above shows the current UFC title holders and their reach percentile in their respective weight classes. As you can see, Almost all of the champions are in the upper quarter of reach in their weight class. As far as the two champions that buck this trend, Alexander Volkanovski and Glover Texiera, these fighters are well known for using their wrestling in fights. Unlike boxing, MMA is mixed martial arts meaning takedowns and wrestling can be used to negate striking. This aspect of fighting may help a shorter fighter gain an advantage over a taller longer opponent. But, in most cases the fighter with more reach is in advantage.
Looking back at the all time greats in the sport, we can see that reach has always played a part. When talking about the greatest in MMA, three names often come up are Jon Jones, George St. Pierre and Khabib Nurmagomedov. In terms of reach percentile, George St. Pierre is at the 81st percentile, and Jon Jones is at the one hundredth percentile, which means he has the longest reach in the weight class. We see Jon Jones and GSP use their length masterfully when they fight with their distance strikes and this played a major role in their success as fighters. On the other hand, the undefeated Khabib is actually at the 38th percentile in terms of reach in his weight class. However, what makes Khabib so dominant is not long range striking but actually his smothering wrestling. Wrestling allowed him to negate his disadvantage in reach by taking the fight to an area where that length can’t be used to such an extent.
(Undefeated Lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagamedov utilizes wrestling to defeat long rangy striker, Conor McGregor.)
Looking at the example of Khabib Nurmagamedov, we can examine how fighters with shorter reach can overcome reach by incorporating takedowns into their game. When the fighter with a reach disadvantage wins, the fighter lands about 1.1 takedowns. This is .2 more takedowns per fight than when the fighter with a reach advantage wins. From a t-test value greater than 2, we can see that this metric is in fact significant. Further proof of how takedowns can neutralize lankier fighters is shown below.
As you can see above, when the fighter with a reach disadvantage is able to ground their opponent, their win percentage skyrockets by around 15 percent. With just one takedown landed, the short-armed fighter's win percentage goes from around 49 percent to 64 percent. With each takedown landed, the win percentage goes up at a steady rate. Like explained before, being able to ground your opponent makes it so reach is not as much of a factor as it is when standing up. The issue however is, while on the feet the fighter with more reach is at advantage the fighter with less reach isn’t necessarily at an advantage on the ground. The fighter with a reach advantage could very easily ground their opponent and fight in that area as well. Kamaru Usman for example thrives on the ground with his 76 inch reach, making him that much more of a threat.
So to answer the question of if reach matters, yes it does matter. We see that fighters with a reach advantage win at a higher rate and this rate only goes up as you reach the higher level of competition. This is not to say that reach is the end all be all. There are plenty of fights where the fighter with the shorter arms is able to overcome this difference. Many dominant fighters like Jose Aldo, Khabib Nurmogomedov, Alexander Volkanovski and Daniel Cormier thrived in MMA despite their smaller statures. Many of these fighters used superior wrestling credentials to get it done while others simply used their superb technique in the striking game. Just like any sport, it is possible to win and be successful at any body type, but being tall, long and lanky definitely has its benefits in MMA.