Prior to his title defense against Alex Pereira in the main event of UFC 281 on Nov. 12 at New York’s Madison Square Garden, Israel Adesanya was an outlier among the current UFC champions. Her five successful pre-fight title defenses against Pereira were the most among UFC men and were second only to women’s flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko’s seven in the UFC.
Prior to Pereira, who was way behind on the scorecards in his final round knockout of Adesanya, the current UFC champions at this point in their most recent reigns had 21 successful defenses. Sixteen of them, or 76.2%, were among Shevchenko, Adesanya and featherweight champion Alex Volkanovski.
With Adesanya’s stunning knockout loss, the 12 fighters who hold the UFC belts (including interim flyweight champion Brandon Moreno) have just 16 successful defenses in their last reign.
These 12 champions have a combined MMA record of 252-34-4, a winning percentage of 87.6%. Over the past two years, the champions have only defended their titles to 59.4%. In 2022, the record is 8-7, while it was 11-6 in 2021.
Over the past 10 years, the UFC champions have compiled a record of 112-45 in title fights, a more than acceptable winning percentage of 71.3%. (For these purposes, I counted no vacant title fights and if a champion met an interim champion, I only considered the outcome for the champion.) That number, however, was backed by two exceptionally strong years. for champions. In 2013 the UFC champions went 15-2 and in 2020 they were 14-0. Eliminating that 29-2 mark from the 112-45 overall record puts the champions’ record in title fights at 83-43, a more pedestrian winning percentage of 65.9%.
The record of champions in title fights over the past decade by year is:
2022: 8-7, with one more title fight
Over that 10-year span, the champions’ winning percentages were five times lower than the 10-year mark of 71.3% and five times higher. The worst year for the champions was 2016 when they went 50% in 18 title fights and the best year was 2020 when they won all 14 fights they appeared in.
Their winning percentage in title fights is considerably lower than their overall winning percentage, down 16.3%.
A big part of the disparity, obviously, is that champions face better opposition than before they were champions. But that’s not quite it. If we look at the non-UFC title fight records for the 12 fighters who currently hold UFC belts, their winning percentage only improves to 88.1% with no title fights, just half a point. percentage better than 87.6 with title fights included.
So it’s not necessarily the best opposition that makes their success in title fights less than you might expect.
Some of it is down to luck. Adesanya felt that referee Marc Goddard stopped the fight early, but even accepting that, no one can deny that Adesanya was badly compromised. He still had three minutes left to fight in the round and given how hard Pereira is punching and how hurt Adesanya looked, it’s likely Pereira would have stopped him eventually.
Still, Adesanya argues he could have continued.
“I was fine,” Adesanya said at the post-fight press conference. “I could see everything. My eyes may have rolled up a bit, but I was lucid.”
Luck, however, will not be a major factor over a period of 10 years and as many fights.
The nature of MMA plays a huge role though, as there are so many ways to win and lose. A dominant boxer, for example, who sends his opponent badly usually doesn’t have much trouble because the struggling boxer can’t do much to change the outcome. Sure, a fighter can land a knockout punch or combination, but in cases where one fighter controls another so much over a long period of time, things rarely change dramatically.
But in MMA, if a fighter loses by being overwhelmed, they can resort to a different method of attack and can change the course of a fight forever. This happens frequently in MMA.
And then there are the intangibles. The pressure mounts on a fighter even before he becomes champion. When they string together a few wins, fans, media and UFC brass take notice. The competition is intensifying. The demands are getting bigger. There are more interviews and more public appearances and more requests for photos, autographs and a few words.
This all plays a part and if it eats away at a fighter it can impact performance and possibly lead to a major loss.
The record of the last decade shows that champions own their belts for a reason: they win fairly regularly, even against the best in the world.
It’s not always a slam dunk, however, and it’s often toughest to play when the lights are brightest, the stakes are highest, and the whole world is watching.
This is what makes the performances of fighters like former light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, former lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov and ex-welterweight/middleweight king Georges St-Pierre so remarkable. . They went 31-2 with a draw in the title fights, a remarkable mark considering who they faced and the pressure that was on them.
Title reigns are usually short, because despite the quality of the fighters, the champions have a target on their back and usually see the best of the opposition. And considering how difficult the sport is, a 71.3 winning percentage over a decade of championship fights is a significant achievement.