Chris Lytle and the Evolution of MMA Performance Evaluation

Posted 2:05 PM
With Chris Lytle's retirement this past Sunday, it's a fine occasion to reflect on the numbers behind Lytle's career and what he has meant to statistical analysis of MMA. It's not a stretch to say that Lytle is, to date, one of the most important fighters to grace the FightMetric database. In fact, Lytle holds a place so significant that he is the namesake for an entire body of research known as "the Chris Lytle problem," first referenced in this article at Yahoo! Sports about a year ago.

The Chris Lytle problem is an issue you run into when trying to assess fighter quality by looking at statistics. When you find a fighter that shows up toward the top of a lot of different statistical categories, you would expect that fighter to be among the elite in the sport. But the truth is not that way, just as Lytle will not go down as one of the all-time greats. In the end, the Chris Lytle problem happens when you value activity and volume above all else.

To demonstrate the depth of the problem that Lytle presents to statistical analysis, consider these facts about Lytle's place among UFC record-holders, current to this past Sunday:

#2 all-time in Significant Strikes landed
#3 all-time in Total Strikes landed
#1 all-time in Strikes landed at distance
#1 all-time in Strikes landed to the body
#1 all-time in Submission Attempts
#2 all-time in Sweeps/Reversals

What this statistical record reveals is one of the most prolific strikers of all time, the best body striker in the short history of the UFC, and a fighter with such a deceptive submission game that it would shock people to know he sits at #1 in total number of submission attempts. How is it possible that this fighter sports a 10-10 record and is not considered among the best in his sport?

What is so important about Lytle is that he forces us to look beyond the easy volume numbers and to try and get to the heart of performance quality. His body of work has led to an evolution in understanding that points to defense and efficiency as equal, or perhaps even greater arbiters of quality compared to offensive volume.

The original statement of the Chris Lytle problem led to the creation of the +/- stat, which subtracts strikes absorbed from those landed. In that category, led by truly elite fighters like Cain Velasquez, Junior dos Santos, Georges St-Pierre, and Jon Jones, we find Lytle coming in ranked 81st. And despite all of those submission attempts, Lytle converted on just shy of 20% of them, putting him at 51st in submission conversion percentage. In all four of the major defense and efficiency categories -- striking accuracy, striking defense, takedown accuracy, takedown defense -- Lytle comes in at or near UFC average.

Lytle's UFC legacy will almost certainly be tied to the excitement he brought in his fights, as evidenced by the record number of Fight Night bonuses he won. But his statistical legacy places him closer in context to someone like Tommy John; some big numbers and some great years, but (as yet) not quite Hall of Fame caliber. And like Tommy John's association with the revolutionary surgical procedure that bears his name, perhaps Chris Lytle the statistical quandary will continue to bear modern relevance for many years after Chris Lytle the fighter has retired.

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