Some may say that championship belts are becoming more and more irrelevant in combat sports but there is no doubting that whoever holds the gold has reached a certain Sportsbook. Attaining a championship is not easy, especially in the UFC – the ultimate proving ground for mixed martial artists.
Title fights hold a gravitas. There is something about the lights going down low and Bruce Buffer announcing the contestants that makes the entire event feel special.
A championship bout is – theoretically – supposed to pit the top two fighters in a weight class against each other. With the best fighting the best, the bouts are expected to be tightly contested affairs. That gets one to wondering: how are bettors supposed to bet on championship fights?
Since UFC 1, an undisputed championship belt has been on the line 192 times – keep in mind this does not include interim title fights. In those bouts, the reigning champion is 137-55 SU. That is a title defense rate of 71.4 percent.
Now, I know what you are thinking. This number is skewed because of the dominance of champions like Georges St-Pierre, Anderson Silva and Demetrious Johnson. However, if we remove all five fighters who have defended their UFC belt seven-plus times (Johnson, Silva, GSP, Jon Jones and Jose Aldo), the record for champions is still 90-52 or a defense rate of 64 percent.
Even excluding those truly dominant champions mentioned above, UFC champions win roughly two out of three times.
But what if you want to back the challenger? Theoretically, the challenger should enter a championship bout as an underdog. As Ric Flair said, “To be the man, you gotta beat the man.”
Though challengers have successfully won the title in just 28.6 percent of UFC championship bouts, there is an interesting wrinkle. Challengers who have won the UFC title have done so by knockout 65.5 percent of the time. Comparably, champions have won by T/KO at just 40 percent. In addition, a winning challenger has ended the fight within the first two rounds a ridiculous 78 percent of the time.
That basically means that if you are backing the title challenger, you may want to also look at that fighter to win by T/KO or to win within the first two rounds.
However, the longer a championship fight goes, the more it tends to favor the titleholder. Of all the championship bouts to go to a decision, the champion has gone 55-12. This likely has something to do with the length of a championship fight being 25 minutes compared to the usual 15. Champions are more accustomed to fighting a longer fight compared to challengers who – more often than not – are only used to three rounds.
This suggests a certain advantage for champions. Titleholders are more familiar with the circumstances of a title fight – something I like to call the length and the lights. Some fighters only ever get one shot at the gold. This might lead them to being anxious or having a certain amount of nervous energy. Though that may lead to more early knockout finishes – in terms of percentages – it also leads to cardio issues.
For a perfect example, just watch Joanna Jedrzejczyk vs Claudia Gadelha II. Gadelha dominated the early goings of the fight but hit a wall entering the third round, which allowed Jedrzejczyk to dominate the final three rounds and cruise to a decision.
Championship bouts are always intimidating for both the fighters and bettors. However, there is certainly a lean for the people at the betting window that could lead to some nice profits.
*This article was originally published on November 2, 2017. Numbers updated to reflect January 18, 2018.