How One Coach Is Using Game Theory To revolutionise MMA

ufc 142 knockout with wheel kick

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Trainer Greg Jackson is bringing game theory to MMA in an attempt to organise the madness of UFC, according to a feature by Matthew Shaer in Popular Science.Jackson trains a bunch of MMA fighters, most notably Jon Jones, the current UFC light-heavyweight champion.

Here’s what Jackson is doing that’s so exciting:

He graphs every match and sparring session on a game tree — plotting all possible moves a fighter can make from a given position.

Afterwards, Jackson goes back and analyses his game trees, looking for which sequence of moves worked and which didn’t.

Jackson believes that every decision a fighter makes should have the goal of putting him in a more advantageous position (not necessarily knocking out his opponent, or taking him down). So he studies game trees from hundreds of fights and then teaches his fighters to execute the most rational move in every situation.

Here’s a great example of how it works from the PopSci article. In the excerpt below, Jackson is graphing a sparring session between Jones and another fighter (late name: Jackson). It starts with the fighters two feet apart:

[Jones] could execute a leg kick, or a punch, or he could shoot for a takedown (attempt to grab Jordan by the backs of his legs and drive him into the ground). But the initial node was not “optimal,” he said, because it allowed Jordan to swing freely with both fists. Although it seemed counterintuitive, the fast track to what Jackson calls the “damage” node (in this case, Jones’s advantageous position following his hard knee) was to move in close, where Jordan would not be able to fully wind up. Another circle, representing Jones’s inside position, and a series of edges, representing his potential decisions from there, appeared on the notepad.

Using game theory, Jackson is able to find inefficiencies in every micro-level decision in the sport. His fighters will execute a counterintuitive move (like the example above), where more traditional fighters would not.

Boxing has long been referred to as the sweet science. And now science (well, maths) is coming to America’s new favourite bloodsport.

Read the entire PopSci article here >

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