Lost in the sublime of the recent title fight between Anderson Silva and Chael Sonnen is the fact that the challenger had never fought past the three round mark in his whole life. It is rather ridiculous that a veteran of over 30 fights in a 13-year career has never fought for more than three rounds. Silva, now a veteran of three over three round fights, dramatically snatched the victory with a fifth-round triangle choke.

It is almost cliché to talk about the “championship rounds” when predicting a big UFC title fight, but it really does seem to be a huge factor. Sadly, the only time North American MMA fighters fight for five five-minute rounds is in title fights.

Logically, it makes sense that fighters entering the so-called deep water for the first time would be at a disadvantage. Also, since there are so few opportunities to gain this type of experience, challenging fighters would be even less likely to be successful.

I decided to put logic aside and determine whether or not the facts support this theory. Are fighters without fourth- and fifth- round experience at a disadvantage? To answer this question, I analyzed the result of every “championship-round fight” in UFC history.

For the sake of this article, I am using the term “championship-round fight” to describe any fight that reaches a round past the third. For example, Brock Lesnar vs. Shane Carwin was scheduled for five five-minute rounds. However, it is not a championship-round fight, because it did not reach said rounds, and neither fighter gained the experience of fighting in those rounds.

More Championship-Round Experience vs. Less Championship-Round Experience
Since five five-minute rounds were adopted for title fights for UFC 21, 37 bouts have reached the championship rounds in the promotion. For this topic, we will exclude the 13 bouts between fighters who have reached the championship rounds the same number of times. Of the remaining 24 contests, fighters with more championship round experience have won 17 fights and lost 7. That means, historically, fighters with more experience reaching rounds four and five have earned the victory 71% of the time the fight broke the three-round barrier.

Zero Championship Round Experience
With the UFC snatching up many quality prospects early in their careers, many fighters do not get the chance to fight in the championship rounds until they earn a title shot. Since UFC 21, fighters without experience fighting past the three-round mark are 5-14 in bouts that reach said rounds against fighters with such experience. That is a 26% winning percentage.

Here are the five fights (number of times fighter reached championship rounds at the time in parenthesis):

Randy Couture (0) Decision Pedro Rizzo (1) UFC 31
Dave Menne (0) Decision Gil Castillo (1) UFC 33
Ricco Rodriguez (0) Submission (Elbow) Randy Couture (1) UFC 39
Chuck Liddell (0) Decision Jeremy Horn (2) UFC 54
Frank Edgar (0) Decision B.J. Penn (5) UFC 112

Couture’s first victory over Rizzo and Edgar’s upset of Penn are considered extremely controversial at best. Also, interestingly, both Horn and Castillo earned their championship round experience outside of the UFC.

Historically, it is true that fighters who have not previously reached the championship rounds are less successful than their more experienced counterparts. Of course, their lack of success is not due entirely to their level of experience. For example, no amount of cage time would have helped Diego Sanchez beat Penn. However, in fights like Sonnen vs. Silva it could have easily been a determining factor.

The real trouble is that contenders have no chance to gain this type of experience before they actually fight for a title. The Nevada State Athletic Commission recently passed a regulation that allows five-round fights in non-title situations, but promoters do not use them due to the strains of television and pay-per-view schedules.

For the time being, five-round fights will only be used for title fights. Let’s just say, I will not be betting for any first-time contenders when they are facing champions with staying power.

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