Would shorter rounds lead to fewer submission finishes?

By now you have already formed your opinion on the fight between Kimbo Slice and Dada 5000 at Bellator 149. You either appreciated the epicness of an event that attracted millions of viewers, offended by less skilled athletes flailing around or ended up somewhere in the middle. No matter how you feel about the brawl, sane minds can agree that neither fight could, quite literally, survive a full three-round MMA fight.

Dave Meltzer, on his Wrestling Observer Radio, indicated that he had a discussion with Bellator promoter Scott Coker about using shorter rounds for these, let's call them, "special attractions." It makes sense, especially for some of the older fighters on the Bellator roster. Shorter rounds would provide the fighters more breaks. Each round would be less of a sprint. 

The decision to use five-minute rounds does seem somewhat arbitrary. Rounds in professional boxing are three minutes. In the Olympics, wrestlers compete for two three-minute periods. The UFC debuted five-minute rounds at UFC 21. Since then, the round length has become the standard in MMA, at least for men. Despite the protestations of Dr. Johnny Benjamin, the world finally caught up and women began fighting five-minute rounds as well around 2009.

The argument against shorter rounds has always been that shorter periods provide grapplers with insufficient time to work for submission on the ground. If this theory is true, a promotion using shorter rounds would most likely have a lower rate of submission finishes than the UFC. Is this the case?

In retrospect it is hard to remember the International Fight League as more than a dot-com-esque money-grabbing excuse to have an IPO. The promotion also had a lot of unique ideas. The decision makers thought "Tiger Sharks" was a good name for a team, Jazze Pha could teach Matt Lindland how to rap and Ken Yasuda was an MMA coach. The promotion also employed four-minute rounds. The idea was that with the team concept, fighters would be competing more often than normal. A fight that was three total minutes shorter would prevent injuries or wear and tear.

With four minute rounds, the prevailing sentiment would be that there would be fewer submission finishes compared to the UFC. For the purposes of this experiment, we will examine the submission finishing percentage of all fights in the IFL and the UFC during the existence of the former.

From April 29, 2006 to May 16, 2008, the IFL hosted 22 events and 242 fights. Of those fights, 75 ended via submission or 30.99 percent.

During that same period of time, the UFC hosted 38 events and 346 fights. Of those fights, 105 ended via submission or 30.34 percent.

As you can see the difference is entirely negligible. Obviously there are a lot of uncontrolled variables such as fighter skill, experience, ring vs. cage, etc. Plus, it is not an ideal sample size. However, the similarity is striking.

Let's look at things from the other side. Pride FC famously employed the 10-minute marathon opening round. In theory, this should lead to more finishes via submission. Pride and the IFL only overlapped for about a year, so the data set is composed of fights from the last 22 events to use the full Pride rules (excluded the two U.S. Pride shows, which employed five-minute rounds.

During the 22 event stretch, Pride FC hosted 218 fights. Of those fights, 67 ended via submission or 30.73 percent. Once again, the percentage is strikingly similar

Interestingly enough, the submission rate in competitive grappling does not stray too far from the 30 percent standard in MMA. The following chart shows the finish percentages of all Metamoris events.

For the most part, promotions are going to stick with the same round structure. In a lot of ways, the adage if it is not broke, don't fix it applies. There are many more pressing issues with the Unified Rules that need to be addressed. It is possible a change like five three-minute rounds could lead to a more fan friendly product, but it will likely not happen.