After many (three) weeks of trying, I was able to qualify for the MMA Championship series on DraftKings. Here’s how the FantasyLabs MMA Optimizer got me on this winning lineup.
While the field sizes (and prize pool) are much smaller than the championship events for other main sports, taking down one of these qualifiers is still a major challenge. The top eight entrants are paid, but second place is only $100 (with the top prize being valued at roughly $8,300). That means gunning for first is an absolute must. Fortunately, unlike larger MMA tournaments, you can win without finding the optimal lineup. My best lineup in this one finished seventh in the 11,890-entrant “MMA Hook” contest.
These contests are an interesting challenge, as you can only enter a max of 15 entrants (higher-dollar qualifiers allow even fewer lineups per player). I didn’t want to commit that much money, so I only entered seven lineups. Regardless of whether you’re limited by rules or bankroll, limited entrants means we have to take stands on certain fighters.
Without the benefit of 150 lineups, my strategy is to pick a few fighters or fights and build lineups around them. I was fairly confident in a few things on this card which led to my three rules:
Jose Aldo or Rob Font
The winning lineup would have one of the fighters in the main event. This is true for the vast majority of MMA cards. Main events are now all five-round fights, meaning the winning fighter either: A) gets to fight 66% longer than every other winning fighter, or B) is guaranteed a stoppage bonus. For those unfamiliar with MMA strategy and scoring — read my early article here. A large portion of MMA scoring depends on fighters winning a fight early. Particularly since DraftKings implemented the “quick-win bonus.”
DraftKings also has the combined salary of opposing fighters the same for each fight at $16,200. If two of the quarterbacks on an NFL slate played seven quarter games, you’d definitely play one of them.
(Some cards — primarily pay-per-views — have multiple five-round fights. I’m less confident in the optimal strategy there, but maximizing exposure to them is still important. It can become difficult when there are multiple large favorites in that group, though. Those salaries make it hard for a rule like this.)
For what it’s worth, I’d recommend having higher exposure to the underdog in the main event than the optimizer would naturally produce. Font was -150 or 60% Implied Probability to win pre-fight — that’s 1.5x as high as Aldo’s odds. However, he came in at almost four times the ownership as Aldo — 62% to 17%. The field overrates the likelihood of favorites winning, making the underdog +EV.
This also means at most, 79% of the field had main event exposure, so about 21% of our competition is drawing dead before contests lock.
Alonzo Menifield or William Knight
I wanted exposure to William Knight ($7,500) vs. Alonzo Menifield ($8,700). I wrote some of my thoughts on that fight in my DFS Breakdown, but let’s dig a little deeper. Besides this fight having strong odds of ending by stoppage, it didn’t work out that way. There was more to the decision than that. Menifield was favored at roughly -170 in this one. He also has finished 10 of his 11 pro wins within 30 seconds of the second round. Knight, on the other hand, was very cheap on DraftKings (while also having extreme power, though not as relevant to the point here).
This created what I thought was an obvious situation (using some Bayesian logic). Given a Menifield win, it’s highly likely he put up a big score. He generally wins fights explosively or loses. Additionally, given a Knight win, he’s likely to be in the winning lineup. Even without a huge score, (almost) any win at his salary gets you there. The latter turned out to not be strictly true — Knight wasn’t in the optimal lineup on Saturday. However, he did enough to help me win this one.
At Least One of Jeremiah Wells or Jamahal Hill
With the goal being first place or bust, I wanted exposure to some lesser-rostered fighters. While we don’t have ownership projections for MMA (yet), I’ve found some reasonable proxies. The predictions on Tapology’s event page let me know what the public is thinking. So does a quick glance at the projections on other fantasy sports sites. Only 21% of Tapology users predicted a Hill win, and both men projected fairly poorly. Of course, it was possible that one or both of them would lose. I don’t (and you shouldn’t) expect to win qualifiers every time. I was fine with taking a stand that if they lost, so would I.
Both Hill and Wells also fit much of my other criteria. Wells is extremely explosive (and well-rounded) and was set to fight a fighter I thought was overrated. Hill has possibly the best hands in MMA and throws at an extremely high volume. He also lands about three times as many knockdowns per round as the average UFC fighter. Both of which are positives for fantasy.
(I keep a dataset with every fighter’s striking and takedown attempts, as well as knockdown rates per round. Hopefully will find a way to publish that on a weekly basis soon.) I was ok with rostering both fighters but wanted at least one.
As you may know, Wells’ fight was canceled Saturday morning, forcing me to adjust my lineup. Fortunately, Hill cost $100 less than Wells, making for an easy swap. (Except for lineups in which I had both.) This led to me having Hill in six of seven lineups, which obviously worked out.
For what it’s worth, there was a bit of personal biases on both of these picks. I knew Wells from the regional MMA scene — and signed a contract to fight him at one point before the event was canceled. Hill, like me, is from Michigan. It’s a relatively small MMA scene here, and I’m friendly with his coaches. Whether this is a benefit from extra information or a detriment due to biases long-term is debatable.
The Fighter Pool
Once I established the three fighters/fights I wanted in my roster, the next step was ruling out who I didn’t. Our Optimizer allows you to deselect players from your player pool, using the green check to the left of their name in the pool. Without going into every individual pick, I wanted to limit the total possibilities the optimizer would produce. Again, this necessitated being willing to lose — if somebody I ruled out posted a huge score, I’d be out of luck.
I wanted fighters that primarily had a reasonable shot at winning. It’s near impossible to win even small MMA tournaments without six winning fighters in your lineup. I didn’t rule out every underdog, but since I already had exposure to Hill and potentially Knight, I was fairly liberal with the deselect button.
The only higher-priced fighter I ruled out was Jimmy Crute ($9,200), who was Hill’s opponent. Besides being high on Hill, I thought it was possible Crute won but still was a negative in lineups. Hill’s range and style make him extremely hard to damage, so if Crute were to win, it was likely to be a very slow, boring fight. That wouldn’t cut it at his price.
Avoiding fighters from the same fight is obvious — they can’t both win. I also wanted to lower the salary cap restrictions a bit. Anecdotally, the optimal lineup frequently uses less of the cap than other sports. In the larger tournament, I entered this lineup in, one of the six lineups better than mine used only $48,400, and three others left $500 on the table.
Next, I bumped up the range of outcomes and bounce a bit. “Bounce” reduces a player’s projection (either median or ceiling, depending on which you pick) once they’re used in your lineup. While our projections are industry-leading, they aren’t a crystal ball. I wanted some exposure to fighters that weren’t quite optimal based on projections.
Finally, I set the max exposure to any single fighter at 75%. This was mainly to force some Aldo lineups since Font was projecting so much better despite being only a slight favorite. Without that rule, I would’ve been 100% Font which I wasn’t comfortable with. It was also intended to make sure I got both Hill and Wells in my lineup, though that didn’t end up mattering. (As it turned out, I had 100% Hill. Largely due to the ease of the Wells swap.)
While I (obviously) took down this tournament, I wanted to highlight the overall results of this strategy. My lowest scoring lineup placed 207th out of 505 entries, and I also had the third-place lineup. Going into the last fight, I had every opposing lineup with Aldo blocked with my (eventual) winning lineup. The second-place finisher had Font, with my best Font lineup being 16 points behind his. Aldo winning was clearly ideal, but I was also in a position to win as long as Aldo scored within 28.9 points of Font. That was possible — though not entirely likely — with a loss. (Aldo outscored Font by 25.54, so it could happen.)
Additionally, only one in this contest had six winning fighters. While it’s not easy to hit a six-leg parlay within the confines of a salary cap, it’s easier than hunting down the optimal lineup. If you can successfully find a cheap winner, our optimizer can do the rest. Simply locking Hill and setting a 75% max exposure rule provided great results. For curiosity’s sake, I optimized 20 lineups with those settings, and two of them had six-of-six winners. That was with 15 of the 20 having Font, which is impressive.
Our optimizer — like all tools — is just that. A tool. It’s an extremely powerful one, but it won’t give you winners by itself.
Hopefully, this article puts you on the right path to using it to build winners of your own.