A Guide to Opponent Analysis
Editor’s Note: Skip to the end for an example of what a real opponent analysis looks like, taken from a real fight camp.
Over the course of my jiu-jitsu career, I have seen hundreds of guides to match preparation covering topics like nutrition, fitness, weight-cutting, drilling, and even coaching. However, I have never seen a guide to opponent analysis, despite this being a critical part of the sport. This can be difficult to do for a traditional tournament format, though you may see many of the same opponents in your division if you compete regularly, but it is still viable.
For super fights and mixed martial arts, doing opponent analysis is mandatory if you want to reach the ultra-competitive levels of your sport. Whether you are taking a match under the Fight 2 Win banner or are stepping into the cage, researching your opponent is like scouting the track before a race—where are the turns? What are you going to do about that patch of gravel in that one spot? What’s the best way to handle the hills?
If you jump on to the track completely blind, you can still run a technical race, but you won’t have the foresight to at least have some idea of what’s around the next bend.
A Process for Opponent Analysis
I’m not the world’s foremost authority on analyzing fighter tape, but I have some practice. Since my days as a blue belt, I have helped mixed martial artists prepare for their fights, and a big component of that preparation is in helping my fighter understand what their opponent does on the ground and what might be the most effective way to deal with that game. For me to provide that coaching, I have to do my homework. This skews toward MMA because of my own work, but my approach applies to pure grappling contexts as well.
Here’s my process:
First, I gather as much footage on an opponent as I can. You can’t overlook the influence that your opponent’s opponent has on the direction of a fight, so only looking at one fight can actually be dangerous as it rarely offers a well-rounded picture of who your opponent is and what kinds of choices he or she makes. At the same time, however, I try to focus on most recent footage as much possible. Footage from the previous 12 months gets the largest priority, and any footage over two years old can still be useful but should be treated with caution.
My goal is to get a sense of who will be standing across from my fighter, and dated footage can lead you to preparing for a fighter who has undergone two or three major evolutions since then. BJJScout’s analysis of Leandro Lo’s guard is a great example of this: He points out what Lo used to do versus what he did at the time of the analysis. Some of the changes are pretty significant.
Once I have footage collected, I watch it several times and take notes along the way. This is what I’m looking for:
- Patterns or habits: What does the fighter consistently look for? Are there reactions that happen again and again in the same positions?
- Strengths and weaknesses: What does the fighter consistently do really well, and where does he make questionable decisions or mistakes?
- Overall style: Is this fighter slow and methodical? Is he fast and explosive? Is he wild and unpredictable?
Answering these questions takes me several pages of notes. I write down each choice the opponent makes and make observations as to the context of those choices. For example, if the opponent threatens with a Kimura, how did he get the grip? Where did it start, and what does he do if the attack fails?
Building into a Gameplan
From the outside, doing a written narrative of the steps a match goes through can seem excessive, but for me it helps to clarify patterns in opponent behavior. If I write down “Kimura attempt” ten times between two separate fights, well, that gives me a big hint that this opponent might really like a Kimura trap system, and that’s worth being aware of.
When I study match footage, I do the following:
- Separate the objective from the subjective. I want to clearly distinguish the “he looks for a Kimura grip to counter the single leg” (objective) “he appears to bait the single leg so that he can kickoff his Kimura trap system, and based on the outcomes he might be overconfident in his Kimura trap and lackluster in his takedown defense (subjective).”
- Ask questions as I go. If I start to get an idea of what an observation might mean, I write it down so I don’t forget it. This is partially me having a constructive dialog with myself, think writing notes in the margin of a book, and partially leaving a breadcrumb trail so the other coaches on the team can start to see what I think I am seeing.
- After I have watched all of the footage, I go back and more clearly define major themes and takeaways, solidifying the tentative observations I made originally and perhaps going back to review certain points more thoroughly.
- I avoid inventing ghosts. When you watch footage long enough, you can start to convince yourself of things that aren’t really there. Having other coaches going over your notes with you and challenging some of your ideas can be helpful here.
Once I have taken all of the notes, I create a summary of the opponent’s apparent gameplan so that the fighter and the other coaches have a quick reference of what to expect, and then I do a tentative list of what my fighter should do to prepare for the opponent. This list is usually a blend of what to avoid, what defense to work on, and what opportunities we might be able to exploit. In a mixed martial arts context, I can usually draft a list of technical points for us to cover, but for sport jiu-jitsu this could mean adding an extra step of tracking down an expert in say lapel guard if you are out of your element there but the opponent really likes those techniques.
Additionally, if possible, we use this analysis to educate sparring partners on these habits so that they can attempt to emulate the positions and scenarios we believe we will encounter in the fight.
The Real-World Example
Since transitioning into being the head BJJ coach at a MMA academy, I’ve gotten to do a lot more these breakdowns than when I was working with fighters on the side in my free time. So, here is an actual breakdown of an opponent analysis I did for a fighter (John DeJesus) this year. John ended up just punching him a lot, but you can still what the prep looked like and also check out what I think is a clever use of GIFs.
If this is a part of the sport you want to get into, start doing it now as a sort of hobby. Pick a UFC match-up and try and predict the direction a fight will take by analyzing the opponents. Mess around with doing an opponent analysis if someone in your gym has a super fight coming up. Analysis is a skill that can be developed through practice, so don’t be afraid to be bad at it when stakes are low. Otherwise, you will never improve.