A man’s fighting ability is written in his face

A composite of the most (A) and least (B) experienced UFC fighters (from Zilioli et al.)

Men with faces that are wide relative to their length are more formidable fighters, on average. That’s according to a new paper that also finds that observers use the width of a man’s face to ascertain with accuracy his likely fighting ability. Samuele Zilioli and his collaborators believe their findings support the idea that humans have evolved specific “neurocognitive adaptations” for assessing the fighting prowess of potential opponents.

The researchers first analysed the facial structure of 241 competitors in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). Why choose this competition? “T]he ‘no‐holds‐ barred’ nature of the fights and the process of ‘cutting’ serially defeated combatants from the championship makes for a somewhat Darwinian environment, well‐suited to the investigation of fighting ability,” they explained.

Having a wider face was correlated with success in the UFC, in terms of surviving in the competition for longer and clocking up more wins. This association remained even after controlling for body size. There were also links between facial width and fighting success when analysis was restricted to Caucasian or non-Caucasian competitors.

Zilioli and his colleagues next demonstrated that people use the width of men’s faces to infer their fighting prowess. Dozens of male and female students with no UFC knowledge looked at composites of experienced or inexperienced UFC fighters (composites were formed by averaging the faces of 12 fighters from each category). The students consistently rated the experienced faces as more deadly. It was a similar story when more students rated composites of wide or thin-faced fighters – the wider faces were rated as more formidable.

In another stage of the research, further students rated the fighting ability of individual fighters based on their unaltered photographs – in this case there was a correlation between the students’ ratings and the fighters’ real-life UFC success. Finally, the researchers adopted an experimental approach. They manipulated images of the fighters, to make them artificially wider or thinner faced. Making a fighter’s face wider attracted ratings of greater formidability from student participants.

These results build on past evidence showing that men with wider faces tend to be more aggressive. Zilioli’s group said this raised aggression is likely related to the fact such men have greater fighting ability. Why should the width of the face be linked to fighting ability? The researchers speculated that one causal mechanism may be higher testosterone levels – certainly past research has shown men with higher basal testosterone have wider faces, as well as greater strength and aggression. From a survival perspective, there is also research published this month suggesting that a greater face width-length ratio may be part of a facial structure evolved for resistance to punches.

“Regardless of its origin, the existence of this relationship between facial structure and fighting ability would have given natural selection an opportunity to design a more accurate formidability assessment mechanism,” the researchers said.


Zilioli S, Sell AN, Stirrat M, Jagore J, Vickerman W, & Watson NV (2014). Face of a fighter: Bizygomatic width as a cue of formidability. Aggressive behavior PMID: 24910133

further reading
Men with friends assume an aggressor is small and wimpy
Smiling fighters are more likely to lose.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

11 thoughts on “A man’s fighting ability is written in his face”

  1. Yes and researcher also found there is a high correlation between birthrate and the number of storks in a village and over time. And since the number of storks decreases the birthrate of children are decreases in the same way in Germany.

    That is no joke. The problem is the reason for both occurrences is another than that storks bring the human children to their parents although a old wives' tales told so.

    And in the shown picture are a lot of other characteristics having differences than the wide of the faces.

  2. all of your research goes out the window with the most successful ufc fighter Jon Jones

  3. You are clearly not well versed in statistics. Outliers do not a trend make.

  4. listen sun shine I understand what they're saying. With out a doubt it does 'seem' like wider face guys on average do better. How ever, their findings do not definitively mean having a wider face makes you a better fighter. There are outliers such as jon jones to prove a wide area of attributes contribute to being a successful fighter not just(or at all) facial features. No need to be an ass hole right from the jump either their bud.

  5. You're the one claiming that “all…research goes out the window.” If you had simply mentioned those that buck the trend (GSP, Silva and others come to mind), I probably would have responded with a little less snark (trust me that this is not my “asshole” response). I'm not sure where you got that the researcher(s) claimed that a wider face makes (causes?) one to be a better fighter. The researcher(s) simply noted the correlation. And, yes. Obviously there are a great many more attributes to someone being a great fighter than their facial structure (again, not sure where anyone said otherwise). Have a great night.

  6. Oh wow I'm so afraid of what your “asshole might be lol. I got my “claims” from the title of the article. Listen what I'm getting at is its pointless to even do these studies. Yes trends may seem to point in certain directions but when there's very contradicting examples (such as some of the best fighters ever). To me that suggest the studies are almost a complete waist of time. . .

  7. Tom, Blnjm is right because you used the words “all of your research goes out the window” then mentioned ONE outlier. You made a stronger claim in your post than the headline made. If you would have said the headline was MISLEADING that is one thing, saying that the substance of the research was wasted (“out the window”) is another thing entirely.

    The research can be sound without there being a definitive conclusion drawn, by the way. They didn't even make a definitive conclusion in the article. They merely demonstrated a pattern that correlates.

  8. Question does being a good fighter/ being more aggressive (a more natural fighter) have anything to do with genetics or hereditary factors? Would a family of good fighters naturally down the line produce another natural born fighter or is it purely personal other than the physical advantages from genetics ?

  9. Ahhh those wide face fighters are on a shit load of steroids a reason there faces are wide because there facial muscles are bloated because of steroids. Well there are steroids that give u strength without muscle mass like anderson silva and jon jonez who tested positive for steroids various timez.

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