As you can already tell from the title of this post, I’m Team Fraser all the way. I’ll try to lay out as conclusively and coherently as I know how to support my conclusion. I’ll first state, however, that I only had a limited amount of free time during the Games week and so did not get to see many of the team events – if this invalidates my argument to some of you, so be it. I will use logic, stats and a little bit of opinion to back up my claim.
Two years ago, Rich Froning seemed at the peak of his CrossFit career. He had just won his fourth straight CrossFit Games and seemed near untouchable. However, he had also been pushed harder than ever before – by a 24 year old making his Games debut. Mat Fraser. The margin of victory at the end of Froning’s coronation ceremony stood at 50 points. The smallest amount he had ever won the Games by. And that is where I’ll start:
In his 4 straight Games victories, Froning won by: 93, 114, 72, and 50 points. In those same Open competitions, he finished in 1st place in each of those years (I can not find data for 2011 online, though). In the 3 years of the Open I have data for, he only accumulated a grand total 87 points – racking up top 5 finish after top 5 finish. That is INCREDIBLE considering the varied amount of competitors he was up against. I’d argue that he was at the absolute zenith of his CrossFit powers from Games 2011 up through Open 2014. He obviously won the Games in 2014, and in emphatic fashion (winning the Games last event – “Double Grace” – to seal his victory), but I think that’s when the chink in his armor first appeared.
2014 saw a number of declining stats for Froning at the Games – his smallest margin of victory, his lowest total of points taken from events, as well as his lowest percentage of points taken from those available (from 2012-2014, the only years where data is easily available, he took 80.7%, 80.1%, and 77.1%). I would also argue that his 50 point margin of victory was a bit of a red herring and should be discounted a bit. Fraser trailed by only 15 points leading up to “Double Grace” and still had a realistic chance to pull off the upset. Because of that, he had to take his chance and go as hard as humanly possible, forget about any pacing strategy, and hope he could somehow defeat CrossFit’s greatest icon. This “strategy” failed miserable for him, as he limped home to an 11th place finish, nearly a minute behind the 1st place Froning. It was CrossFit’s version of a hail mary – very low chance of succeeding, especially against undoubtedly the world’s best barbell workout specialist, but if he did, it would have been spectacular. (Coincidentally, because Froning is so proficient at barbell workouts, this is why he continues to place so high in the Open, where there is almost always a barbell involved.) Fraser could have placed higher on that event if he kept his pace, but that would only lessen the margin of victory for Froning. He took his shot and failed. I think, realistically, he could have taken top 5 in that workout based on previous similar events and his capability with a barbell in hand. This would have reduced Froning’s win to somewhere around 35 points. Still a loss, but closer than it may seem on the surface.
Now let me establish another reason why I believe competitiors had closed the gap on Froning. Those 3 straight dominant wins in the Open? That streak ended in 2015. He finished in 2nd place. 1st place? You guessed it: Mat Fraser. Froning took home more points in 2015 (127), than he had from 2012-2014 – COMBINED (87). It was apparent that more and better athletes were entering the Sport of Fitness – admittedly in large part to a guy like Froning. Something like 26,000 competed in the 2011 Open versus well over 300,000 in 2016. With this swell of new and talented athletes, it becomes less likely that a single person can dominate for such a large period of time.
Another reason it’s feasible (likely, in my opinion) that the field has caught up to Froning by now? Father Time. In 2014, Froning was 27 years old, meaning he is 29 now. In many studies done on the aging curves of athletes, 26-28 is the sweet spot for athletes to hit their peak. It’s a little bit lower for the more physically demanding sports (ahem – CrossFit), rather than those sports that rely more on a singular skill than sheer athleticism. In baseball it’s 27-28, in soccer it’s 25-26, in football’s more demanding positions (Guard, Running Back, etc) it’s 25-27. Heck, even in golf and running, there’s a precipitous dropoff after the age of 30. By nearly any scenario imaginable, Froning has already hit his peak (or certainly begun to plateau), and will suffer the same fate any professional athlete suffers as he gets older – decline. At 29, it’s also feasible to think that even if he were still improving over the last couple of years while out of individual competition, his improvements have slowed down rapidly. This can also be seen in his 4 years as Games champion – it appeared other competitors had already begun to catch up to him. This leads me to another related point.
It’s obvious that since 2014, Fraser has improved a TREMENDOUS amount. The last 2 days of the 2016 Games this year were basically a coronation of Fraser’s victory, as the only compelling drama left was who else might finish on the podium. In the two years since they last went head-to-head, Fraser aged from 24-26 and Froning from 27-29. It’s very likely that the rate at which Fraser has been improving far surpasses the rate at which Froning has been improving in that timespan. Given how close those two competitors were 2 years ago, it also seems likely that Fraser has by now surpassed Froning.
Along those same lines, unlike Froning, Fraser proved conclusively that he has zero holes. It’s clear that even while fortifying his strengths, Fraser has improved by leaps and bounds on his weaknesses. That’s something that Froning never totally displayed in his 4 wins. Even in the one event that Fraser “struggled” in at the Games this year – the deadlift ladder, finishing tied for 23rd – he proved earlier this year that when that particular movement is thrown into a workout, like Event 5 at Regionals, he can hang with anybody. He finished 13th out of all those who competed in that event at all of the Regionals competitions. Out of a roster of near 160 athletes.
Also of note, and this is not minor, is the types of events held at this year’s Games. There was more and longer running than ever before. This article breaks it down excellently – Was There Too Much Running In The Games?. While this didn’t slow Fraser down, it most likely would have slowed Froning down based on his past finishes in running dominant events. Another example of Fraser’s well-roundedness. In fact, saying Fraser is well-rounded might be an understatement as this was by far the most dominant display ever witnessed at the Games, with only one event finish outside the top 10. Which leads me to my next point.
The scoring system has changed at the games. The further down you finish, the more you are punished by a reduction in points available versus earlier years. This means that those events where you have a “slip up” are more costly. And nobody has fewer of those events than Fraser. He took home more points than Froning did in his best year – 1,096 to 1,089 – and he did it while there were fewer points available (though I will note that there were still 1,350 points up for grabs in 1st place finishes, the same as the year Froning finished with his highest total) because of the new points system. Despite the new points reality, Fraser still took home a higher percentage of points available than Froning ever did – 81.2% vs 80.7%. If you transposed Fraser’s placings from this year into the 2014 points system (not an exact measurement because of the difference in number of athletes this year vs 2014 – 40 vs 42), then he would have taken 1,127 points, or 83.5% of all points available to him.
Because Froning no longer competes in individual, the only way to stack these two titans up are through some kind of analysis. And the sheer amount of evidence pointing in Fraser’s direction makes it seem obvious to me why the only logical conclusion to this debate is that Mat Fraser has indeed surpassed Rich Froning as ”The World’s Fittest Man.”