Formal links between theory and data are a critical goal for ecology. However, while our current understanding of competition provides the foundation for solving many derived ecological problems, this understanding is fractured because competition theory and data are rarely unified. Conclusions from seminal studies in space-limited benthic marine systems, in particular, have been very influential for our general understanding of competition, but rely on traditional empirical methods with limited inferential power and compatibility with theory. Here we explicitly link mathematical theory with experimental field data to provide a more sophisticated understanding of competition in this classic model system. In contrast to predictions from conceptual models, our estimates of competition coefficients show that a dominant space competitor can be equally affected by interspecific competition with a poor competitor (traditionally defined) as it is by intraspecific competition. More generally, the often-invoked competitive hierarchies and intransitivities in this system might be usefully revisited using more sophisticated empirical and analytical approaches.