Saturday, December 11, 2010

Poor judging and poor performance

I want to start this column with a thought experiment.  You're in the last round of a fight.  Your opponent has been all over you the whole fight - and not being Leonard Garcia, you’re damn sure the judges don't have it in your favour.  The bell rings and you come out.  What do you do?

It's completely reasonable to assume that for some fighters, they might keep working on their game plan - especially if it involves waiting for the opponent to slip up or leave a gap.  But what if you opponent is some kind of killer space robot with English as a second language like Aldo, GSP or Silva?  Can you really afford to wait for him to make a mistake?  Will they even make a mistake?

So you keep on waiting for them to make a mistake and in the meantime, you're getting beaten up or getting taken down.  There's now a minute left in the fight.  There is no way that you can win this with the judges.  What do you do now?

Is there a certain point in a fight, where you have to abandon your game plan, caution and self-preservation and just go hog wild?  Lead with a flying knee and when you land, you land squarely in the giant footsteps of an angry Wanderlei Silva?

MMA is different to other sports in this case.  In hockey, pulling the goalie in the dying moments usually doesn't risk you getting knocked out.  In the NFL, that last second Hail Mary pass generally doesn't have a 50/50 chance of ending with you being medically suspended for 8 months while your brain, jaw and orbital recovers.

But by the same measure, not going for it has its own risks.  We've recently seen Gerald Harris being fired (allegedly) for failing to do anything in this sort of scenario.  We've seen fights go down, especially those involved GSP and Anderson Silva, where the fight has been so dramatically lopsided that it's almost incomprehensible that their opponent hasn't thrown their game plan out the window, fired their cornermen and taken the shouted advice of the guy in the crowd with "JUST BLEED" painted on his chest.

In every sport, martial art and competitive event of any type that I've been involved in, there will often come a time when you have to admit that your only real hope lies in throwing all your chips on the table at once and hoping like hell that when the dust settles, it's gone in your favour.  Sometimes this can take a hell of a lot of work to do, especially if you have spent weeks or months planning and preparing and then find all your hard work negated or even find yourself completely outclassed by your opponent.

However it seems that there is a tendency in MMA, for completely understandable reasons, to stick to the original game plan.  First - people don't like getting knocked the fuck out or having someone rip their knee apart.  Second - MMA truly is the home of the flash finish (usually by KO), sometimes that monster across from you will make that tiniest mistake on which you can capitalise.  Third - you never know your luck with the judges.

I'd like to pretend that this third point doesn't play into the fighter mindset, but at this point I don't think that you can.  Dana has built the UFC empire upon two lines: "Do you wanna be a fucking fighter?" and "Never leave it in the hands of the judges."  One of these is a platitude.  The other is completely disingenuous.

You should be able to leave it in the hands of the judges.  The judges are there to make a decision about the fight using very specific criteria.  When judges offer up mind bogglingly bad scorecards, the response shouldn't be "Well, they do say 'never leave it in the hands of the judges'."  It should be, "Who were the judges, is there an appeal process and failing that, is there a disciplinary or review process for these judges?"  We'll be honest here and say that most athletics commissions are political animals, primarily concerned with maintaining a delicate balance between public opinion, government interests and the money of the promoters.

Spats, like the one that has come from The Ultimate Fighter finale serve little purpose.  Joe Rogan calls some folks idiots.  Dana White expresses disbelief.  Keith Kizer points out the glaring holes in their arguments and then says something dumb himself.  And then the fans dogpile everyone with a torrent of foul-mouthed abuse.

Rogan and White were correct to point out the absurd wrongness of the scoring of the Phan/Garcia fight.  However the fact that they said several things that just weren't true gave Kizer all the ammunition he needed to shut down the argument for judging reform once more.  Kizer is correct in that the UFC, when operating in areas where there is no specific regulation pick and choose their judges and other officials.  And the fact that repeat offenders in the awful scores department keep on getting selected shows that there's problems on both sides there.

I personally feel that the 10 point must scoring system can work just fine for MMA (even without the hallowed 10-10 rounds).  Doing half-points, Japanese style scoring or anything else just gives the Tony Weeks, Cecil Peoples, Adelaide Byrds and Douglas Crosby's of the world a different manner in which to make an awful decision.  The problem is that these decisions are being made and there is no accountability for the people who make them.  Judge's need to be made to account for controversial scorecards, not just by "making an argument", but by going through the fight round by round, providing frank and clear reasons for their choice of scoring, given the criteria against which the fight is being judged in front of an impartial panel.  And if they fail to satisfy the panel that they made a reasonable and logical decision, then it's back to being a back-up, watching over someone's shoulder and doing shadow scorecards until you can do it right.

However, this action is reliant of the 400lb gorilla in the room wanting change.  And if you'll allow me my moment of tin-foil hattery, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the UFC doesn't want judging to change.  They love the fact that the judges seem to be so bugfuck crazy that they might give the fight away to someone who just got plastered all over the cage for 3 rounds.

Why?  Because, as TJ De Santis of Sherdog has said repeatedly "in MMA, sloppy is spelled with a dollar sign".  Take any of Leonard Garcia's fights.  He gets lit up like Hiroshima in most of his fights, yet walks away with a win.  Does Zuffa give a shit?  No.  Because they just got a fight of the night out of him.  Their viewership went up.  They had bums in seats in the arena.  And most importantly, at most it cost them a few tens of thousands in bonus money for the unlucky other party.

Being able to say: "don't leave it in the hands of the judges" is a nice way of saying: "chase that bonus money".  Because if you catch a KO of the night bonus, then sure, that's good for you.  But it also means that Zuffa has filler should the event run short, they've got highlights to try and shop to Sportscentre, they've got something tailor-made for UFC Wired and more material for UFC Knockouts Twenty-Seven (or whatever they're up to there).  A knockout is a strong motivator to get someone who's just watching casually to tune in for the full broadcast.

For promoters, a killer finish (be it a KO or submission) is a goldmine - imagine if Bellator's first season had not had Toby Imada and Yahir Reyes setting the world on fire with their highlight reel finishes.  The picture is probably none too pretty.  And by selling the idea that the only way to be sure that you aren't going to be robbed is by finishing, and then they are just making a safe investment for the future.  However cruel that might be to the fighters who get robbed in the meantime.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

MMA: the status quo and the mainstream

On Monday's Beatdown (29 Nov 2010) on the Sherdog Radio Network, there was a lot of talk about "The Cult of the Status Quo".  The idea that fans of something don't want it to get bigger because they feel special for being a larger part of something small.  In the case of MMA this translates into at best a distaste and at worst outright loathing and rudeness towards new fans.  According to some  UG dwellers and other "hardcore" fans, I'd be a TUF n00b.  A fairweather fan.  My love for the sport don't count because I wasn't there in the dark ages.

Here's some background on myself as a MMA fan.  Back in the 90s I was aware of this thing called the Ultimate Fighting Championship.  I'd seen pictures and read some articles in magazines about guys like Royce Gracie, Ken Shamrock and Dan Severn.  But I never saw any of the early UFCs until much, much later - as this was a time when unless you knew someone who had the tapes (and in Tasmania, there weren't that many of those people around and I wasn't yet in those circles), you didn't get to see them.  In fact the first MMA show that I ever saw was a Japanese MMA show.  A friend and I were drunk one night in 2000 and watching some cable TV late one night at our residential college at university and came across this amazing broadcast which was labelled "Bushido" (possibly a relabelled Pride product, as their actual Bushido shows weren't til later).  For a few minutes we were debating as to whether it was real or just some really well faked pro-wrestling, as of course neither of us had heard of Pride or even the term “MMA” at that point.  And then someone had his arm broken while checking a kick (if my ten year old memory serves me correctly).  And being two drunken uni guys, awestruck at the sight of this dude wanting to continue to fight with a broken arm we were hooked.  For a few weeks there was a regular showing of this "Bushido" on cable late at night and then it stopped.  I still occasionally got glimpses into this world, but it wasn't until years later that I got back into the sport.

In 2005, a friend showed me the first season of TUF.  And I was hooked again – say what you want, but this show has done more for the sport than all the hardcore fans combined.  By the end of 2005 I'd cleaned out all of the local video stores of their available MMA collections.  Mostly it was Zuffa era DVDs, but with some gems in there.  Including one that to this day, remains my most fondly remembered MMA event: IFC Global Domination.  A classic one night tournament who's list of competitors  reads like a who's who of the Middleweight and Light Heavyweight division nowadays.

The face of a champion.
Since being introduced back into the sport by the emergence of TUF, I have seen every UFC show that has been put on. The majority of Pride, Dream, Strikeforce, Elite XC, Sengoku and K-1 as well. I watch Inside MMA and The Voice versus. I've watched Shooto amateur matches and followed NCAA wrestling and high level submission grappling to see where new talent might arise from. Hell, I even watched Yamma. Every single day I trawl through RSS feeds and front pages of nearly a dozen MMA news and opinion sites, I listen to MMA podcasts, I follow fighters, promoters and journalists on twitter. I evangelise MMA to my friends and colleagues who show an interest, giving them advice on what to watch, where to read up on the sport or lending them events from my collection to enjoy. So what if their first experience with the sport was catching an out of context highlight on UFC Wired last night? Or watching Tony Bonello head-kick a guy on Bully Beatdown? The fact is that they saw something that interested them and it'd be a damn shame to quench that spark just because you feel that this new fan isn’t worthy because they didn’t watch the Pride Open Weight Grand Prix back in 2000. Sure I've corrected people that the sport isn't the UFC, but in fact MMA. But I did it by explaining to them the history and facts, not just by shouting them down. But I suppose none of this is valid as I am, according to UG mouth-breather logic, a TUF n00b.

Damn you if you think that this isn't awesome.
Is this an impediment to the mainstream advancement of the sport? I doubt it. I mean how many of the 1 million who buy the larger UFC PPVs actually ever wonder "what is this UG that Rogan just alluded to?", let alone actually follow up and decide to go and wade into that particular cesspool. Hell, how many of the UG even buy their PPVs rather than torrenting or streaming them? There’s a reason that Dana hates the internet. But this segues nicely into my next talking point: how mainstream can MMA go in it's current state? I suppose we've got the fact that it's not yet mainstream to both thank and blame for avoiding any real ramifications from the Rogan/Rios spat of the past weeks. I'm not going to bother going into details here as you probably already know what happened if you’ve gotten this far into this post, but suffice to say that a journalist and a commentator after exchanging some initial unpleasantries online decided to keep on going rather than just letting it go. This was an ugly moment, by no means as ugly as Strikeforce: Nashville or Paul Daley proving that you can be a bigger heel than Koscheck, because it didn't happen live on national television (insert Gus Johnson joke here). It was hidden from all but the hardcore fans who follow these folks on twitter and read a bunch of MMA sites. Imagine for a moment if Chris Collinsworth were to react in the same manner to being called out by Jay Glazer. Because that's the equivalent scenario in the NFL - the premiere commentator gets in a blue with one of the most well known MMA journalists. You can bet your arse that Collinsworth would have found himself without his sweet Sunday Night Football job anymore and Jay Glazer would probably be looking at updating his resume too. Because of the level of exposure that those two have as a consequence of the level of exposure of the NFL, the repercussions would have been much, much greater. Meanwhile, an ill-considered exchange in MMA goes unnoticed by all but the most attentive of fans.

Don't try and pretend that just because it's a MMA forum you're any less of a dork.
This kind of behaviour has to either stop, or at the very least be seriously addressed before MMA can really go mainstream. All sports have their douchebags and troublemakers, but usually the faces of the game are kept squeaky clean. True, Dana cuts an impressive PR figure, despite his irrepressible language and Brock manages to be a massive draw despite have an erect penis tattooed on his chest. But can you really expect a major UFC event to rate similarly to a Superbowl when you apply the same (albeit ridiculous) moral standards to both events? If you have a goddamn congressional hearing into some not-boob being perhaps flashed during a Superbowl, then pause for a moment and imagine what happens should you treat America to five minutes of Chris Tuscherer rolling on the floor dry-retching while Rogan and Goldberg try and find a way to not talk about how hard he just got hit in the nuts or have BJ running around a cage licking Joe Stevenson's blood off his gloves while screaming. Hell, if you want an even better example, imagine Shinya Aoki celebrating a victory in his own inimitable way live on network TV with the Superbowl demographic watching.

Arm breaking optional.

The limits of MMAs penetration into the mainstream are a direct product of the sport itself.  A child of any age can sit and watch nearly any stick and ball sport for as long as their attention span holds out.  But recently I watched a niece get freaked out (I won’t go as far as to say “traumatised”, but others would) when she saw Chuck's latest KO, where he was laying on the canvas, eyes wide open, but with no one at home.  It took a lot of explaining to both child and wife by the father to deal with the consequences there.  I've discussed this issue with many friends and family, trying to figure out "when is a good time for a child to start watching MMA?"  

Pictured: Not a good time.

My son watches some now and then at age one, but for how much longer?  I'd like to say that he'll be able to keep watching for as long as he is interested and my eventual conversations with him about it keep him responsible.  But you can't just go and play a bit of pick-up MMA down at the local park, like you can with most other sports.  My son, should he be interested, will get to go to BJJ classes (as I do), and can try other sports as he wishes.  But the lack of a casual weekend bunch of buddies version of MMA only enforces the separation between the fan and the sport.

The gap is narrowed in other ways though - MMA fighters remain the most approachable athletes I've ever encountered.  In no other sport is there so much opportunity for interaction, in person or electronically, without having to put up $40 to get some douchebag at a desk to sign an autograph or pose for a picture.  If MMA gets bigger, can we still count on guys like Mayhem, Mr Wonderful and Big Country to reply to all their messages on twitter and the like?  I hope so, but in a larger MMA world, with more fans and more media attention will there suddenly be a barrier of PR and talent managers between the fans and the stars?  Probably - but unlike many in the cult of the status quo, I don't see this as an entirely bad thing.  Because unlike them, I don't value myself above the sport.  I'd rather see Phil Davis doing a sitdown interview on network TV to talk about his next fight than responding to a tweet from me.  Because the sport may not be bigger than all of us yet, but it is more important.