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.

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