Sunday, November 14, 2010

Combat Sports: How to fix MMA

Check out Modern Paleo for this week's Paleo Rodeo.  I remembered to submit a post this time!  Now on to business...

Ever watch a UFC match that turns into two guys holding each other against the cage for long periods of time or holding each other on the floor, doing not much of anything?  If not, then I bet you've never watched the UFC.  I'm a fan of MMA, but the fact is that a good percentage of MMA fights are boring to watch.  We can fix this.

There are two layers to the problem with MMA's ground game and clinch game.  The first is that good ground fighting can be hard to understand.  Someone without a background in ground sports might see good ground fighting but just not get what's going on.  Imagine someone watching the NFL for the first time - all they see is a bunch of guys running around, they won't appreciate what went into a great play because they don't get what's going on.  It's like when I watch soccer - instant tears of boredom.  The cure for that is knowledge - learning about what goes on in a good ground match.  It helps to watch great ground fighters with good commentary.  You can't see a lot of Dustin Hazelett or Demian Maia without gaining love for what they do.  See, I'm not against the ground game - I'm against bad ground game.

The bigger problem in MMA is boring groundfighting and boring clinchwork.  Many UFC fights turn into bad wrestling matches.  Basically, good wrestlers can win fights by grabbing their opponents and holding them - "controlling them" - for large portions of the match.  Grab a guy, drag him to the ground, and lay on top for three rounds.  This strategy is often called "lay and pray."  See Jon Fitch, George St. Pierre (the current version, not the pre-Serra knockout version), Efraim Escudero, and a ton of other guys.

Why do fighters do this?  Well, it's effective - it wins fights.  It's hard to get out from under a good wrestler.  If you have control and you really try to damage your opponent or go for a submission, you open yourself up to being swept or counterstruck or submitted (see Chael Sonnen v. Anderson Silva).  If you just hold on and move just enough that the ref doesn't stand you up you can sweep the scorecards and notch a victory.

See, the scoring is the problem.  It is popular to blame the judges for this.  Sometimes that's justified - we've all seen some horrible decisions rendered, often because the judges are boxing people and not MMA people and don't understand what they're watching.  But the judges give St. Pierre wins for lying on his opponents because that's what the rules say to do, not because they're bad judges.

The rules say that a fighter should win the round for landing strikes, attempting submissions, or controlling the opponent (I'm paraphrasing).  In other words, if you can lie on top of someone for 15 minutes you're supposed to win - that's what the rules say.  And it is easier to do than to stand and trade with someone or try to finish them, especially if you're an experienced wrestler and your opponent isn't.

How can we solve this problem?  Defenders of wrestling in MMA say that guys should learn to get out from under a wrestler, not complain about it.  I say that the rules should be changed in as organic a way as possible to prevent lay and pray.

This has been tried before - having the ref stand fighters after short periods of inactivity on the ground is a common approach.  I don't like that.  Any time the ref interferes in a fight it's artificial - it stops the flow of the fight, and therefore of the entertainment.  Referee involvement needs to be minimized to protecting the safety of the fighters, not splitting the ref's attention between protecting safety and protecting entertainment value.

Instead, the scoring criteria should be changed.  Follow my logic here:  What's the most natural way to win a fight?  To finish the opponent.  Clearly, knockouts and submissions should win fights.  What if the fight goes the distance?  Then it should come down to who came closest to finishing the fight or had the best chance to finish.  Only those two things.  How do you finish?  Strikes or submissions.  So you should be rewarded for landing hard strikes or attempting submissions - ONLY.  Which should count more?  That's a harder question, and it really will come down to the judges'... judgment.

How would this work?  Well, think about takedowns.  A slam - where a guy is picked up and really driven into the mat - would score points because it damages the opponent - effectively it's a kind of strike.  A soft takedown, though, where someone is tripped to the mat but isn't hurt in the process - wouldn't score any points.  Laying on top of someone and controlling them wouldn't score.  Putting some ground and pound on someone or going for submissions from the top would score.  Improving position - getting into mount or side control from the guard - wouldn't score on its own at all.  Fighters would only get points (in the judges' eyes) by doing damage or beginning submissions.

In this situation, laying on top of someone for a long time wouldn't get you the victory.  If fighters couldn't lay and pray and expect to win, you can bet fighters would stop doing it.  They'd start making riskier moves from the top, dishing out strikes and going for kimuras and armbars, giving the guy on bottom a chance to escape and providing entertainment for the fans.  This will make for better fights.

Does this put wrestlers out of business?  Absolutely not.  Top position is an advantage - it's easier to finish someone from the top, but you have to try to do so.  Good wrestlers who could take their opponents down could get on top and ground and pound or submit people - I'm okay with that, it would be fun to watch.  This change would only end lay and pray, not the ground game in its entirety.

Summary:  MMA would be better if decisions weren't based on control but only on damage done and submission attempts.  Controlling your opponent and maintaining a position should not in themselves contribute to victory.

Postscript:  If you don't like watching guys hug each other in the middle of a fight, you could always switch from the UFC to K-1.  There's never, or at least very rarely, a dull moment in K-1.   (By the way, I'm opposed to men hugging during a spectator fighting event, I'm not a homophobe - if two guys want to hug each other for romantic reasons I couldn't care less.  I just don't want them to interrupt a slugfest to do it, and I'm not particularly interested in watching.)

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