Editorial Spotlight | The Good, The Bad And The Ugly Of Fighting For Points

February 7, 2012 8:00 am by Dan Harvey

Finally, the levee breaks.

After years of curious roster moves and hand-picked match-ups based on style—even expanded roles for “gatekeepers” who “bang” more than they win, the issue was on full display at UFC 143.

The issue is, of course, the matter of style. Always a quiet issue among MMA’s diverse fanbase, we now have a full-on collision between concepts of aggression and tactics.

This has been brewing for a while, this residual brouhaha from the Diaz/Condit fight. The examples are as varied as they are diverse. From strikers complaining about wrestlers holding and hugging them, to the dud of a fight between Rashad Evans and Quinton Jackson at UFC 114, this issue has been gurgling beneath the surface, an undercurrent of discontent.

The first issue is one of misinterpretation.

It is tempting to mischaracterize both sides of the discussion. Hyperbole provides an entertaining caricature.

On one side is the analytical, “thinking” fan that is well-bred, well-considered, and able to separate emotion from technique. The “hardcore MMA fan” seeks out Fight Metrics right away to support their argument, points to fighter rankings, and leans towards logos in their rhetoric. Be smart. Make sense.

On the other side we have “casual fans” who of course want above all else, knockouts. Bar hounds that want heads to roll, dammit. This is a vociferous bunch, their collective acclaim strong enough to make fighters ranging from Jorge Gurgel to Demian Maia abandon their core style to appease the masses.

Of course, neither side exists in reality. We each are capable of staring down our noses at rasslin’ fans, and of swearing to our boxing friends that the “excitement” of MMA exceeds that of boxing. Self-awareness is important here, because identity is a significant part of our affinity for MMA. More than other sport, fighters are a way we define and even express ourselves. Ask Rashad Evans after he poked a finger in the chest of the likeable, motorboating Rampage.

For me, it’s simple: fighters should finish fights. Otherwise, it is torn open and subject to inspection by disconnected idiots who know nothing of the struggle, and are stuck analyzing the spectacle.

MMA is not boxing. The gloves are 5 ounce, elbows and knees are fair game, and chokes, arm bars, and a slew of other submissions are there for the taking. With so many ways to break your opponent, decisions should be the triumph of an insurmountable will or skill, not the successful execution of a “gameplan.” Here again, it is tempting to mischaracterize either side. Greg Jackson was interviewed two days after the Diaz/Condit fight, and had an interesting comparison to make his case. “And I’m so sorry there’s flack going around the internet, but if you don’t appreciate the way Muhammad Ali or Sugar Ray Leonard or some of these great guys that do their sticking and moving, I don’t know what to tell you.” There are multiple troubling analogies there, but I’ll settle for a look at fighting style.

Let’s not pretend fighting style doesn’t matter. To be clear, this is an important time for MMA. The handpicked cards on UFC on Fox events demonstrate the critical nature of matchups. Fighting is equal parts athletic performance and spectacle. While the habit of characterizing all fan negativity as “the internet” is a frustrating topic for another day, his point is clear: stick and move and win the fight.

I continue to struggle with reading the minds of MMA judges. The two judges that had the fight 49-46 this weekend, it’s difficult to know where aggression and Octagon control enter their formulas. To clarify, this isn’t about being butthurt over Diaz’s loss. While I did score the fight for Diaz, to me the more troubling issue is that of “gameplans.”

By all means have one.

Have tactics.

Stick and move.

As an old coach told me, “don’t do what you do best, do what your opponent does worst.” I get that.

But there is a slippery slope just to the right here that has the potential for fighters to be “tactically engineering victories” for the foreseeable future. Point fighting.

And because the argument is so easy to mischaracterize, the common response is “I don’t see why two guys should go to the middle of the cage and bash each other’s face in. The goal is to win.”

The goal absolutely is to win. Faces need not be bashed in. Just finish the fight.

Nick Lentz has seen a career resurgence—well, he is signing a new contract anyway—based on a recent revision of his craft. I hope that rather than simply “standing and trading” because “that’s what the fans want to see,” Lentz will consider “standing and trading” as a tactic to finish the fight. If not, that’s an equally dangerous game.

Footwork, range, and jabs matter in MMA. GSP has demonstrated that even natural wrestlers can outpoint more powerful strikers behind a safe jab and safer footwork that keeps you cutting angles and out of harm’s way. But the same surge of opinion that has criticized GSP for his “safe decisions” is now becoming louder with the Diaz/Condit mess. The common counter-arguments here are outlining “how hard it is to win at this level,” and that “in the end, it’s all about the W.” That oversimplifies everything: establish tactics and gameplans in pursuit of finishing a fight.

Boxing has the jab-and-footwork down.

If you want 3 rounds of pure striking violence, It’s Showtime! has you covered.

But from where I sit, MMA has more than both. The modern MMA fighter has multiple domains to finish fights, and is in an Octagon (or ring) completely vulnerable and exposed to another fighters shins, scantily-padded fists, and a dizzying array of locks and chokes. If he is to survive, it is through his will, and his training—and a camera is there to capture this struggle for all to see. And that’s awesome. But only if the struggle is one man’s will against another’s. When it becomes one man’s gameplan, footwork, or jab against anothers, that is also fine.

As long as they are used to finish a fight.

Not reckless flailing. Not “standing and banging.” Not rolling heads so that patrons spill their beer in celebration.

But rather so there is undeniable closure on a contest of human will. No judges staining their struggle. No fan talking them out of their natural gifts. Just an honest collision of two human spirits.

Where one man stood against another, and that was it.

– This post was submitted by guest contributor Terry Heick.

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