UFC 170: Why the Concept of "Intelligent Defense" Must Be Re-Evaluated

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UFC 170: Why the Concept of
Isaac Brekken/Associated Press

Another UFC event, another refereeing controversy. This recurring issue has become painfully predictable in recent times, with the unfortunate result of, once again, shifting our focus away from the fighters and onto the officials.

Last Saturday’s UFC 170 main card showcased two extremes of the same problem, as Herb Dean blundered his way through the evening. As if to highlight his calamitous range, the ordinarily reliable Dean provided one wincingly late and one frustratingly early stoppage.

Despite their differences, the validity of both hinged on the elusory notion of “intelligent defense.” This concept has rapidly devolved into incoherence, so denuded of content as to be almost vacuous.

What does it actually mean to intelligently defend oneself within the context of mixed martial arts? Referees are fond of admonishing imperiled fighters to “show me something,” which usually prompts said fighter to perform an action that is almost entirely for the referee’s benefit.

Let’s take the main event of UFC 169 as an example—part of Herb Dean’s mensis horribilis. As Urijah Faber clung desperately to Renan Barao’s leg, still dizzy from the assault that had just taken place, Dean asked Faber to indicate that he was still engaged in the fight.

The challenger obliged, giving the thumbs up while gamely defending against a barrage of hammer-fists. Unfortunately, the referee’s vision was obscured by Barao’s leg, and the fight was prematurely called to a halt.

That Dean didn’t see the gesture isn’t the problem. The problem is that Faber was expected to respond to the request in the first place.

The expectation was that Faber would move or “improve his position,” despite the fact that he was already blocking most of Barao’s offense with his hands and arms. Shifting positions, or attempting to get to his feet, would have potentially left him open to some far more damaging strikes, since it would have necessitated using an arm that was already occupied in defense.

An even more egregious example of this occurred during a bout between Evan Tanner and Phil Baroni at UFC 48. Larry Landless, the referee for the contest, demanded a verbal response from Baroni, who had been mounted and was attempting to defend himself from an avalanche of punches.

Despite his dire circumstances, Baroni indicated that he was fine and wanted the fight to continue. In a moment of jaw-dropping slapstick, Landless mistook this for a verbal submission and promptly ended the fight.

Someone needs to explain to me how being forced to hold a conversation while mounted by a trained killer falls under the rubric of intelligent defense. Comments, emails and tweets are all welcome.

In what universe does it make sense to fracture the focus of a fighter who is doing everything in his power just to remain conscious? Does needlessly distracting a dazed competitor somehow aid fighter safety?

Now, let’s examine the end of UFC 170’s main event between Ronda Rousey and Sara McMann. Having dropped to her knees after absorbing a crippling shot to the liver, McMann instinctively clasped her midsection. Almost immediately, Dean stepped in to stop the fight, reasoning that McMann had left her head too exposed.

Not only was McMann given very little time to try and recover, but she was actually penalized for protecting the most vulnerable part of her body: The area that had been hurt. I would no more expect McMann to cover her head after a body shot than I would expect her to clutch her body after a head shot.

Many argue that stoppages, such as those from UFC 169 and UFC 170, are justified because the outcome is practically a foregone conclusion. Such myopic reasoning boggles the mind, particularly in light of contests like Cheick Kongo vs. Pat Barry, Travis Browne vs. Alistair Overeem, Frankie Edgar vs. Gray Maynard, etc.

Fighter safety should be paramount. However, it has become abundantly clear that the current conception of intelligent defense, as opaque as it is, has absolutely nothing to do with intelligent defense or fighter safety. The competitors are needlessly forced to perform actions that often exacerbate their circumstances.

The most important area of the sport is currently fraught with ambiguity. The sooner we can demystify fuzzy concepts like intelligent defense, the sooner we can celebrate the positive aspects of MMA, rather than continually lament its shortcomings.

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