School's In: The Four Biggest Lessons Of UFC 104

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School's In: The Four Biggest Lessons Of UFC 104
(Photo by Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images)

It’s been three days since UFC 104, and internet MMA fans are showing no signs of slowing down. How could they - there’s controversy to dispute, damn it!

What, you haven’t heard? Firstly, let me welcome you back from your remote mountain hideout. In case you were wondering, your side lost World War Two, man has landed on the moon, and Dick Clark is still alive.

Oh, and Lyoto Machida retained his UFC Light-Heavyweight championship against Maurico “Shogun” Rua via a unanimous decision in a close fight. Unanimous, in that for once the whole of the oftentimes disagreeable MMA fan base is unanimous in their disagreement. Message boards were crashed in the minutes following the fight, as enraged fans flocked to their computers to voice their displeasure. It hasn’t relented - kicking up a whole new (and much needed) round of debate on the proper conduct of Mixed Martial Arts.

I’ll get to why in a moment, as well as my thoughts on the most debated fight of 2009 (I‘m calling it). But first, let’s take a look at the biggest, most important and (hopefully) most telling lesson coming out of Saturday’s event.

Lesson #1: We need a comprehensive overhaul of the MMA scoring system in North America

Make no mistake - there have been some very poor decisions in MMA.

Bisping/Hamill was a quite a shock. Griffin/Rampage stirred up a lot of debate when Forrest nabbed the title. The recent Cerrone/Henderson fight in the WEC was heavily debated in all circles for days following the event.

It’s a subjective argument, folks. Do we score Rampage’s power punches over the volume of Forrest’s leg kicks? Do we score the positional control of Henderson over the submission attempts of Cerrone? Do we score the more damaging shots of Hamill over the funny accent of Bisping? Apparently not on that last one.

Still, you get my point - controversial decisions are a frequent occurrence in combat sports in general, and MMA in particular. To my mind, the answer isn’t in debating the merits of the individual fighters of looking at every fight in exacting, Fight Metric level detail to see who won. Such things are the actions of Monday morning quarterbacks - and that’s well and good, but they don’t help judges making a decision the night of the fight. These judges don’t have the benefit of commentary, instant replay, and have only seconds to score a fight based on very vague, subjective criteria - for instance, how does one score “Octagon Control” in the Machida/Shogun fight? No matter what you answer, it’s subjective and can be argued - such is the very nature of the scoring system.

Which is exactly why we (“we“ being the regulating bodies of the sport) need to conduct a comprehensive overhaul of the MMA scoring system.

In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need judges. It’s antithical to the very nature of combat sports - two men, relying only upon themselves and their own merits to win a fight. We all want a finish in every fight, the definitive statement of who is the better man. But sadly, we can’t have every fight go one on indefinitely until there’s a clear winner - otherwise Gray Maynard would probably still be fighting.

We need judges, which sucks - but it could suck a whole lot less if we borrowed some judging criteria from parts of the world where they’ve been doing this for a lot longer. Places like Japan.

Now, I would be insane to say it’s nothing but good ideas coming out of a nation where respectable businessmen can buy soiled panties from vending machines on the street and “Unbeatable Banzuke” is actually taken seriously. But when it comes to fighting, the Japanese know their shit. The crowds are highly educated, respectful of the fighters, and have deep loyalties - pretty much the opposite of the North American fan.

What’s more, the scoring system is based exclusively on the sport of MMA - as opposed to the North American system, which is the boxing system cut and pasted into a sport it wasn’t made for. While the Japanese judges view the whole fight as one item and reward the fighter who made the biggest effort to finish the fight, American judges score each round individually based on an arbitrary, abstract 10 point must system which makes more sense in a 12 round boxing tilt then a 3 round MMA bout, along very subjective lines that basically leave the decision up to the personal preferences of the judge.

Am I saying we should just rip off the old Pride scoring? No, but I think it’s a great place to start. We need a “big picture” evaluation of an MMA fight, and a system that takes into account the full variety of offence and defence that can occur in an MMA match. The best thing to come out of this Saturday’s event is that it has kicked up furious debate about the merits of the judging in North American MMA, which was already desperately needed (hence my being happy with the outcome, in a weird way). Hopefully, we can learn this lesson and begin to reform the rules accordingly.

Lesson #2: You want to guarantee a win - finish the fight.

For 25 minutes, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua fought easily the best fight of his MMA career. Forget questions about the “old” or “Pride” era Shogun - this was a totally new Shogun, more technical in his striking and confident in his abilities then any previous incarnation.

It was a remarkable statement for the still young Rua, who many (including myself) thought would never again fight at the elite level following two very serious, consecutive knee injuries. But we were wrong. I was wrong. Not only did he return, he did so stronger and more focused then ever before. He took an elite, P4P level fighter and made him look human, after most of MMA fandom had written him off as already over the hill. No matter what happens surrounding the outcome of the fight, no one can take that away from the 2005 Pride GP winner.

Like “Rocky”, it’s a great sports story. Also like “Rocky”, it ended with the judges giving the fight to the other guy. When the Bruce Buffer read out the decision, I was surprised - everyone else, though, was a different story.

I was watching the event at a packed London bar, and the noise of their collective shock and rage at the decision was louder then at any point during the fight itself. There were shouts of “Bullshit!” and “Fixed!” amid the sound of fists banging on tables and people storming out. My cousin, a big Shogun fan, looked like he wanted to fight somebody. If there had been someone there handing out torches and pitchforks, it’s likely we all would have armed up and marched on Cecil People’s house.

For the record, I had the fight even going into the final round. I gave the champion the 1st and 3rd rounds, and gave Rua rounds 2 and 4. In the last round, I felt Rua was the busier, more aggressive fighter and gave him the round, for a final score of 48-47 Shogun. Either way, the two men alternated rounds in what was a very close fight - not the blowout that indignant Shogun fans seem to want to paint it as. Let's get real guys - this fight was very close.

Speaking of which, where the hell did this new legion of Shogun fans suddenly come from? I’m thinking the Lyoto Machida bandwagon. Aren’t MMA fans funny? To be honest, I was expecting the decision to go Shogun’s way - and for that call to elicit anger that he had not done enough to “beat the champion”. Oh, the irony.

Ok, so Shogun lost a fight that I and most people think he probably should have won - let’s blame the idiot judges, the biased commentators, the corrupt fight promoter or the “Allusive” (anyone else catch that?) LHW champion.

Actually, let’s not. The truth is Rua has only one person to blame for his misfortune - Maurico “Shogun” Rua.

Like I said above, Shogun fought a tremendous fight - but never during the 25 minutes did he look to finish. His strategy was methodical and patient, attacking the legs and body of Machida, trying to draw the champion into a war of attrition. And just when that strategy seemed to bear fruit, with Machida slowing down considerably in the championship rounds - Shogun took his foot off the gas pedal.

By the fifth round, “The Dragon” was fighting a purely defensive fight, with Shogun clearly the fresher fighter. Now was the time to push the pace, attack aggressively, and end the fight. Shogun is one of the sport’s best all time finisher’s, the fight was there for him to win - and he let it pass him by. When you decide to leave a close fight in the hands of three senior citizens watching ringside, you take your chances. No less an authority than Anderson Silva scored the bout 50-45 for Machida - take from that what you will.

Remember the lesson kids - judging is subjective. You want a win, finish the fight.

Lesson #3: Anthony Johnson needs to move up in weight

Ok seriously now - I have nothing against Anthony “Rumble” Johnson, and as I predicted he walked through Yokiyushi Yoshida in impressive fashion. My problem comes from the fact that Johnson came in a whopping six pounds overweight. Maybe I’m being a bit hard here, but barring some critical, last minute excuse, there’s no good reason why a fighter can’t make weight.

It’s not like Johnson didn’t know the fight was coming up - he had 4 months to get himself down to the 170 lb weight class. The problem is that Johnson is the latest in a series of fighters who cut massive amounts of weight in the “smaller” weight classes. Before his camp, he weighed in at 220 lbs - the week of the weigh-ins, he was cutting from over 200 lbs. That’s just insanity, and surely must be an indicator that ‘Rumble” is in the wrong weight class.

Weight cutting, a holdover from amateur wrestling, is an accepted part of the sport, and most athletes can make their respective weights no problem. My beef is with those who cut massive amounts, borderline stupid of weight. Sure, it gives you a great advantage - when it works. When it doesn’t, its both disrespectful to your opponent who did make weight, and also unfair. Sure, Yoshida got 20% of Johnson’s purse - and was absolutely train wrecked by a man 30 lbs heavier then him. 

Is that what we consider fair competition? Does this fight have any impact on the welterweight rankings? Even though it wasn’t at 170, it almost certainly does. Johnson will get an even bigger name in his next fight, and Yoshida will probably be cut from the UFC. Does that 20% still sound like justice?

I can just hear the indignant cries now - “It wasn’t Johnson’s fault, he said he had a knee injury!”. Yeah, that’s really breaking my heart, but his not making weight was not because he had a knee injury - it was because he was trying to cut the equivalent weight of a Great Dane. The knee injury got in the way of his insanely risky weight cutting strategy.

“Rumble” needs to move up to 185 pronto. Not just because it’s the right thing to do - it’s also a good move for his career. He can cut a safer amount of weight, add a little more muscle to his frame, and fully exploit his power and athleticism combination. Plus he can fight people his own size, which I think would be a great test for the young prospect.

Lesson 4: Cain Velasquez is the future gatekeeper of the UFC Heavyweight Division

Yep, I just went full on Sherdog forums on all of you - calling an undefeated monster and top HW prospect a gatekeeper. It’s a pretty safe bet that I just took a hit of crack, right?

But hear me out - I did say “future gatekeeper”, after all. Cain’s fight with Ben Rothwell confirmed the following things about him:

 1) He has explosive, elite level wrestling and top control
 2) He can certainly take a punch
 3) His striking is kinda sloppy, and not all that powerful
 4) He has a hard time putting guys away

Sure, that combination will take him far against the Ben Rothwell’s and the Cheik Kongo’s of the world - guys somewhat his size with a less then stellar wrestling game. But I just don’t see Velasquez being able to do this to the Brock Lesnar’s and the Shane Carwin’s of the world - especially as he is 234 lbs, and both those guys cut a significant amount of weight to make 260. They equal his wrestling skill and athleticism while being much heavier, taller, and able to deliver more power in their punches.

So I see Cain, after a failed bid at the HW title, being the guy the UFC uses to see if someone is ready for a shot at the champion - almost a bigger, meaner, Mexican Rich Franklin. He’ll test anybody with his power and wrestling - pass that test, and you prove you can hang with the Brock Lesnar’s of the world. I just don’t see him being able to do to a Lesnar, Carwin, or Antonio Silva what he did to Rothwell on Saturday.

Am I crazy in thinking that, with some smart dieting and a little time, he would have much greater career prospects at the 205 lb division? 

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