Sunday, July 1, 2012

UFC on FX 4: Maynard vs. Guida

In some ways sports are the purest expression of the scientific ideology.  As much as we like to attach sentimental narratives to sports, the actual coverage of them relies heavily on numbers and mathematics.  This is not in opposition to the heavy narratives we attached to sports (which I described in my last UFC post) but rather in support of it: the idea of an unbiased, scientific testing-ground provides the stakes and legitimacy for the narratives we weave.

Mixed martial arts, then, is a bit of an abberation.  Desepite the constant attempts to inject statistics into the sport, it remains thoroughly subjective.  All of the methods for winning a match involve a decision on someone's part, whether it's a referee deciding to stop the fight, a fighter choosing to submit, or the judges deciding to score it for one side or another.  At some points this is merely an academic distinction, such as when a fighter is obviously knocked out cold, but it still doesn't have the obvious facticity of something like boxing's ten-count.  This particular event seems to highlight that subjectivity more than the usual, with the top-billed three fights all going to close and rather contentious decisions.

The first of these fights was between Brian Ebersole and TJ Waldburger.  Waldburger is one of those oddities, a veteran undercarder, who wracks up an impressive number of UFC wins in minor untelevised (or, as is now the case, televised on nothing channels) fights, then goes up to the main card to blank stares and is usually defeated.  It's not a bad career, but I'll confess to thinking of him as cannon fodder -- which is why I was so surprised when he came out of the gates and started kicking ass.

Ebersole is almost the opposite -- a fighter who's taken on competition that's only a bit better, but is a lot more high-profile.  This is mostly because of his fan-friendly oddness, from his fondness for cartwheel kicks to shaving his chest hair into a giant arrow.

He has a narrative -- the quirky older veteran making one last run at the big show, and he's not afraid to tell it via fan sites and social media, which is essential for a sport with a young fanbase.  That's why this was "the Brian Ebersole match" instead of "the TJ Waldburger match" even though, as the match itself showed, both guys are pretty equally skilled.

The match highlights one of the constant dilemmas of MMA judging -- top control vs. defense from the bottom.  There's a vocal set of fans that contend that judging unfairly favours the fighter who ends up on top when things go to the ground, mainly due to judges' lack of knowledge of the ground game (most MMA judges have their roots in boxing).  This has lead to the dominance of wrestling and the "lay and pray" strategy.  These people have more than a bit of a point.  Waldburger's actions in the second round are the kind of offensive gaurd-work, constantly going for submissions and sweeps, that more or less negates Ebersole's attempts at ground and pound.  On the other hand, none of the submissions really come close to succeeding -- should we disregard them as we would a missed strike?  Rate them as a successful attack, or at least successful grappling, because they stopped Ebersole from striking on the ground?  Or give the points to Ebersole for dictating where the fight took place?  After all, if Waldburger gets points for putting his opponent in an ineffective hold, surely Ebersole should get the same.

In the end, two out of the three judges saw it for Ebersole, which only gives more fuel to the bottom-game advocates.  It'll get marked down as a win just like the more definitive ones are, and absent any furor over the judging (which is usually reserved for more high-profile fights like the recent Diaz/Condit or Edgar/Henderson matches) it'll generally be regarded as a legitimate result.  As it should -- if you're going to have judges, you should take their judgements seriously.  But there's a moment of subjective choice and opinion here that's immediately papered over by the objective trappings of sport.

In the co-main event, veteran lightweight also-rans Sam Stout and Spencer Fisher completed their trilogy.  It's a bit of an odd trilogy, one without much in the way of story or stakes behind it, although at least it gives some identity to two of the lightweight division's very thick middle.  The decision, like the one before it, priveledged top control: in this case, the takedowns Stout landed seemed to overcome what I saw as stronger striking from Fisher.

The question of fairness is one that inevitably gets raised when it comes to decisions, but it's trickier than one would think.  Even if you disagree with the standard judging philosophy, which values takedowns and top controls over damage (within reason), it's a well-known one, and every fighter at this level knows that a takedown can often win them a round they would otherwise lose.  If the scoring system and its biases are public knowledge, then the sport becomes fair again -- nobody argues that football is unfair because it gives more points for a touchdown than a field goal.  Of course, this violates the premise of mixed martial arts, that it's the closest simulation to an actual fight possible, given safety concerns.  When people object to the priorities of judges, it's because they make it more abstract, and further away from the core concept.  Combat sports, unlike most other sports[1], has a claim to authenticity at its centre, as the ability to physically fight someone is (or at least seems) more inherently valuable, stemming from real-world occurrences, than the ability to kick a ball into a net.  The professionalization of mixed martial arts threatens that authenticity, even as it helps MMA as a sport qua sport.

There's also a bit of unintentional foreshadowing for the next fight, as a match billed for its excitement value, rather than its relevance, fails to be very exciting.  This isn't a scripted sport like pro wrestling by any means, but there are still roles certain fighters and certain matches are expected to play, and Fisher and Stout were given the role of "go out there and brawl".  Their failure to live up to this unspoken expectation was a minor and not-muched-noticed one, but it would set the stage for a more significant one later.

That is, of course, the now-infamous[2] Maynard/Guida main event.  The fight was billed as the best of both worlds -- two top lightweights fighting in a match that seemed sure to be exciting.  However, Clay Guida, long established as a fan favourite for his oversized personality and frenetic pace, played a very rangy and reactive gameplan, which involved moving around more than striking.  Until the last couple of rounds Maynard seemed content to play into that strategy.  As the fight wore on, Guida seemed to forget the "counterstriking" part of the plan and focus solely on dodging.

From a strategic standpoint, Guida's gameplan wasn't a complete disaster.  He lost by only the narrowest of margins (two 48-47 decisions to one) and many fan writers gave him the match.  But from an aesthetic standpoint, it was awful.  (Matthew Polly has a good summation of this, a rare thoughtful piece in the MMA media).  The fight evinced such revulsion that the fans, who began cheeering Guida, were chanting for Maynard by the end, a first for the usually dull wrestler.  In a way, this is a kind of accidental genius.  Pro wrestling, with the benefit of scripting, often tries and fails to change the audience's opinion of an athlete this completely, and the "double turn" is rarely successfully pulled off.  This is the benefit of sports: the audience can decide who the heroes and villains are, even if their decisions are capricious.

And the audience reaction is hardly irrelevant.  With the scores as close as they are, it's easy to imagine that the crowd's hatred of Guida's passivity might have been a finger on the scale.  Beyond that, the UFC is run without any kind of formal rankings or brackets, so popularity influences how a fighter advances or slides as much as their wins or losses do.  Maynard certainly seemed to grasp this, actively egging the crowd on and doing his best to make Guida look foolish.

The role of entertainment in MMA is a complex one.  Certainly in other sports people complain about boring teams, but you'll rarely see a boring win dismissed as illegitimate in the same way it often is in MMA fandom.  And, because of the informal nature of rankings and contendership, this is often true in the actual organization as well -- no matter how many times Jon Fitch won a match by wrestling a guy into a stupor for fifteen minutes, he wasn't going to get another title shot.  In part this is due to MMA's claim to authenticity, with the buzzwords often being "a real fighter" against "point fighting".  It may also be due to MMA's historical connection to pro wrestling, with many current UFC fans being past WWE fans who are looking for more authentic violence but still want a garauntee of entertainment.  Such judgements may seem less fair and less scientific than the clarity of other sports, and I've certainly argued in defense of "boring" fighters in the past.  But, for a sport as rooted in subjectivity as MMA, it seems oddly appropriate.

Next week: "You should practice your handwriting, so you don't embarass yourself after you die."

[1] The exception would, I suppose, be things like track and field and swimming, which are tests of natural abilities.

[2]"Infamous" feels a little historical for something that happened last week, but in the rapid age of media reaction, things become historical symbols of themselves very quickly.

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