Last week I talked about the problem MMA has with incompetent officiating. Dana White has been the most vocal about it, and after more of the same at this weekend’s UFC 174, everyone seems to be nearing their breaking point.
Brendan Schaub blamed the judges for his decision loss, saying that they were swayed by a crowd clearly in favor of the legendary (albeit equally lackluster) Andrei Arlovski.
Goddamn these refs, man! OK, now that we have all gotten that out of our system, we need to realize that the problem is twofold. The judging is horrendous, but the other issue with the sport today is that some of its athletes are increasingly scared to fight.
As the sport (and prize money) has grown, the pressure to win has become too great for many fighters—even seasoned, legendary fighters like Andrei Arlovski.
During the post-fight press conference (which Dana was not present for) a solemn Andrei confessed, "Honestly, I still feel really horrible. Dana White is not here because he’s probably so pissed at me. He gave me a great opportunity. I didn’t like my fight tonight. For some reason I was nervous a lot. I was even more nervous than when I first fought more than 14 years ago.”
It’s not just the pressure to win that creates a timid fighter—obsessing about being perfect, staying in their comfort zone, relying on points—it’s the fear of getting cut. The UFC is by no means a monopoly in the sport, but it is the major leagues.
Dana was so fired up at the Schaub v. Arlovski fight, that he dismissed the judging and talked about the timidity problem—which he seems to have a more visceral hatred for. On the Fox Sports 1 post show, he told it like it is.
“Was it controversial? I think everybody would agree that fight sucked. That fight was horrible. You know who lost that fight? The fans. […] I made a big mistake by putting that on the main card. That should have been on the prelims. For Schaub to walk around thinking he got robbed is hysterical. […] Neither one of them threw any punches in the first two rounds, and Schaub's face still looked like it got hit with a baseball bat. For him to think he got robbed tonight is absolute comedy. We got robbed tonight,” he said.
I’m not sure when this started happening exactly, but another great example of this phenomenon has been the current season of The Ultimate Fighter reality show. Contestants are facing elimination and departure from the biggest training opportunity in their lives. Take into account that even the slightest injury or cut ends their chances and you start to understand why they are playing it safe.
Still, I heard that the opposite is happening at the TUF: Latin America house, where first generation MMA fighters from much rougher places are putting it all out there. Is MMA destined to become like baseball? Will the talent pool see an influx of fighters from down south, and places like Dagestan, where the balls-to-the-wall attitude seems to exist the way it did here a decade ago?
Until then, we seem to be doomed to watch at least 3 of these types of “tag, your it…no, now your it” fights per event. Whenever I’m about two minutes into the second round of a heavyweight snooze fest I find myself suddenly daydreaming of more exciting times—the same vision of a young BJ Penn sprinting across the canvas and kneeing Sean Sherk in the face. Or Genki Sudo throwing wild spinning backfists and flying armbars with reckless abandon in K-1. Do you think Genki Sudo cared about points? He was way more concerned about looking cool and attempting fantastic finishes. YOLO, bro.
It’s not a pleasant part of the history of the sport, but the self-defense concepts that work in real life carry over into the Octagon—and informed the way MMA was taught in the beginning. Guys like Kazushi Sakuraba, Charles "Krazy Horse" Bennett, Royce Gracie, all had that finish-or-die mentality. It's why fans love the Diaz brothers so much. And I'm not saying these types of fighers don't exist in MMA today. People like Johny Hendricks, Jose Aldo, Chris Weidman, and Ronda Rousey all display the reckless spirit of combat. I am strickly speaking about those struggling to feel comfortable enough in the Octagon to let that spirit loose.
One of the secrets of a street fight (BJJ instructors are now told to call it a “self-defense situation”) is to not hesitate. Do all you can to prevent confrontation from escalating, but once you know that it will, be first and commit to it 100 percent. This is easier said than done, and most people continue to not be able to fully rise to the occasion even while the fight is actually happening. The emotional stress of it all can be more powerful than you might expect.
Martial artists develop their ability to step into this zone of chaos with ease and clear mindedness—at least that’s the goal. When I first started doing grappling competitions, my game plan was to simply pull guard on my opponent. Still, the anxiety was so great, that my coach gave me a rule: Count down from 3 to 1, and no matter what is happening when you get to 1, close the distance as fast as you can. The same goes for jumping out of planes, or bungee jumping. Physiologically speaking, everything in your body is telling you not to jump... or telling you to avoid getting into a massive fight with Andrei “The Pitbull” Arlovski.
It hasn’t pervaded the sport just yet, but it’s something that needs to be addressed. Fighters are spending too much time being careful. It’s counterintuitive because it’s the avoiding the fight part that Dana is going to cut you for—not for losing a match in glorious fashion.
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