I watched the main event of UFC Fight Night 72 in a pub in the middle of the afternoon with about 30% of my husband’s extended family. We’d gone there to have a few drinks and kill some time between a wedding ceremony and reception and I somehow worked up the nerve to ask our server if we could switch one of the bar’s 600 TVs away from baseball so that I could see Thales Leites face off against Michael Bisping.
I was cheering for Leites, both because I was a fan of his fighting style and because I thought that his name had a cellar door-like quality to it. So I was thrilled to see him so clearly dominate the fight, dictating both the place and pace in the Octagon and unleashing an onslaught of strikes for which The Count had very little answer, for at least four of the five rounds. I was confused when I found out that it came to a split decision. And I was floored when Bisping won that split decision. Leites, I was sure, had been robbed.
When I rewatched the bout and looked up the stats in a fit of righteous indignation, I was surprised by what I saw. The fight was not nearly as clear-cut as I remembered it and whatever dominance there was in it was hardly Leites’s. The Brazilian had one successful takedown attempt and a few more landed head kicks to his name than Bisping, but he was outstruck in every other way. I went from trying to claim that Bisping had no obvious game plan to begrudgingly admiring its execution. Had I been a judge, I would have scored the fight in his favor, too.
I suspect that the most obvious lesson that I should take away from that experience is that a human perspective under the influence of rum, social anxiety, and euphony is far from infallible. But it also reminded me that no human perspective is infallible, period. Mixed martial arts, like any other art, is viewed through the lens of our experiences and biases. It’s occasionally just as open to interpretation. And those interpretations can tell us a lot about ourselves.
Split decision victories, especially contentious ones like Robbie Lawler’s win over Carlos Condit last January, become a Rorschach test of sorts for MMA. The way that we respond to them and argue about scores and victors tells us so much about who we are and what we value about the sport. They expose not just our preferences for fighters, but our preferences for fight styles, and how differently seemingly simple concepts like offense and defense can be to different people.
The virulence of our responses can also be telling. Sometimes it goes so far beyond allegiance to a certain fighter, disagreement with a score, or exasperation with imperfect judging that it hints at something much deeper and more troubling than an arguably stolen victory.
One of the things that appeals to many of us about MMA is how definitive it feels. It’s an accepted truth that you’ll hear spoken by everyone from the most experienced fighter to the most casual fan: it’s a test with no grey area, no bias, and little room for moral relativism. Two people enter, and one person wins.
And that can and does happen when the fight ends with a knockout, submission, or ref stoppage, but when none of those defining moments happen within the time limit, that essential truth must turn into something a little more complex.
Judging is, quite obviously, imperfect for a number of reasons in MMA right now. But even if everyone involved could agree on and articulate every specific detail that goes into a winning fight, and even if the sport were to have uniformly educated judges in place who could evaluate those specific things, those judges would still be human beings who would view the fights through their own perspectives. There will never be a time at which we can guarantee that every fight will be assessed perfectly and every decision handled justly. No matter how much we want to look to this one thing in life that makes perfect, inarguable sense, we can never completely rely on it. And so the thing that we have turned to for solace from the existential dread of our lives occasionally becomes another source of it.
When we rail against a decision that doesn’t sit right with us, we’re also grappling with the uncertainty of the world around us. When we argue in favor of a specific outcome, we’re also fighting to impose some semblance of a recognizable narrative on the random nature of existence itself. When we insist that there’s only one possible way to evaluate a fight, we’re begging for one simple, shining thing that we can rely on.
It’s not a hopeless quest. Sometimes there really are irrefutable finishes to fights. Sometimes an outcome is so obvious that an actual consensus becomes, however briefly, possible. Sometimes, though, we’ll just have to sit back in and feel powerless and/or awed in the face answers so obscure we do not and cannot understand them and try look for meaning in our quest for comprehension when we can’t find the comprehension itself.
The desire to see this sport—this calling—as something bigger, purer, and nobler than life is an understandable one. So, too, is the frustration when it falls short of those ideals. But when MMA fails to transcend life, it begins to embody it instead. And there’s something to be said for that beautifully messy and infuriating experience, too.
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