March 4, 2009

Not-So-Intelligent Defense - Save the Fighter, Kill the Sport

By Nicholas Bailey (nbailey@mmaratings.net)

Recently, our own Katrina Belcher put pen to proverbial paper in defense of referee Marc Goddard's stoppage of Josh Koscheck's fight with Paulo Thiago, giving Thiago a knockout victory. While her heart is in the right place, writing out of a love for the sport and the fighters involved, the conclusions she reached are dead wrong.

Simply put, there is no objective criteria that a referee could use to justify the stoppage that, if employed fairly and evenly across all fights, would not destroy the sport.

To start with, the notion of regulating away all 'riskiness' in the sport must be done away with. The fact is that MMA is risky. One of the primary methods of victory is to beat your opponent until he is unable to coherently fight back. That entails risk. As Josh Koscheck demonstrated on Yoshiyuki Yoshida, serious head trauma can occur so quickly as to be unpreventable by any referee. The only way to eliminate this risk of head trauma would be to outlaw strikes to the head and slams.

Rather, in order for a risk to be eliminated from the sport, it must be argued that that risk is either excessive or unnecessary. Most MMA fans would agree that allowing spiking an opponent onto his head, or even the fan-favorite head-stomp or soccer kick, are probably excessively dangerous for a well-regulated sport. Similarly, it is generally seen as unnecessary that a fighter that is not defending himself be knocked completely limp and unconscious before the fight is stopped.

However, this concept of unnecessary damage has a corollary-that some amount of damage is necessary. Such an idea sounds bloodthirsty and violent, but it is crucial if the sport is to truly be about determining who is the stronger fighter. It is typically necessary to let the losing fighter endure some amount of damage and punishment in order to be sure that he has been conquered. This is not to say that we need to return to UFC 1 rules where the fight continues until a fighter gives up or goes limp. A reasonably safe yet determinative standard can be set forth and followed reasonably well.

What standard then, would justify the Koscheck stoppage? First, we must examine what actually occurred. Koscheck caught two punches square in the face, which buckled his knees, rolled his eyes, and sent him collapsing to the canvas in very bad shape. Once on the canvas, Koscheck kept his head off the mat, watching his opponent, shifted his hips to catch Thiago in his guard, and raised a hand to block additional shots. He was obviously impaired, but still carrying out the basics of fighting in a willful manner and attempting to protect himself. In order to justify this stoppage, since there was no chance given for Koscheck to actually demonstrate his ability to continue fighting, the referee must either be responsible for making accurate snap judgments about the state of a fighters impairment from the way they fall or must stop every fight where a fighter is impaired. If it is the responsibility of the referee to determine whether Koscheck is too impaired to win the fight, even though Koscheck is still fighting, simply from the impact of a blow, then MMA will become a contest of the first fighter to land a shot that so much as wobbles his opponent, and woe to the fighter that simply loses his footing and trips to the ground in a manner that convinces the referee he is impaired. Simply, while some judgement calls and mistakes on behalf of the referee are unavoidable, this standard would leave the outcome of the tilt far too much in the hands of the third man, and far too little in the gloves of the combatants.

The standard of "intelligent defense"--stopping a fight when a fighter is unable, for any reason, to effectively defend themselves or willfully carry on fighting--is a much easier one to follow, and one that is much more determinative of the true "better man". The referee can still make mistakes, but it is much simpler to call, and still saves fighters from undue or excessive punishment. It has the added bonus of being applicable in situations where a fighter is not impaired mentally, but cannot escape punishment, such as BJ Penn vs. Matt Hughes II. The additional risks of a hurt but still fighting combatant taking an additional blow or two are already accepted if the fighter fails to fall over but remains on wobbly legs, so the only way to protect against the possibility of additional blows complicating a concussion would be to declare the victor the first man who can so much as elicit a stumble from his opponent, ruining the sport.

Furthermore, the bar of what constitutes "intelligence" can be raised and lowered depending on the level of competition. For an elite-level fighter of Koscheck's ability and athleticism, the ability to focus on his opponent and prepare to defend for a coming onslaught is enough to indicate that he is still mentally in the fight and it should continue, whereas a weekend warrior sent crashing to the mat has much less to gain from being afforded a slim chance to continue to engage his opponent, and should be required to demonstrate a greater degree of 'intelligence'.

Regardless of how one feels about this outcome, it should be obvious to all that some clear and wisely-crafted standard must be set forth for when it is appropriate to stop a fight in high-level MMA, as the Stefan Struve vs. Junior Dos Santos stoppage exists in a different universe than the Josh Koscheck vs. Paulo Thiago stoppage, in terms of standards. Fighters and coaches need to know what to strive for in order to keep from being counted out, and referees need objective criteria to be able to point to in response to criticism.

As in so many things, consistency is key.


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