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.


21 comments:

  1. Well said.

    Personally I am a fan of head-stomps and soccer kicks.

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  2. As am I, but you will probably agree with me that they're probably too dangerous.

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  3. How about "Save the sport, kill the fighter" - 'cause that's what you're suggesting. Here's some of what I said on the comments on my article! Kind of applies here as well:

    See - and that's my point. Fans just want blood...they don't care about the fighter. It's the ref's job to care about the fighter. So no matter what you wanted, and even if you don't agree, that doesn't make this stoppage wrong. The whole point is that the ref stopped it because he felt it was important to protect the fighter because ultimately, that is his job.

    In fact, I think you may have missed this part - that trauma-induced alteration in mental status MAY or MAY NOT involve loss of consciousness; and that "A fighter may receive a blow to the head, face, neck, or body causing forces to be transmitted to the head without an awareness of a blackout".

    You're assuming that just because Kos started looking around, started to sit up, and seemed to be ready to defend himself, that he was never knocked out or hadn't rec'd a TBI, or if he had, it was no big deal, 'cause it comes with the territory. But it doesn't - that's what makes MMA different than boxing. Like it or not, that's what makes today's MMA different than NHB past.

    You can't know if he had a TBI. Truth is, neither can the ref. But since his job was to NOT take chances w/KOS's life, and since he was there looking directly up front and close at Kos, then he would know better than any of us if it was time to stop the fight. And he made the decision in favor of Kos, as he should have.

    Additionally, anyone who's spent any time training in combat- or fighting-type martial arts systems knows about muscle memory. You get knocked down or out, but your limbs and head still keep doing what they've been trained to do. That's what Kos was doing, IMO. And I'm not really even sure Thiago was showboating - it almost seems to me that he knew Kos was out, and knew it wasn't necessary to go in for the kill. If even the opponent stops and doesn't go in for the finish, what's that tell you?

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  4. I'm a little surprised you'd advocate for different rules for different "levels" of fighter. Who determines their levels? Would Chuck-Page have ended differently under that system? What about that kid that Etim "KO'd"? He got his head turned with Etim's foot and was still aware, but he was not on the same "level" apparently as Etim. Is that a good stoppage? Or because he's unknown, does he not get the same consideration? I'm not being a jerk, I'm curious.

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  5. One thing that needs to be remembered: The ref has a better view of the fighter and his eyes than anyone else. If he thinks the fighter is out of it, he stops it.

    We can guess all we want, but we don't know what he saw when he looked at Kos.

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  6. Katrina: if there's no way to tell how badly he's been hurt, short of an MRI, then the only way to really protect the fighter is to stop the fight the minute a significant blow is landed, especially if he seems to be impaired (falls over, wobbly legs). Or better yet, since we can't be sure what effects the FIRST impact will have on him, stop the fight before any significant blow has been landed. Hence the entire idea of "save the fighter, kill the sport".

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  7. With all due respect, Humungus, the only way to really protect the fighter is to not have a fight at all. Get real and don't be so condescending. Here you go - read it from the experts: http://www.usatoday.com/sports/mma/2009-03-04-ufc-referees_N.htm

    Be sure to read through the end.

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  8. Sorry but you're not much of a debater. Saying things like 'we can all agree' etc. is not an argument at all. We don't all agree that soccer kicks or stomps are dangerous. I've never seen someone really hurt by them, but I've seen people scarred for life by elbows (which should be banned since they don't incapacitate, but only cause bleeding and that's the worst reason for a stoppage since the fighter is fully able to continue if not for the gash in his head caused by the - often glancing - elbow.
    Applying consistency as your argument is equally wrong. Refs only have their eyes to depend on and no fight or fighter is the same so while Kos might recover quickly, another guy might not. If you receive a blow to the head, it's your fault, not the refs. He is there to save your life, not worry about you getting a W in your win loss column. Personally I'm in favor of an 8 count, so the fighter can be determined fit to continue. That too opens a pandora's box of problems so really the current system works fine. You will get early stoppages in someone's opinion unless the fighter is in convulsions and even then he might be said to be defending himself 'with' convulsions! Safety comes first. If you don't want your fight to get stopped, don't get hit flush in the head! Once you do, your ass is the refs responsibility.

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  9. I think that was a great stoppage... I could see how Kos would be dissappointed he trains hard 24/7 and doesnt plan on losing but thats the way the sport goes. The first uppercut did plenty of damage, the second hit looked like his head was going to fly into the stands it looked bad in HD im sure much worse in the ref's eyes. Thiago showed some class and sportsmanship walking away after Kos hit the canvas. That fight reminded me of when Renzo Gracie and Oleg fought in the bare knuckle fight Renzo hit Oleg with an upkick that pretty much knocked him out then oleg kinda sat back up Ko'd with his eyes open arms down and a retarted look on his face and ate a serious right.

    A stoppage i disagree with is Marc Coleman and Shogun there was like 15-30 seconds left in the fight Coleman got knocked down and quickly went to grab for a single leg and the fight was stopped. Of course that wasnt the best fight in the world but Shogun had no gas left to finish Coleman on the ground. He couldnt finish him earlier in the 3rd, 2nd or 1st.

    For that particular situation I think the ref did Kos a favor look at it this way b/c of that stoppage Kos could fight a few more fights in the future. I dont think it hurt the sport people will still watch and fighters will get ko'd and forget about this....

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  10. Katrina Belcher is in over her head. Either the conclusions that she reach don't logically follow her vague assumptions, or she is just appealing to people to agree.

    It is ludicrous how she says "knocked down or out" when there is a clear difference between the two. Furthermore, the fact that she is not "really sure Thiago was showboating" makes all this a terrible argument.

    In the end, she has dug her self into a hole and she is not competent enough to get out of it, just like most sherdoggers. But she is also too proud or just too stupid and stubborn to admit her defeat.

    Katrina Belcher, you can not win this argument/discussion by simply having an opinion! Whether you understand that or not doesn't change anything.

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  11. Katrina: if there's no way to tell how badly he's been hurt, short of an MRI, then the only way to really protect the fighter is to stop the fight the minute a significant blow is landed, especially if he seems to be impaired (falls over, wobbly legs).

    I am legitimately confused. Isn't this the whole idea of why MMA is safer than boxing: because there aren't multiple knockdowns and severely concussed fighters taking extra and unnecessary punishment? I get that the sport has only had three deaths and most people have never seen any of them live or on tape, but still. I'm fairly certain someone dying in the ring after absorbing a Sean Salmon type KO would do far worse things for the sport than the fear of "early stoppages".

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  12. Zorn: Nobody is advocating for more convulsion-inducing knockouts (although I will take a moment to say that the famous Salmon Ko's were caused by single shots standing).

    I'm not saying we should let fighters who are unable to defend themselves keep getting hit. Rather, I'm just saying that while fighters are actively defending themselves, we should not have the standard be for the referee to judge, without evidence, whether or not that defense will be sufficient.

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  13. Humungus: and thank you for making my point...that the referee should be allowed to judge, based on the evidence s/he has, as to whether or not a fighter has the ability to intelligently defend himself after being knocked down or out.

    Being that the referee is trained in the sport, has expertise in the ring, knows something of the potential physical hazards, and is right there in the ring with the fighters, means, short of wheeling an MRI bed into the ring, we must trust in their expertise. We don't have to agree with it, but we need to trust in it, because they are closest to the only evidence that is available and we -- that is those of us outside of the ring -- aren't.

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  14. What are you saying, Katrina? That we cannot judge a stoppage after the fact?

    What does 'trusting in their judgement' consist of?

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  15. Where did I say that we cannot judge a stoppage after the fact? Geez - if I felt that, I'd have nothing to write about.

    And what does trusting in their judgment consist of?? Pretty much trusting in their judgment; that they're there and can see the fighter they're protecting better than the rest of us and will make the call to the best of their ability, based on the facts they have and we don't.

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  16. Well - I'm sure we were all thinking about ref stoppages during the fights Saturday night.

    I can't believe the ref stepped in to stop the Hamill vs. Munoz fight like that. I mean, he was totally intelligently defending himself from Hamill's fists with his face and all. Geez - ANOTHER early stoppage.

    And WHAT was Yves thinking? "I'd better let this keep going or they'll write an article about me over there at mmaratings.net!"??? OMGOSH!

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  17. I think Katrina affords a lot of benefit of the doubt to the referees that not all share, myself included. That probably has something do to with her affiliation to MMA Referee School (http://mmarefschool.org), but I'm just speculating there.

    It seems pretty clear to me that, as much as referees must be afforded greater insight into the dynamics of a fight that would require stopping, the rules around stoppages are pretty vague and disparate among them. In a similar fashion we are all familiar with how different referees define shots to the back of the head. My point here is that questioning of the referee's actions and criteria is perfectly reasonable.

    UFC 96 once again displayed the lack of clarity that referees must experience when trying to do their job. When finding a balance between risk and conclusiveness, I tend to find myself leaning towards conclusiveness. That's not to say I have an infinite appetite for risk. I have seen what I would consider late stoppages, but I find them far more infrequent than what I would consider early stoppages.

    Considering that the referee's job is to maintain the fighter's safety, to a degree, we will continue to see referees intervene only to discover that the "downed" fighter is still quite capable of defending them self. How many referees have in the past have regretted a stoppage for being too early, but felt compelled to maintain their stoppage. We will never know, but surely this has happened. While I think we can all agree that ideally a referee never inappropriately interferes with a fight, I applaud Yves Levigne for quickly recognize his mistake in the Brown/Sell fight and allowing the fight to continue. Because otherwise the fight would have been stopped too early. Had Yves never intervened prematurely, it would have been a perfectly reasonable stoppage. Sure Sell was rocked early, but he was still trying to fight back and deserved that opportunity.

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  18. Katrina: if there's no way to tell how badly he's been hurt, short of an MRI, then the only way to really protect the fighter is to stop the fight the minute a significant blow is landed, especially if he seems to be impaired (falls over, wobbly legs).

    I am legitimately confused. Isn't this the whole idea of why MMA is safer than boxing: because there aren't multiple knockdowns and severely concussed fighters taking extra and unnecessary punishment? I get that the sport has only had three deaths and most people have never seen any of them live or on tape, but still. I'm fairly certain someone dying in the ring after absorbing a Sean Salmon type KO would do far worse things for the sport than the fear of "early stoppages".

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  19. One thing that needs to be remembered: The ref has a better view of the fighter and his eyes than anyone else. If he thinks the fighter is out of it, he stops it.

    We can guess all we want, but we don't know what he saw when he looked at Kos.

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  20. I think Katrina affords a lot of benefit of the doubt to the referees that not all share, myself included. That probably has something do to with her affiliation to MMA Referee School (http://mmarefschool.org), but I'm just speculating there.

    It seems pretty clear to me that, as much as referees must be afforded greater insight into the dynamics of a fight that would require stopping, the rules around stoppages are pretty vague and disparate among them. In a similar fashion we are all familiar with how different referees define shots to the back of the head. My point here is that questioning of the referee's actions and criteria is perfectly reasonable.

    UFC 96 once again displayed the lack of clarity that referees must experience when trying to do their job. When finding a balance between risk and conclusiveness, I tend to find myself leaning towards conclusiveness. That's not to say I have an infinite appetite for risk. I have seen what I would consider late stoppages, but I find them far more infrequent than what I would consider early stoppages.

    Considering that the referee's job is to maintain the fighter's safety, to a degree, we will continue to see referees intervene only to discover that the "downed" fighter is still quite capable of defending them self. How many referees have in the past have regretted a stoppage for being too early, but felt compelled to maintain their stoppage. We will never know, but surely this has happened. While I think we can all agree that ideally a referee never inappropriately interferes with a fight, I applaud Yves Levigne for quickly recognize his mistake in the Brown/Sell fight and allowing the fight to continue. Because otherwise the fight would have been stopped too early. Had Yves never intervened prematurely, it would have been a perfectly reasonable stoppage. Sure Sell was rocked early, but he was still trying to fight back and deserved that opportunity.

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  21. Katrina Belcher is in over her head. Either the conclusions that she reach don't logically follow her vague assumptions, or she is just appealing to people to agree.

    It is ludicrous how she says "knocked down or out" when there is a clear difference between the two. Furthermore, the fact that she is not "really sure Thiago was showboating" makes all this a terrible argument.

    In the end, she has dug her self into a hole and she is not competent enough to get out of it, just like most sherdoggers. But she is also too proud or just too stupid and stubborn to admit her defeat.

    Katrina Belcher, you can not win this argument/discussion by simply having an opinion! Whether you understand that or not doesn't change anything.

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