No two ways about it, the weekend’s UFC 149 event was a disappointment to most of us. Even hardcore MMA fans like ourselves - and presumably yourself, since you’re reading Fighters Only - found little to enthuse about in three of the five main card bouts.
There were moments of interest to those of us who train but overall the main card was not a memorable one. UFC president Dana White said afterwards that he was “embarrassed” by the event, which he said “sucked”.
While he often gives his frank opinion on fights and cards he rarely goes so far as to suggest that the UFC might have damaged itself in a market, but he did on Saturday night. He hoped that the show “didn’t leave a bad taste in Calgary’s mouth” given that it was the first time the UFC had visited the city.
The card had been damaged in advance by many injury pullouts and withdrawals, removing much of its star power, but White didn’t feel that was the cause of the disappointment. He laid the blame on the fighters for their extended periods of clinching and/or inactivity (Ebersole/Head, Kongo/Jordan, Lombard/Boetsch) and blasted the referees for not doing something about it.
“I'm so pissed at [Yves] Lavigne. "He just stands there, like a dope, and watches these guys clinch on the fence, not advancing their position, not doing damage. Just standing there for two rounds - and then you let them do it for an entire five minutes in a three-round fight?” White said at the post-fight press conference, referencing the Kongo/Jordan fight.
“And again, I blame all three involved in that. But the ref's job is to protect the fighters, make the right calls and make sure they fight.”
In an appearance on FUEL TV after the event he let rip again. “Officiating these days is gonna kill combat sports. We are talking about experienced referees doing this for a long time… The reffing in that [Kongo/Jordan] fight was disgusting. This isn’t the Ultimate Clinching Championship. It’s the refs job to make them fight. That entire third round, Yves Lavigne let them clinch against the fence.”
According to White, such officiating “absolutely crushes the sport” and he wants the athletic commissions who appoint referees and judges to start chastising and retraining people. “Any job you have, and you don't do your job, you get reprimanded,” he said, suggesting that commissions implement “some class you have to sit in and watch the fights and see what you did wrong.”
White is clearly angry about officiating, but is he right? He certainly has a point regarding the poor judging decisions we see over and over. But is it really the referee’s fault that fighters are increasingly employing tactics which reduce their meetings to a point-fight or a grinding clinch against the fence?
One thing I personally feel is being overlooked is the enormous pressure not to lose in the UFC. Fighters can be cut for a single loss, although it usually takes two in a row to be released from their contract. With the UFC being the only organisation where a martial artist can make any real money, losing your contract is a huge financial blow, especially if you aren’t a big name.
The other factor is that UFC contracts are generally structured on a sliding scale that increases your purse for the next fight every time you win a bout. If you lose, your purse can stagnate, contract or disappear altogether as you exit the promotion and return to the regional hinterlands and purses of - if you’re lucky - a few thousand dollars.
Contrast that pressure not to lose with the incentives to win big. There are three bonuses available on fight night - Fight of the Night, Submission of the Night and Knockout of the Night. Two of them require a finish, the other requires a show-stopping performance and often goes to a bout that ended in decision but was heavy on action.
Now imagine you’re a fighter who is worried about (i) maintaining or increasing your purses and (ii) keeping your spot on the UFC roster. Do you go all-out and try to get one of the three-fight night bonuses? With 24 fighters on the average card, the odds don’t favour you being the winner there. But your financial and career interests can be protected simply by making sure you win, whatever the method you employ. And so statistically, it makes much more sense for a fighter to try and earn a safe win that it does for them to try and win big and earn a bonus with it.
What can a referee do to stop fighters being inactive or playing it safe? We don’t have a yellow card system, but the referee can take a point away from a fighter he feels is stalling. But what if they are both at it? What if you get a pair of fighters that are either circling endlessly or clinching on the fence and stalemating constantly, do you deduct a point from each? If so, what good does that really do?
Would a better system not be to reward each fight that ends in a finish? Scrap the Submission of the Night and Knockout of the Night bonuses and instead implement, say, a $20,000 bonus for each fighter that finishes his opponent with a KO, TKO or submission. And pointedly reward good performance by not cutting fighters who always get in there to do or die; set an example to the others.
A locker-room bonus system does exist so its possible that finishes are already being rewarded on an informal basis. If that is the case then it might need combining with a more formalised recognition of good performances or a more obvious policy of not cutting losing fighters who put on good fights. What I don’t see fixing the problem is referees - there is only so much they can do to chivvy along fighters who don’t want to engage and I think its unfair to lay the blame squarely on them.
The issue of non-fights and bad decisions is becoming a serious problem in modern MMA. Its a complex subject - what are your thoughts on it? Do you agree with Dana that the officials need to step in and solve the problem or does it go deeper than that?
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