UFC 118 and Why MMA Needs to Change

UFC 118 was a huge event for mixed martial arts fans. It featured a title fight in the UFC's lightweight division, a number one contender fight in the same division, and perhaps most significantly, UFC Hall of Famer Randy Couture vs. boxing champion James "Lights Out" Toney.

The boxing vs. MMA angle, of course, has been overblown since before the fight was announced. In a boxing contest, any high-level boxer would win nine times out of 10 against a high-level mixed martial artist, probably more than nine out of 10. Similarly, a high-level MMA fighter will take nine of 10 from a high-level boxer under MMA rules. Both Couture (who is 47) and Toney (who is 42 and overweight) are past their primes, and one fight doesn't prove anything.

Nonetheless, Couture's easy victory this weekend does provide validation for MMA fans. The notion that a boxer would defeat an equally skilled mixed martial artist in a fight where takedowns are permitted is laughable. A boxer would win a boxing match, and probably a kickboxing contest; the MMA fighter would win anything else, including a no-holds-barred fight or a street brawl. Think Rocky vs. Tommy at the end of Rocky V.

That said, I would be remiss not to compliment Couture on an absolutely perfect gameplan, executed to further perfection. The Couture/Toney matchup was a bit of a freakshow, though, and the real action Saturday night was in the UFC's lightweight division. In the main event, reigning champ Frankie Edgar outclassed B.J. Penn in a surprisingly one-sided five-round decision. Edgar was the quicker, more aggressive fighter, and Penn never sustained any effective offense.

Earlier on the card, Gray Maynard won an easy decision over perennial gatekeeper Kenny Florian. Why anyone ever picks against Maynard is a bit of a mystery to me. His next fight will be with Edgar for the 155-pound title, and Maynard — the only fighter to defeat Edgar — should be a slight favorite. Kicking off the evening, local product Joe Lauzon put on the most impressive performance of his career, positively tearing through Gabe Ruediger. Lauzon was visibly fired up by fighting in front of his hometown fans, and it was the most enjoyable fight of the night from where I was sitting.

John McCarthy is Wrong

a.k.a. What MMA Needs to Change

MMA Fighting's Ben Fowlkes recently wrote about officiating and accountability in MMA; it's undeniably a problem. The sport routinely sees inept referees and uninformed judges unduly influence fight results, and it is no exaggeration to say that most MMA fans could do a better job of reffing and judging fights than the people who are paid to do so. Notably, state athletic commissions are usually stacked with people who come from a boxing background and misunderstand or underestimate the importance of grappling and ground-fighting.

Nobody wants to see fighters stood up in the middle of a submission attempt, but Fowlkes quoted legendary MMA ref "Big" John McCarthy insisting that fighters who gain a dominant position should never be stood up. With all due respect to McCarthy, he couldn't be more wrong.

Mixed martial arts is fundamentally an entertainment business. All sports are. If the product is not entertaining, people won't watch; they certainly won't pay $45 for the privilege. If MMA wants to grow as a sport, if the people running organizations like the UFC want to grow their businesses, they need to recognize that they are selling entertainment, and lay-and-pray — the derogatory term for the tactic of laying atop your opponent and praying for a decision victory — is not entertaining. In fact, it's frustrating and dull.

Even apart from the necessity of providing entertainment — and it is a necessity if we want anything beyond an amateur circuit — sports require action. Virtually every sport has rules against stalling. Basketball has a shot clock, American football has delay of game penalties, tennis has time violations, and so on. MMA does have standards for continuous action, but they are unevenly enforced, with inexperienced refs frequently standing things up too soon, and well-meaning guys like Big John approvingly allowing lay-and-pray to go on ad infinitum. No other sport rewards the intentional prevention of progress; no other referees sanction deliberate stalling.

In particular, whoever is winning is not permitted to stall. Letting a guy run out the clock once he gets side control would be like getting rid of the shot clock in basketball, or eliminating delay of game calls in football. Once someone got on top, they could just hold the ball until time expired. Some MMA refs actually allow this to occur, and right now there's no official recourse to prevent or punish it. That needs to change.

Don't get me wrong: I like grappling. Submission specialist Demian Maia is one of my favorite fighters. So are Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Georges St-Pierre, Miguel Torres, and any number of other fighters whose greatest strength is their ground-fighting. I even think guys like Jon Fitch and Rashad Evans get a bad rap; those guys stay active on the ground, and while they're not effective finishers, they're not just getting the takedown and waiting for 15 minutes to be up. They're not one-dimensional wrestlers, they're mixed martial artists who utilize a strong wrestling background. They throw strikes from the top, try to improve position, take a submission if it's there. There's nothing wrong with that. I like grappling.

But I don't like lay-and-pray. It's boring, it's not sportsmanlike, and it's not MMA. It's stalling, plain and simple. Most importantly, it turns people away from the sport. The incessant clinching between Nik Lentz and Andre Winner was frustratingly, agonizingly dull. The televised portion of Bellator 25 was a groan-inducing bore, with lots of wrestling and clinching, but very few attempts to finish fights, via strikes or submissions. The Bellator announcers openly derided the incredibly dull contest between Cole Konrad and Rogent Lloret. One day earlier, at WEC 50, Chad "The Snuggie" Mendes put on the most appalling display of lay-and-pray I have ever seen, and it is because of tactics like his that McCarthy is wrong.

In the first round, Mendes gained a dominant position over Cub Swanson, then smothered him, making no attempt to finish the fight. He threw literally no strikes, he attempted absolutely no submissions, and he made no effort whatsoever to further improve his position. He just held Swanson down and waited for the round to pass. That's the definition of lay-and-pray. It was so dull I wanted to gouge my eyes out simply so I wouldn't watch any more. I thought I was going to die of ennui. I never, ever want to see Chad Mendes "fight" again. He's not a mixed martial artist; he's not a fighter.

Gaining top control, even a dominant position like mount, and then lying on your opponent and waiting for the round to end is disrespectful to the fans who paid to see you fight, disrespectful to the promoters paying you to perform, disrespectful to the sport. The people who sell tickets and pay-per-view buys and advertising need to recognize that this hurts their profitability. Fighters, trainers, and refs need to recognize that it hurts the sport. Judges need to recognize that a fighter throwing damaging strikes from the bottom, or attempting submissions from below, is beating a fighter who lies on top of him and does nothing but try to hold him down.

Almost every sport, usually early in its history, has faced situations like this. Teams or individuals with limited talent realize that they can maximize their chances of winning by limiting the action. So they stall, and often they start winning. But the interests of the individual are at odds with the interests of the sport. These tactics turn off fans, and they aren't particularly sporting (which is a polite way of saying they aren't even fair). After a while, usually not very long, the leagues enact rules to prevent those tactics.

Organizations like the UFC have a fair degree of control over their rules; some points are subject to the athletic commissions, but if MMA organizations want to keep the action going, it's within their power to mandate that. For the good of the sport, the pleasure of the fans, and the profitability of the fight organizations themselves, referees should receive explicit instructions about keeping action moving, even when fighters gain a dominant position. I'm not saying we stand things up right after a guy gets to mount; I'm just saying that if nothing is happening — if the guy on top is content to lie there, or if the fighter on the bottom has neutralized his opponent's offense for the present and for the immediate future — that the ref should step in following a warning. And let's make that a single warning — I'm tired of refs covering for themselves by repeatedly threatening to stand a fight up when they have no intention of actually doing so.

The same thing applies to prolonged clinching, which may be tactical, but is not entertaining. Stalling is a tactic, too, in baseball and football and tennis and MMA, but it's not a legitimate one, and it's not good for anyone except the person doing the stalling. It should be illegal, and MMA organizations risk a permanent ceiling on their viewership if they don't act to prohibit it.

September 2010 UFC Rankings

The rankings below are exclusively for the UFC, so you won't see names like Alistair Overeem or Fëdor Emelianenko on these lists.

Heavyweight (206-265 lbs)

1. Brock Lesnar
2. Cain Velasquez
3. Junior Dos Santos
4. Shane Carwin
5. Roy Nelson
6. Frank Mir
7. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira
8. Ben Rothwell
9. Mirko Filipovic
10. Cheick Kongo

Make it happen: Carwin vs. Nelson

Two huge (literally) fighters coming off losses. The winner should move back into immediate title contention.

Thank you, UFC, for: Mir vs. Filipovic

This is a much more interesting fight than Mir vs. Nogueira 2.

Light Heavyweight (186-205)

1. Mauricio "Shogun" Rua
2. Lyoto Machida
3. Rashad Evans
4. Jon Jones
5. Quinton "Rampage" Jackson
6. Antonio Rogerio Nogueira
7. Thiago Silva
8. Ryan Bader
9. Forrest Griffin
10. Rich Franklin

Make it happen: Jones vs. a quality opponent

Fans don't want to see Jones fight Franklin or Griffin or Couture; they are legitimately worried about what would happen to these fighters they admire and respect. Jones is a wrecking machine, and putting him against anyone but top-caliber competition is sadistic at this point. I'd like to see him face Thiago Silva or the winner of Nogueira/Bader.

Thank you, UFC, for: Nogueira vs. Bader

A stiff test for the Ultimate Fighter Season Eight winner comes at just the right time. The victor should get either Jon Jones or the winner of the expected Machida/Rampage matchup, with a title shot on the line.

Middleweight (171-185)

1. Anderson Silva
2. Chael Sonnen
3. Yushin Okami
4. Vitor Belfort
5. Nate Marquardt
6. Demian Maia
7. Wanderlei Silva
8. Michael Bisping
9. Chris Leben
10. Yoshihiro Akiyama

Make it happen: Wanderlei Silva vs. Leben

Leben asked for this fight, and Wandy won't turn anyone down. This has Fight of the Night written all over it, or at least "entertaining slugfest." I know Silva's out of action for a while, but Leben has earned a break, and this is worth waiting for.

Thank you, UFC, for: Belfort vs. Okami

This fight is not official yet, but there are rumors afoot, and it's absolutely the only fight that makes sense for either man at this point. This sets up an undisputed title contender.

Welterweight (156-170)

1. Georges St-Pierre
2. Jon Fitch
3. Jake Shields
4. Thiago Alves
5. Martin Kampmann
6. Paulo Thiago
7. Josh Koscheck
8. Matt Hughes
9. Dan Hardy
10. Dong Hyun Kim

Make it happen: Matt Hughes vs. winner of Shields/Kampmann

Hughes hasn't shown much interest recently in fighting top-flight competition, but coming off a great performance against a legit opponent, and with a title shot on the line, maybe he can be persuaded. If the winner of the Shields fight gets a title shot, Hughes should face Jon Fitch.

Thank you, UFC, for: Everything

This is by far the UFC's deepest division right now, and there are a bunch of great fights coming up: Shields vs. Kampmann, Hardy vs. Carlos Condit, Thiago vs. Diego Sanchez, and so on. It's hard for matchmaker Joe Silva to go wrong at this point.

Lightweight (146-155)

1. Frankie Edgar
2. Gray Maynard
3. B.J. Penn
4. Kenny Florian
5. George Sotiropoulos
6. Evan Dunham
7. Takanori Gomi
8. Joe Stevenson
9. Tyson Griffin
10. Jim Miller

Make it happen: Sotiropoulos vs. Gomi

Sotiropoulos hasn't lost in almost four years, and that was a DQ loss (which only sort of counts) against legendary Japanese lightweight Shinya Aoki. Already this year he's beaten Stevenson and ended Kurt Pellegrino's four-fight UFC winning streak. Gomi was widely dismissed as a contender following his loss to Florian, then celebrated following his knockout of Griffin. The UFC should be positioning both Sotiropoulos and Dunham for title shots, and the Gomi fight is a logical next move for the Aussie submission specialist.

Thank you, UFC, for: Dunham vs. Sean Sherk

Sherk isn't ranked above because he hasn't fought in over a year, but he's obviously a top-ten talent, and Dunham is quickly climbing the ranks of the 155-pound weight class. The winner of this bout should be one more fight away from a title shot.

Upcoming Action

With Strikeforce unable to make fights happen, DREAM struggling to survive, and Bellator mostly featuring second-tier fighters, the most significant action is happening under the Zuffa banner. UFC 119, scheduled for September 25, boasts two significant fights. If we're being honest, the headliner, Mir vs. Cro Cop, is a "for the fans" fight. It's an interesting matchup, and I'm excited to see it, but neither man appears to be a realistic heavyweight contender at this point. More intriguing are Little Nog vs. Bader and Sherk vs. Dunham, both of which could position young up-and-comers for title shots in the near future. I could change my mind in the next month, but right now, put me down for Bader, Dunham, and — in an upset — Filipovic. I don't know if Mir can take him down, and Cro Cop is still the superior striker.

An even better card goes down less than a week later, when Broomfield, Colorado, hosts WEC 51. The card features featherweight champ Jose Aldo's title defense against Manny Gamburyan, the long-awaited rematch of Jamie Varner and Donald Cerrone, Miguel Torres vs. Charlie Valencia, and the returns of Leonard Garcia and Chan Sung Jung. Aldo and Torres are always worth watching, and Varner vs. Cerrone is intriguing on several levels. First of all, it matches up two of the best lightweights in the WEC. Second, it's a rematch of a controversial bout from 2009, with Varner winning a split decision following an illegal strike from Cerrone. Third, the two men hate each other. What more could you ask for?

Garcia and Jung aren't fighting each other, but both have proved that they bring plenty of excitement, and a rematch of their three-round classic in April is expected if both men win. That fight, while not technical, was dramatic and entertaining, a strong Fight of the Year candidate. It has even earned comparisons to Don Frye vs. Yoshihiro Takayama. I would actually argue that Garcia vs. "The Korean Zombie" featured more prolonged action than that classic bout, and fans have been looking forward to seeing both fighters again.

I'll take Garcia and Jung to win their respective contests (against Mark Hominick and George Roop), and nothing will induce me to bet against Aldo. I'll go with Torres to rebound, and I'm rolling the dice on Varner to make it 2-0 against Cowboy. Not the boldest picks, I know, but if you put a few of those together in a parlay, you could do alright for yourself.

Comments and Conversation

August 31, 2010


Hey, nice analysis, but I disagree. I think that fighters, whose professions are to train and fight — that’s it, should be able to defend takedowns and/or get up to their feet.

Take Randy Couture.. he is an awesome fighter and an icon, but can be somewhat boring at times. His fight against Vera was about 12 minutes of pressing Vera against the cage. But, could Couture do that to Shogun, Machida, Evans, or Jon Jones? No way, and that is why those guys are at the top. No one should be settling for mediocrity, and if one is matched up against a high level “lay n pray” wrestler, he better work his ass off during the multiple weeks or even months he has to train to stop a takedown with striking, speed, strength, or by nullifying it with bjj, or even working with the cage.

Being able to hold a dominant position in grappling or MMA is very difficult. If a guy gets to full mount on his opponent, and can hold it for a few minutes, that’s impressive. Evan Dunham had a standing body triangle on Tyson Griffin but didn’t do much, because snatching a submission on a high level opponent isn’t easy. Griffin complained that he couldn’t do anything, but that’s his fault. Holding a dominant position takes a lot of effort and should be rewarded.

Lastly, I think the “lay n pray problem” with be a thing of the past in a few years. Guys like Anthony Pettis (who by the way, negated Shane Roller’s outstanding wrestling throughout their fight and won by triangle choke), Jose Aldo, Josh Grispi (who was taken down by wrestler LC Davis into side control but immediately snatched up a guillotine that put Davis to sleep), GSP (no official wrestling bg, but the best in MMA), Edgar, Melendez, Jon Jones, Cain Velasquez, and more — are all young guys who began training mainly in MMA. A few have wrestling backgrounds, but these guys are the future. They can strike, take people down, stop takedowns, and win/finish fights, and this is why they are the future.

Guys coming from a single background (even wrestling) soon will not be able to cut it when the super athlete MIXED martial artists (like those mentioned above) dominate the sport.

August 31, 2010


I mostly agree, however, I don’t like GSP; since he became champion he has taken no risks in the striking game and has been in positions where any elite BJJ practicioner would have ended the fight via sub. Thusly, he has become one of the biggest benefactors of lay and pray. He’s popular, bur objectively, if you take away his name and his brand, he is as boring to watch as any other wrestler.

Also, you sound like you have an idea of what you’re talking about, yet you fail to mention the old Pride rules that kept fights like this from happening. In Pride, you were given a yellow card for stalling, which docked your purse by 10%. Let’s not fool ourselves - fighters may say they are there to prove themselves or to become a champion, but almost all of them are in dire need of the cash they earn in fights. Bringing the yellow card system into the UFC, and bumping that up to 15 or 20% would solve the issue you address.

Sure, I agree that UFC officiating needs to be shored up on all levels, from judges, refs, to doctor stoppages, but that is going to take years. Bringing in the yellow card system is very easy to implement for the time being.

August 31, 2010


Good article, you make good points.

August 31, 2010


I think your assessment of Chad Mendes is way off base…the guy is only 2 years into his MMA career and is possibly one of the most accomplished pure wrestlers coming out of college.

I would agree that he did not have an entertaining fight this past weekend, but an inexperienced fighter will revert back to basic instinct if they do not know what else to do - in Chad’s case wrestling the guy. Give him another year of training and 2-3 more fights before you write him off.

August 31, 2010

Brad Oremland:

Thanks for the comments, lots of good points.

@Mike: I hope you’re right about LNP as a thing of the past, and I suspect you mostly are, especially at the higher levels of MMA. But in the rare cases where it does happen, let’s get a ref to stand the thing up. Or, if we want to be more than fair to ground-fighters, there could be rules to prevent stalling from the bottom.

If someone uses full guard to tie up his opponent and prevent any offense, after a warning maybe the ref could re-start them in half-guard or something. The King Mo/Mousasi fight was terrible, and both of them were to blame. Mousasi couldn’t stop the takedowns, and his guard was entirely defensive. Mo couldn’t do anything once he got the fight to the ground, and it was about 24 minutes of snuggling.

There will always be some disagreements about what constitutes stalling, but if we can get a few more Herb Deans to move things along without disrespecting the clinch and the ground game, MMA will be more enjoyable and more popular.

@Kevin: I understand what you’re saying about GSP. Personally, I don’t mind because he does strike from the top and go for submissions if they’re there, but you’re right that he’s not very aggressive about them and he tends to be pretty conservative from the top. At least he’s doing something.

Re: PRIDE rules, I think there’s a lot to like about them, but when you start talking about PRIDE a lot of the times the conversation gets sidetracked. Since you brought it up, I would love to see Zuffa implement the yellow card system, but if that happens any time soon, I will buy a hat and eat it.

@James: You make an important point, actually, and it’s part of what makes me think rules about action need to be more clearly spelled out.

There’s more competition than ever for high-level wrestlers — some of these guys are being actively recruited now. But that means people like Mendes and Jake Rosholt get pushed to the majors before they’re ready, and they just can’t handle top competition without resorting to running out the clock. They’re elite wrestlers, but they can’t strike with a high-level mixed martial artist, and their sub defense isn’t good enough to take many chances on the ground, so the fights become one-dimensional and boring.

If Mendes were allowed to develop in a less competitive organization, he could probably become a decent fighter. I think he needs more than just a year and 2-3 fights, but with time he could develop the way someone like Koscheck did. Right now, he doesn’t have the skill set for MMA.

My biggest problem with his fight against Swanson was that he was obviously wasting time on purpose. I’ve never seen a fighter do so little with side control. It makes me question whether he has the right mentality for MMA. I suppose we’ll see.

September 1, 2010

Antony Brancato:

A basketball analogy was appropriate for use in this article, only the one actually used was the wrong one - as the former “illegal defense” rule is far more relevant to this discussion, as it was abolished because it gave the bigger teams too much of an advantage.

Going off willy-nilly and bringing back the old PRIDE rules, or something resembling that, would place too much of a premium on height and reach, and would touch off an epidemic of weight-class dropping; not only that, but fighters whose body types ruled that out would have no choice but to fight on lesser circuits in order to be competitive - a similar scenario to what happened when the NFL started cracking down on steroid use in earnest about 15-20 years ago: You still had your 340-pound offensive linemen - but instead of often being 6’2” or 6’3”, the new ones were 6’6” or 6’7”, like Tony Boselli.

One of the great things about MMA is that it doesn’t discriminate on the basis of size - ironically, except against the very biggest fighters, as most promotions do not maintain a super-heavyweight division.

It ain’t broke - so don’t “fix” it.

September 1, 2010

Chris Brennan:

I fougth in the UFC and I fought in pride. I won and lest in both organizations. My loss in UFC 35 came at the hands of Gli Castillo in a horribly boring fight that even John McCarthy and Dana were screaming at the ref between rounds saying that he need’s to stand us up. He never did and I lost a decision and then got cut from the UFC.

Then in my loss in Pride I was fighting up a weigh class for some reason (before the 161 weight) and I had Takase on me for the entire fight and I believe at one point we were down 7 minutes and not one punch was thrown and they didn’t stand us up. It was odd because there were also no yellow cards and again I went on to lose a decision.

NOW.. Looking back I take blame for those losses becuase I didn’t get up myself or do anything about the position I was in and being a fighter that like to go 100mph I was extermely frustrated but again I take the blame now looking back. The yellow card is a good rule as long as it’s used properly. I am all for a ground game and being busy so as long as it’s not abused and people are allowed to work if indeed they are working I say bring it back.

Thanks for your time.
Chris Brennan

September 2, 2010


More and more, I hear folks complain about wrestling. “It’s boring. It’s slowing things down. I don’t want to see two sweaty men rolling around on the ground.” Some of the bitching comes from the fans, but fighters are whining about it more often too.

I agree that too much wrestling can be boring; however, I also believe it’s up to the competitors to change this by becoming better wrestlers — be it defensive, offensive or both (preferable).

Case in point: GSP. St Pierre comes from a Tae Kwon Do background making him a striker. Yet he’s Today he out-wrestles top wrestlers like Fitch, Kos and Hughes and he’s considering a bid for Canada’s Olympic team.

On the flip side, fFrankie Edgar realized early on that he needed to be a better striker to make him more well-rounded. If you watch his last five fights, his boxing development is outstanding.

GSP and Edgar are but two examples that being well-rounded is not only important, it’s a necessity in MMA. More importantly, they prove that regardless of your background, you can become a better MMA’er if you’re willing to work harder and longer than your opponent.

You want to stop the lay-and-pray? Then get in the gym and make it happen but don’t rely on the UFC or its refs to save your ass.

September 3, 2010

Brad Oremland:

Steve, I definitely understand what you’re saying, and I agree to a point. It would be great if everyone had superior takedown defense or a really awesome offensive guard, so people couldn’t get away with lay and pray.

But that doesn’t mean you should be able to stall just because you can get away with it. There should be rules against it. Think about the shot clock in basketball — if you don’t want the other team to stall, get better at stealing the ball. Or football, or tennis: there are rules against wasting everyone’s time by standing there doing nothing.

In MMA, shouldn’t there be rules against lying there doing nothing? I mean, why would anyone want to watch that? It’s not good for fans, and it’s not good for the sport in general, because lay-and-pray is boring, and people won’t pay to watch boring fights.

September 4, 2010

Anthony Brancato:

I know the point I’m about to make is more general than specific (in this case to MMA), but why should any competitor be rewarded for performing poorly in the early stages of any competitive event?

I’ve been going to the racetrack for more than 30 years - and I can’t stand it when I hear some horseplayer kvetch about how the horse he bet on got “shut off” at some point during the race. But if the horse wasn’t being outrun to begin with, how could it possibly have gotten “shut off”?

And it’s not as if the fighters toss a coin backstage before the fight, and the winner gets to decide the style that will prevail in the fight. Any fighter who lets an opponent half his size impose his will on him for 15 minutes not only deserves to lose, but has absolutely no right to whine and moan about it afterwards - as Ben Saunders did, and, far more pathetically, the way Heath Herring did right after he lost to Jake O’Brien on the same card where Rashad Evans let Sean Salmon have it with that head kick.

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