Friday, December 3, 2010

"Effective" Aggression in Jackson v. Machida and MMA

After UFC 123, there was some controversy over the outcome of the Jackson v. Machida fight -- it was a difficult split decision. Oh, sure, the fight was close enough that no one was going to be happy about it no matter who won, something I blame mostly on Machida's style. He stays way on the outside and waits for the other guy to make a mistake that he can capitalize on. Which is a very legitimate and intelligent fighting style, and if you're looking for real self-defense it's about as good as you can get, but boring in the cage. Regardless of my feelings on Machida's style's legitimacy in MMA, when Machida is in a close fight there's going to be a lot of controversy because he spends most of the fight avoiding the other guy in the cage . . . which means judges are left scrambling for the lesser used criteria for judging fights.

One of them is effective aggression. What does that mean? Uh . . . well, I wish I could give a simple answer to that question.

Effective aggression and cage control are the two "lesser" criteria for scoring fights. The biggest two are effective striking -- which is easy to define, being clean, powerful blows that hurt the target -- and effective takedowns and grappling, which are also reasonably easy to score (though weighing the two against each other is also a source of constant MMA controversy).

Cage control is also pretty easy to see. Mainly, if one fight occupies the center of the cage, the "key", he is thought to have ring control because that fighter doesn't have their back to the cage, so they can't get cut off and put up against the cage. Jackson had ring control for the first two rounds, that's plain to see.

However, the effective aggression thing is harder to get a handle on. Aggression is easy to see. Who's going forward. Who's pressing the action of the fight. But sometimes, going forward is a pretty terrible idea, especially against defensive fighters. This is where Machida's style bolloxes the works. Machida is probably the most defensive successful MMA fighter in the history of the sport. Even the worst Brazilian jiu jitsu fighters will at least want to make contact with their opponent, even to the point of leaping onto them. Even compared to other defensive fighters, like Anderson Silva, Machida is avoidant. However, Machida is really good at take advantage of a fighter when that fighter tries to press the action.

To me, this is a species of rules lawyering on Machida's point. He knows that most MMA fighters are aggressive. The promotions and fans like aggressive fighters, as a rule. You look at the fight night bonuses that are given -- best fight, best submission, best knockout. All of them favor aggressive fighters, encourage fights to be aggressive. We do want to see blood. So he knows he can basically sit back and let his opponents come to him and whiz around the ring until they make a mistake and he can clobber them. But if Machida fought someone with his exact same style, it's hard to imagine there being any contact. Both guys would only throw blows from the outside and skitter away when the other person attacked.

If Jackson hadn't gone forward, there would not have been a fight, even though he got clobbered pretty hard because of it. So, a lot of people are asking themselves, "Did Jackson use effective aggression?"

I think in a perfect world, the answer would be, "No, he did not." Walking into a guy's punches and kicks is hard to define as "effective". But, on the other hand, there is a rule about timidity. Timidity is a foul. In a perfect world, I think Machida would have lost two points for timidity -- however, in the hundreds of UFC fights I've watched, no fighter has ever been fouled for timidity. (On the same card, I think Macquiel Falcao should have also been fouled for timidity in the third round. Knowing he'd won the first two rounds, he just danced around and refused to engage his opponent. The crowd was booing him. Was he fouled for timidity? No.) This is something they did in Pride FC all the time. If the fighters weren't aggressive enough, the ref could yellow card them . . . which took away 10% of their purse. They could keep doing this. Pride fighters fought.

In a perfect world, this is how things would have went down:

* Round one: 10 Machida, 9 Jackson, Machida fouled for timidity -- 9 Machida, 9 Jackson.
* Round two: 10 Jackson, 9 Machida, Machida fouled for timidity -- 10 Jackson, 8 Machida.
* Round three: 10 Machida, 9 Jackson.

In round 2, I might have fouled Machida multiple times for timidity, but just the one foul in two rounds is illustrative of my point. At the end, Jackson would have 28 points and Machida 27.

But the referees in the UFC never foul for timidity. No matter how much a guy dances around the ring, avoiding his opponent, even if it means there is almost no contact, I've never seen a UFC judge foul for timidity . . . despite it being in the rules and despite other promotions using the technique successfully.

So, what I think happened on the judges scorecards is an attempt to do what they can to balance out the fight within the construct of the rules. I think that they knew that if Jackson hadn't gone forward, there just would not have been a fight, even though he ate it several times because he went forward. Jackson's aggression turned it into a watchable, if not deeply exciting, fight.

So, in the context of the rules . . . I think that "effective aggression" can only be cleanly scored if the referees enforce timidity rules. I think the lack of enforcement of timidity justifies judges sorta playing around with the concept of aggression and cage control (which are related -- Jackson definitely controlled the cage because of his aggression, which is usually the case) in order to penalize fighters for the fouls that refs aren't giving them.

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