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When referee John McCarthy held the arms of Amanda Nunes and Valentina Shevchenko and ring announcer Bruce Buffer started reading the scorecards at UFC 215 on Saturday in Edmonton, Alberta, it was impossible to know what the decision would be. The only certainty was that it was close enough to be controversial no matter who won.
Spoiler alert: Nunes picked up the split verdict. It may or may not have been the right decision in your eyes, but it was by no means a robbery. At least three of the rounds were close enough to go either way, making it an interesting case study. According to FightMetric, Nunes outlanded Shevchenko in all but the final round. That is helpful, but it doesn’t tell the whole picture. First, in Rounds 2, 3 and 4, the striking differential was pretty minimal -- +4, +2 and +4 for Nunes, respectively. Those aren’t dominant differences, even if we’re going strictly by the arithmetic. Although these tallies are only noting “significant” strikes, who’s to say which strike is really more significant?
Shevchenko made a case for herself in an entertaining if not exactly convincing way. “Look at her face,” she said in disbelief. “Her nose is red from my punches.” Even if Nunes landed more punches, Shevchenko was arguing that they didn’t land clean or do any real damage. How many glancing punches equal one clean one? There is no criterion through which to answer that, nor can there be.
This rationale is nothing new. The “eye test” of a fight is almost always employed to attempt to settle a tough decision; after all the analysis and statistics, a fight is still a fight and damage should matter. It has shades of the first B.J. Penn-George St. Pierre encounter when Penn “spent the night at the bar” and St. Pierre “spent the night at the hospital.” However, damage -- and how fighters wear it -- does more to muddy things than clarify them. The element of manipulating judges is an important skill in prizefighting. Benson Henderson, for instance, is a master at making his opponents’ strikes look meaningless. It’s one of the reasons why he won so many close decisions. Perception is reality, and perception can be tricked.
Part of the reason the judges ultimately gave the nod to Nunes was that she was moving forward the whole time, and aggression is a scoring metric. Shevchenko’s game is predicated on counters, and the reality is that in order to convince judges you are controlling the fight while moving backwards, you have to very clearly be landing more -- if not obviously better -- punches. Shevchenko didn’t do that. This alone was probably enough to give two judges a reason to score an extra round for Nunes.
Then there were the fifth-round takedowns. Love it or hate it, takedowns are often enough to sway judges in the absence of meaningful action on the feet, even if nothing is really accomplished afterwards. That was what happened in Round 5. Shevchenko landed 10 more strikes than Nunes, which sounds like enough to bank the round, but a lot of those strikes were from her back. The optics again were misleading since Nunes was on top. This, too, echoes the dynamic from the first Penn-St. Pierre fight, where “Rush” won purely off of taking down “The Prodigy” as opposed to actually doing anything with the takedowns. The case can be made that judges tend to overrate takedowns and underrate striking from the bottom, but historically, that seems to be the dynamic to expect. Agree or disagree, that’s what fighters should prepare for.
Judging is inherently subjective, and this was a particularly tough fight to call. In the aftermath of a close fight, the most predictable part is the outcry from fans. What was puzzling to me, however, was the insistence that this was a bad fight. I could not disagree more. While it won’t be on any “Fight of the Year” lists, it was nowhere near the level of the rightfully panned Tyron Woodley-Demian Maia bout, which was a comparison that popped up a lot. It was a tactical fight between two high-level strikers, a tug-o-war between a bruising pressure fighter and a slick counterpuncher.
There is no doubt a sense of snobbery that comes with a phrase like “educate yourself.” When I invoke this phrase, I wish to separate it from that snobbery as much as possible, and instead implore those who thought the main event was awful to educate themselves for a different, more selfish reason. There are nuances to appreciate beyond the all-out slugfests. Understanding them expands the things that you are able to enjoy. Donnybrooks will always be fun, but as writer C.S. Lewis once said in defense of enjoying both children’s books and adult literature: “A tree grows because it adds rings.” Adding an additional layer of what you are able to enjoy only makes the sport itself more broadly enjoyable as a whole -- for you. There are more than enough ways to increase your knowledge and understanding of the sport, from podcasts and writers to video breakdowns. Of course, you can’t argue the taste, and I’m not here to say what you are or are not allowed to criticize. However, the criticism of this fight felt overblown to me; it wasn’t a great fight, but it wasn’t a bad fight by any stretch of the imagination.
Briefly, let’s talk about the main event that didn’t happen between Ray Borg and Demetrious Johnson. I sympathize for Johnson, who no doubt will feel the effects of his opponent’s mistakes. I fully supported Johnson’s decision to pursue Borg instead of the T.J. Dillashaw fight, but this is close to the worst-case scenario for “Mighty Mouse.” Part of his reluctance to fight Dillashaw was that the former bantamweight champ had never fought at flyweight before. There was legitimate concern about Dillashaw being able to make weight. That argument seems pretty hollow now that Borg pulled out, likely due to complications from cutting weight. Of course, Borg pulled out due to an illness he claimed was not related to the weight cut. It’s hard to take that claim seriously, however, and not just because Borg has missed weight in the past and pulled out of fights due to illness before. Dehydrating your body puts a tremendous amount of strain on it, including your immune system. Even if his sickness was coincidental to cutting weight, the cut itself at the very least exacerbated it.
As frustrating as the situation was, Borg did the right thing. He knows his body best, and if he felt physically compromised enough to pull out of the biggest fight of his career at the last minute, then it was probably necessary. The issue is not to judge his decision; the issue is weight cutting itself.
Weight cutting continues to be a serious issue in the sport. Fighting is a dangerous game and one that is morally indefensible. If you err on the side of saying combat sports shouldn’t exist, you won’t find any argument from me. If we are to accept MMA in its current iteration as reality, though, and we want to avoid it becoming some goofy MMA version of South Park’s Sarcastaball, then weight cutting is the clearest area on which to focus in order to improve fighter safety. Even though the Ultimate Fighting Championship focuses more of its energy on PED usage -- probably for legal and public-image reasons more than anything -- sucking water out of your body in such close proximity to putting it through the extreme demands of a fight is far more dangerous; and since both PEDs and botched weight cuts can cause last-minute bout cancellations, the UFC would be wise to tackle weight cutting as fervently as it has PEDs.
In fairness, the UFC does host athlete seminars that teach the best practices when it comes to weight cuts and nutrition, so it isn’t fair to say it does nothing. The problem is that there is no clear solution to it. Additional weight classes are an option to help the in-between fighters, as is giving an extra two pounds of allowance for weight classes instead of one. Having weigh-ins two days out so fighters have more time to rehydrate could also help. Perhaps banning weight cutting altogether is the answer, or at least coming up with an apparatus to enforce a limit of how much weight fighters are allowed to cut in each weight class. I don’t have the answers. I hope, however, that the powers that be are at least considering some solutions and that those solutions can be put through actual trials. It will only benefit the company and the sport. Most importantly, it will benefit the fighters who put everything on the line for our entertainment.
Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.