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The odd story of Tae Hyun Bang’s alleged flirtation with fight fixing at an Ultimate Fighting Championship event in November 2015 has thus far been greeted largely as a strange novelty. Bang was indicted this week and accused of taking money to throw a fight with Leo Kuntz. The fixers did a poor job trying to capitalize on the situation, as the massive late shift in odds created strong suspicions; and when Bang was confronted about it, he decided to fight to win and took the fight by decision. The story thus appeared to have a happy ending: There was no worked fight, the attempted perpetrators lost their money and now the alleged accomplice has been indicted.
While the strange Bang matter ended up being less of a black eye for the sport than it could have been, this is a serious matter that presents a real threat to the sport’s integrity over time. That it worked out fine this time shouldn’t give those in the sport a false sense of security moving forward. MMA is a sport that lends itself to fixing better than just about any other, and if that happens on even an occasional basis it could do real damage to the sport’s credibility. Those in the athletic commissions and the major MMA promotions need to be vigilant in protecting against it.
Nefarious individuals have been trying to manipulate athletes to throw results for as long as there has been gambling on sports. From “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and Tim Donaghy to Pete Rose and especially in college basketball, sports gambling has created incentives that have attacked the credibility of our games. As often as these issues have popped up, team sports are a much less fruitful domain for manipulation than individual sports.
In team sports, there are so many variables that affect the outcome of a competition. Even if you have one or two dishonest actors, there are so many honest actors that there’s no guarantee the scheme will work. That’s why the manipulators have usually turned to point shaving rather than outright manipulation of games; it’s just so difficult to do.
By contrast, with an individual sport you can be much more certain of the result if you have the involvement of one actor. The opponent and referee don’t even have to be in on it. This makes it a tempting target for dark forces. Boxing has been dealing with the problem for decades, as there have frequent accusations of boxers going down from phantom punches. However, MMA is friendlier still to manipulation because it has something that boxing does not: submissions on the ground. Going down from a punch when you’re actually fine is a tricky thing to do. As a result, it often looks terrible and thus extremely suspicious. Just take a look at the footage of a certain fighter on his take-a-dive world tour. It’s much easier to give yourself to a submission without it looking phony or getting yourself hurt.
The most suspicious fights in UFC history fit this exact pattern: Don Frye submitting Mark Hall with an Achilles’ lock in just 20 seconds during the Ultimate Ultimate 1996 tournament and Oleg Taktarov submitting Anthony Macias with a guillotine choke in just nine seconds during the UFC 6 tournament. The motivation in each case would have been different than now: to preserve the fighters’ health rather than make money gambling. However, the method would have been similar.
To manipulate fights, there needs to be not only opportunity but motive. On that front, there are surely some targets to be had in the world of MMA. As the sport has expanded and there are events practically every weekend, there are hundreds of fighters making low enough wages that a big payoff would be tempting. Moreover, the larger roster means there are plenty of UFC fighters who don’t have any real hope of reaching the championship level and the millions of dollars that can come along with it. They have less to lose with an act of desperation.
The fight fixers did a poor job with Bang-Kuntz and raised red flags as a result. There’s no guarantee that in the future similar forces won’t be savvier. They’ll spread out the betting over time rather than doing it all at the end. They’ll avoid getting greedy so as to not raise too much suspicion. They’ll learn from the mistakes of Bang-Kuntz. The fear is that this sort of thing starts slipping under the radar with nobody really noticing, emboldening criminals to do it more often and over time creating widespread suspicion about results.
Obviously, we’re a long way away from any sort of nightmare scenario. To this point, accusations of fight fixing have been exceedingly rare. That doesn’t mean the dangers aren’t real. It’s a problem to which MMA is potentially very vulnerable. Hopefully those in charge of the sport will take great care in the years to come to protect against that lurking danger.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and AXS-TV’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Bryan Alvarez at WrestlingObserver.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. He received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.