The Offense of ‘Intelligent Defense’

By Jordan Breen Feb 22, 2009
It didn't deserve a MacArthur fellowship, but I don't see anything defensively dull or dimwitted about Josh Koscheck turning his hips and extending his arm to shield Paulo Thiago from pouncing on him Saturday at UFC 95.

Brian Cobb butt scooting and attempting a weak double-leg doesn't warrant a Nobel Prize in defense either, but I would hardly call it brainless or idiotic.

Unfortunately, it seems they still weren't "intelligent" enough.

Let me be clear about what this is, or more pertinently, what it isn't. This is not an assertion that any of the evening's contentious proceedings would've wound up with a different victor if allowed to continue. This is not a criticism of any of the stoppages at UFC 95, nor is it an indictment of officials Dan Miragliotta, Kevin Mulhall, Leon Roberts and Marc Goddard.

In fact, given the current climate of refereeing in MMA, all of the event's referees did their jobs to the letter and their stoppages were just.

Instead, this is an inquiry into whether the refereeing standards in MMA are appropriate. UFC 95 was not an assortment of irresponsible stoppages but an illustration of the intensifying issue of what constitutes a justifiable end to a fight, as the margin between winning and losing in MMA has become hideously deformed.

Given how many fights have ended in controversy recently, none of the UFC 95 stoppages can be viewed as egregious ineptitude on behalf of officials. Compared to a fresh robbery like Grice-Veach, Koscheck-Thiago is nothing to get your dander up. Any of the referee stoppages on the card can easily be defended and justified under the notion of "intelligent defense," which has come to serve as the ad hoc motto for stoppages in this sport. Unfortunately, despite its snappy sloganism, I fear this "intelligent defense" has become mindless and offensive.

For MMA, which has a history so closely married with a struggle for legitimacy, the phrase "intelligent defense" seemed like a quality catchphrase to offer athletic objectivity to a sport that many average folk thought ended only in death. As soon as quintessential trendsetter Randy Couture began avidly using the phrase, it became an irremovable part of the sport's parlance, even for the sport's officials, who then were able to routinely affirm their judgment calls with a more concrete and tangible standard. On every level, this "intelligent defense" was every bit as smart as it seemed.

"Intelligent defense" has spread virally over the MMA landscape in the last four years or so. Unfortunately, like all viruses, it has mutated. Somewhere along the way, "intelligent defense" became disfigured. No longer does it describe a fighter acting in a way to minimize damage and actively compete in prizefight. Now it’s a mandate that a fighter never wobble, fall or roll precariously amidst attack. Falling inelegantly to the canvas and making googly eyes after getting clipped are now legitimate white flags and concessions of defeat. Don't spit venom toward the referees: They're stricken with this mutant strain of intelligent defense syndrome, and a cure is critical.

How high does the IQ of one's defense need to be?

Glibness aside, the ultimate goal of a prizefight is to show who the "better" fighter is. While I don't necessarily think any of UFC 95's bouts would have swung the other way given more latitude, the fact that there is debate over the stoppages means that the results being generated aren't nearly as conclusive as a "fight" or a "sport" ought to be. Consigning referees to Room 101 and returning to the Roman gladiator days would be a little over the top, so there needs to be some kind of comfortable compromise.

This places me in a dodgy position, as despite my own meager combat sports experience, I am advocating the possibility that fighters be potentially pounded while already prone. This sport is fiercely proud of its safety record, as well it should be. MMA is brilliant in that despite how rugged, brutal and violent it can be, it is not a sport in which athletes having their essence beat out of them is relatively commonplace, like boxing.

Furthermore, saying, "Let a dazed fighter take two or three more punches to make sure he's out," sounds idiotic and slightly sadistic to boot. However, no one is asking for bouts to resemble Vovchanchyn-Inoue; people want clarity, not carnage. It may sound ridiculous, but a couple of perfunctory hammerfists aren't about to jeopardize any fighter’s health.

Sure, MMA isn't patty cake. As we're dealing with fighters doling out physical punishment, we should proceed with caution. However, while there may be little repercussion from a referee's snap judgment on an inconsequential local show, the stakes are enormous at the elite level of MMA. Never mind top-10 rankings, title shots and the like; ill-advised stoppages can and do cost fighters five-, six- and seven-figure bonuses and may cost them their contract with a promotion like the UFC, which in turn denies them potentially lucrative sponsorship money when they go from a televised UFC main card to a Midwestern Promotion X main event.

Lives aren't at stake, but livelihoods are. I would bet my bottom dollar that any fighter will accept the "risk" of four flailing punches to ensure an authentic conclusion to a fight, given how high the stakes have become.

This idea isn't from some unattainable officiating utopia. You don't have to look further than UFC 95 to see a picture-perfect paragon of what I'm preaching. Marc Goddard's stoppage of the Evan Dunham-Per Eklund bout was precisely what I'm advocating: a fighter is badly dropped, lands awkwardly but is afforded the opportunity to show he can defend himself, and when subsequent strikes show he cannot, the bout is stopped. A referee need not stand by idly, waiting for the second coming of Sakuraba-Smirnovas, but to be overly officious with so much riding on the line for fighters is unconstructive and unconscionable.

Certainly, not every ref's call can be so easy, but it's a more legitimate standard to aspire to. Subjectivity is always going to be part of refereeing prizefights, and there will always be weak and silly stoppages. Worse yet, with no knockdown rule and the blink-of-an-eye nature of the sport, being an MMA referee is perhaps the most difficult and unenviable job anyone could ask for. When a sport is touted as being "as real as it gets," though, crazily uneven refereeing standards undermine the authenticity of combat and interfere with athletes' livelihoods.

If MMA is to be genuine, it can't degenerate into a sport in which the "best" fighter is simply the first to land a meaningful strike. This sport is wild and woolly enough as it is, so it hardly needs any artificial insanity. Every iffy UFC 95 bout, if given those few extra punches, may have ended with the exact same man's hand being raised, and so be it. But let them decide, and let there be no debate.

Refereeing prizefights will never be a perfect science, but the more fights punctuated with periods rather than question marks, the better. It's time for "intelligent defense" to smarten up.
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