Opinion: The Chaos of MMA Fame and Fortune

By Lev Pisarsky May 17, 2021


Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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Many MMA fans realize on some level that important fights are often determined by small differences. Having a little more energy at the end of the third round to make a final push to win the decision. Being a little more agile during scrambles on the ground to get top position. A slightly faster jab than the opponent's. Some MMA fans even understand that this is very common throughout all levels of MMA, whether it's two martial artists making their professional debuts on a regional card or a championship match in the UFC. But how many understand the true depths of this chaos? That many major bouts, including title ones, are determined by utterly random elements, ones completely outside of a fighter's control, and having nothing to do with their abilities inside a cage or ring? And that these occurrences, as random as flipping a fair coin, have massive repercussions on the sport?

This was very much on display at UFC 262. While one is likely thinking of the main event, and it is indeed a bout we will discuss, a good example was the fight between top women's flyweight contenders Viviane Araujo and Katlyn Chookagian. Now, Araujo's fights follow a very predictable format: She looks incredible during Round 1, bouncing in and out of range on the balls of her feet while hitting her opponent with quick, precise, technical combinations and avoiding most of the offense coming back her way. However, she then severely slows down each round, and by Round 3 is often struggling to even lift her arms up. Thus, most people predicted that Araujo would likely win the first round, Chookagian would win the third, and the fight would come down to Round 2, and indeed, that's precisely what happened. A majority of media members as well as 79% of fans saw the second stanza for the Brazilian. Alas, the same was not true of the judges, including a truly dire scorecard from Marcos Rosales, who inexplicably scored the fight 30-27 Chookagian. Now, it's perfectly logical to believe that a different trio of judges would have seen the fight more in line with how the rest of us did, and given the victory to Araujo. However, the fighters have no control over a judge's unique interpretation of what they saw, and thus it's a perfectly random element. Yet this questionable decision had a significant effect on the division. With a victory, Araujo would have won three in a row and been 5-1 in the UFC, her only blemish coming against an overweight Jessica Eye, and possibly been next in line for a title shot. As it is, she falls down the ladder considerably.

So we have identified one aspect of total randomness, MMA judging. But it's far from the only one, as the main event demonstrated.

Early in the round, Charles Oliveira survived Michael Chandler's guillotine attempt. Chandler's arms were still fresh, not exhausted by extensive fighting, and neither man was covered in sweat, making submissions more likely. And for as much of a grappling god as the Brazilian is, he has lost twice to that very technique. But as anyone who has grappled knows, submissions are often a percentage game. You can lock on the exact same armbar against the exact same opponent, and some of the time they tap while at other times, they manage to escape. The reasons for this are often minuscule and impossible to fully control. Now, I'm not saying that Chandler's attempts was anywhere close to having a 50% chance of ending the fight. But was there at least a 10% shot it might have worked? I believe so, and whether it did or not was purely random.

But let's move on to the sequence where Chandler had Oliveira knocked down, badly hurt, and was attempting to finish him off. For starters, there are a certain number of referees who might have simply intervened and called the fight off. There were a couple of moments where it looked like the Brazilian wasn't intelligently defending himself and absorbing needless punishment. With the roar of a crowd in their ear, it's easy to envision a stoppage, giving Chandler the belt. Luckily, referee Dan Miragliotta let it continue. Thus, possible referee intervention is also an aspect of randomness.

However, let's also examine Oliveira's defense after being knocked down. While on his knees, he moved his head back and forth, hoping to avoid Chandler's oncoming fists. But this was not thoughtful defense based on where he thought Chandler's blows were coming from; Oliveira was badly hurt and simply fighting on instinct, hoping to get lucky. He ended up eating some shots, but not quite enough to go out. However, given that his own defense was random, what if it had been a little less successful? Had Chandler timed his own punches a little differently, largely guessing at what speed Oliveira would move his head while hurt, another random element, he might have turned his lights off, too. In all these cases, Chandler would have then won by first round knockout. Needless to say, the narrative about the fight would be completely different, as well as the short-term future of the lightweight division and several headlining PPV fights. At the very least.

For those who dispute that this is truly random, and think that Oliveira's random head movement while badly concussed is an element of skill, or that Chandler not predicting how fast such oscillations would be is a lack of it, consider that the situation of kicking penalty kicks in soccer is modeled incredibly well by matching pennies, a classic of game theory. Despite how much one may believe that goalies have an ability to predict the shot or that strikers can evade them through the same means, it still largely boils down to a pure guessing game. Never mind that no human fighter, no matter how talented, has such perfect, pinpoint accuracy. Even Anderson Silva in his prime missed a lot of strikes.

“OK,” a reader might respond, “but what's your point?” The conclusion one should draw here is that a good deal of MMA results are subject to pure chaos. Chandler could just as easily have won that fight if certain random elements, which were neither under his own nor Oliveira's control, had gone differently. Araujo would have gotten the decision victory with three different, random judges. That's a very important aspect to understand about the sport. Too often, one builds big narratives and die-hard beliefs about fighters and matches from such chaotic outcomes.

For instance, I'm sure that many are now saying that Michael Chandler must be overrated, something that I've previously written about, and Oliveira is vastly better. Meanwhile, had a few elements of chance been a little different in the first round, we would instead be hearing about how Chandler is much better, dominated Oliveira, and that the Brazilian doesn't have what it takes to win the biggest fights and deal with adversity, all of which would have been patently ridiculous. The reality is that both Chandler and Oliveira are tremendous champions with superlative abilities. And as often happens in such closely matched contests, the result is decided in the fires of chaos.
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