The Big Picture: Owning the Narrative

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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The first time I watched the bout between Volkan Oezdemir and Dominick Reyes at UFC Fight Night 147 on Saturday in London, I heard it more than I saw it. The fights aired at a weird hour of the night where I live, so I dozed in and out of sleep while the fight unfolded. When I woke up, I was surprised to see that Reyes had won. Based on what I saw -- the first round, basically -- and what I heard from the commentators, it sounded like a hard-fought yet clear win for Oezdemir. I figured the judges must have blown it on some level; such is the influence of commentary. Re-watching the fight attentively, however, vindicated the final decision.

The first round clearly belonged to “No Time,” and commentators John Gooden, Dan Hardy and Paul Felder called it accordingly. In the second and third frames, the narrative in the cage started to change, but outside of the cage, it remained the same.

In the opening moments of the second round, Reyes kicked Oezdemir in the body twice. Oezdemir responded by flicking out a few limp jabs that were nowhere near connecting. That’s not what Hardy saw, though: “Good work by Volkan Oezdemir. He’s managing distance well against a taller fighter.” Reyes then landed a sharp kick to Oezdemir’s inside leg, causing “No Time” to briefly lose balance. Hardy was not deterred: “I like what Volkan’s doing here. He’s adamant to keep pushing forward, making sure that Reyes is under pressure. I feel like he’s putting his strikes together well.” It’s important to note that, at this point in the round, Oezdemir had gone over a minute without landing a single strike.

Felder then got in on the action: “We saw [Reyes] throwing bigger kicks and landing some better strikes earlier in the first, and now in the beginning of the second round, he’s getting pushed back towards that fence. That’s exactly what Oezdemir wants to keep doing.” This was two minutes into the second round, and Oezdemir had still not landed anything. However, the commentating team insisted on talking about him and what Gooden called “the full spectrum of his weapons.” Never mind that his weapons had not yet hit their targets. Hardy continued: “I’m loving these feints [Oezdemir] is using, as well, trying to draw out the attack of Dominick Reyes, which is allowing Volkan to use good head movement to slip off to the side and get even closer to his opponent.” Feinting to close distance is useful for setting up offense, but it is not, in fact, offense on its own. Oezdemir’s first significant combination that connected came three minutes into the round.

In the entirety of the second round, all three commentators spoke almost completely about Oezdemir, and all of it was incredibly complimentary. I use “incredibly” in the literal sense here, as in “impossible to believe.” If you were simply listening to the fight, you would have thought it was a clear 10-9 round for “No Time,” but the stats tell a very different story: Reyes went 16-for-39 on significant strikes, while Oezdemir went 12-for-35. Of course, stats are not the whole story of a fight, either, but clearly it was not the one-way traffic that the commentators made it out to be.

It was more of the same in the third round. Felder brushed aside the fact that Reyes was outstriking Oezdemir by saying not all strikes are equal. That is certainly true, if not oddly defensive, since the effect of Oezdemir’s strikes weren’t all that different from Reyes’. Then, just as Reyes pushed Oezdemir back with an aggressive albeit ineffective combination, Hardy chimed in: “I don’t think [Reyes] knows exactly what he’s trying to achieve now. He’s not putting anything together as far as a system; there’s no narrative that he’s trying to instill in this round.” It’s worth pointing out that, again, Oezdemir had not landed any strikes at this point and was backpedaling in the same way Reyes was in the second round. When Oezdemir pushed the action, he was doing so with intent and purpose, despite landing fewer strikes, but when Reyes did the same thing and landed more strikes, it was apparently an incoherent strategy.

Reyes continued to push forward and land clean strikes to the head, body and legs of Oezdemir. The commentary team? They talked about how being pushed against the fence in training can cause bruising. In the closing seconds of the third round, Gooden mentioned the total head strike differential for the whole fight, even though (A) that’s not how fights are scored, and (B) Reyes and Oezdemir landed the same amount of head strikes in the third round, with Reyes landing seven more strikes to the body. Apparently, body shots are not worth mentioning.

In fairness, all three of the commentators almost always do a good job, and eventually everyone screws up or gets caught up in the moment in some way or another. Plus, the fight was close, so it wasn’t as if they were egregiously wrong to think Oezdemir had won the fight, even if it was odd to focus so one-sidedly on him. To have a bias is to be a human, and that applies to everyone. There was, however, a clear pattern to their bias, one that reflects a flawed rule that aggression and Octagon control should be weighed into how a fight is scored. That was a constant theme in their commentary: “he’s managing distance,” “he’s pushing forward,” “he’s getting closer to his opponent.”

It’s easy to understand why aggression and Octagon control are part of the scoring criteria; we want fighters to engage in actual fighting. It’s the equivalent of a shot clock in basketball, which forces action and prevents stalling. The difference here is you don’t earn extra points by abiding by the shot clock, but in MMA forward movement almost always counts on the scorecards. It shouldn’t. “Octagon control” is not only a nebulous concept that is almost always misconstrued as forward movement, but it’s also a flaccid methodology at face value. Who’s to say that circling away and drawing an opponent out of position to land counters isn’t control?

There’s an established narrative that moving forward equals attack while moving backward equals defense, if not downright cowardice. In reality, landing strikes, completing takedowns or attempting submissions equals attack, and that’s about it. Anything else is negligible. In the same way that defense is its own reward, so is aggression. It’s a great way to wear down an opponent and create opportunities, but if those opportunities don’t lead to actual offense, then what do they matter? In a hypothetical bout where neither fighter lands a single strike but one moves forward and one moves back, can you really say that either won the fight? In the case of Oezdemir and Reyes, was “No Time” really more effective for pushing the action, even though he ate more punches and kicks than his opponent did?

Scoring a fight will always be tricky, and there will always be differing opinions about judging minutiae. Still, the concept of Octagon control has been diluted to the point of inaccuracy, and fighters like Hardy and Felder should know better. In a sport as nascent as MMA, they have an added duty of educating fans, and unfortunately, they missed the mark for 10 minutes. This is not a heinous error by any means, but it’s worth calling out. Ultimately, Reyes’ post-fight interview in the cage said all that needed to be said: “I did more, and I deserve that win.”

Eric Stinton is a writer and a teacher from Kailua, Hawaii. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014 and has published fiction, nonfiction and journalism in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Eastlit, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat and Vice, among others. He currently lives with his fiancée and dachshund in Seoul. You can find his work at ericstinton.com.
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