The Bottom Line: An Alternative Worth Exploring

By Todd Martin Dec 11, 2018

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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Early in Gunnar Nelson’s fight with Alex Oliveira at UFC 231, the Brazilian blatantly grabbed the fence in order to prevent Nelson from scoring a takedown. The referee cautioned Oliveira for the violation but did not punish him for the infraction. This didn’t end up making the difference in the fight, but it did lead to another discussion about the way rule violations are handled in MMA.

Pretty much everyone agrees that the current system for handling rule infractions is deeply flawed. There’s very little to deter illegal tactics, and it largely falls on the fighters to abide by the rules. While there is widespread disagreement with the current setup, few can agree on the right way to correct the situation. As is so often the case with many of MMA’s structural flaws, the proposed solutions are for the most part worse than the status quo.

The root of the problem is the cause of a number of issues in MMA: the haphazard application of boxing’s 10-point must system to a different sport. Boxing’s most significant bouts have been scheduled for between 10 and 15 rounds historically. A one-point deduction for an infraction made sense in this context. It was significant enough to be a deterrent but not disproportionally punitive.

In MMA, where most fights are three rounds and some are five and few 10-8 rounds are handed out, a point deduction is an absurdly large penalty. A point deduction for the three-round Oliveira-Nelson bout would be the equivalent of four points being deducted for a single infraction in a championship boxing match. It would negate what happened for a full third of the contest. There’s nothing approaching that level of punishment in baseball, football, basketball or hockey, and there’s good reason for that.

Even if one for whatever reason believes in a rock-ribbed, no-tolerance approach to rule violations, the magnitude of the available penalties makes it hard to get referees to implement them. Referees in any sport don’t want to decide the outcome of the competition. That’s the official’s worst nightmare. MMA referees know how much a point is worth in MMA scoring and thus go out of their way to avoid deducting them. The game referees play is similar to nuclear deterrence: They threaten the fighters with point deductions emphatically to try to deter the conduct, but at the end of the day, they really don’t want to follow through.

In order to make point deductions more commonplace in MMA given that referees understandably don’t want to take away points, there are two potential courses of action. The first is to change up the 10-point must system in a way that allows point deductions to be more proportional to the crime. That’s worth looking into, but realistically, it’s a complex subject and it’s not going to happen anytime soon. It’s difficult enough to get judges to score more rounds 10-8.

The other alternative is to do what commentators Joe Rogan and Paul Felder seemed to suggest during the UFC 231 pay-per-view and essentially mandate point deductions for certain types of infractions. This would get around referees’ reticence to take points and would lead to much greater deterrence when it comes to rule infractions. It would also lead to systemic over-policing of reflexive and unintentional violations, which would in turn lead to more fights ending with undeserving fighters being declared winners or deserving winners ending up in draws.

I’d thus like to propose an alternative approach to deterring fouls in MMA. Ideally, the point system would be switched up to allow for proportionate point punishments, but that just isn’t going to happen anytime soon. Punishing illegal tactics through positions -- i.e. a fighter who grabs the fence to stop a takedown is placed on bottom on the ground -- is worth considering but would be complex to work out, given that most fouls like eye pokes or low blows aren’t as easy to deal with in that way. There is however an alternative that would be relatively easy to implement without changing anything else about the sport: using financial penalties to deter illegal tactics.

This has been used before in Pride Fighting Championships, where fighters lost a percentage of their purse when they received a yellow card. That system wasn’t well-received, but it was largely because fighters thought -- with some merit -- that Pride was using it as a way to reduce their pay. That problem can be completely negated by setting up the system so any fines go from the fighter who committed the infraction to the opponent who was disadvantaged by it.

This setup shouldn’t feel foreign in today’s MMA world. It’s exactly what already happens when a fighter misses weight for a fight. That fighter loses a percentage of his or her purse, and the money goes to the opponent. The fairest thing to do if a fighter misses weight is for the fight to be cancelled or rescheduled rather than allowing the fighter to compete despite having weighed in at a higher weight than his or her opponent. However, fans don’t want to see fights cancelled left and right, so the fine is used to try to compensate the aggrieved fighter and deter future missed weights.

The current system of point deductions for infractions doesn’t work because the penalties are too stiff. The penalties are rarely enforced as a result. The fighters know this, so they don’t worry about the penalties. Switching to a fine system would lead to the penalties being enforced consistently and thus would help to create a much stronger deterrent effect. Hopefully, that would in time lead to fewer infractions, and it would at least lead to less frustration that fighters are getting away with violating the rules.

A fine system would also reduce human error. Point deductions need to be made at the spur of the moment since the scores need to be read at the end of the fight. That leads to more mistakes and more inconsistency. A fine system, by contrast, could be reviewed later. A panel could review infractions later in the week and decide if a punishment is warranted, just like what happens in football and hockey. That extra time would help to protect against mistakes and also create an emphasis on consistency. It could also target repeat offenders, something that doesn’t really work with point deductions for individual fights.

Too often in MMA the search for a perfect solution leads to counterproductive measures. Using a fine system to address MMA infractions wouldn’t perfectly address the problem. Outcomes wouldn’t be affected and change would come through hopefully fewer infractions over time. However, it would create more pressure on fighters not to foul than the current system; it would be more even-handed towards fighters who do commit infractions; and it would provide greater relief for fighters who are fouled. It’s an alternative worth exploring.

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 HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd 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, Bellator, 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.

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