Trying to Fit a Fight into a Sport

By Eric Stinton Jul 29, 2021

As soon as the final bell sounded in the main event bout between T.J. Dillashaw and Cory Sandhagen last weekend, I knew the scorecards were going to be strange. My hunch, which turned out to be correct, was that the final verdict would either be a split decision or a majority draw. When you’ve watched enough close fights, you know that the only thing more dynamic and unpredictable than the fights themselves is how they are judged.

Calling the fight “close” isn’t entirely accurate, though. It was in one sense, but in another it really wasn’t close at all. If the purpose of a fight is to inflict more damage than you receive -- which is the intuitive understanding of how fights work -- then Sandhagen was the clear and obvious winner. He hit Dillashaw with more and harder shots throughout the fight, slicing and bruising the former champ’s face into a bloody mess. Sandhagen, however, ended the fight relatively unscathed. If the fight happened anywhere but in the Octagon, there would be no doubt in anyone’s mind who won.

But the fight did take place in the Octagon, and it was judged in five minute intervals, not in entirety. In that context -- the only one that matters -- there is a defensible case for Dillashaw getting the nod on the scorecards. He did the right things at the right times to persuade enough judges that he won enough rounds. Takedowns and cage control can influence how points are distributed, rightly or wrongly, regardless of how much damage was actually done. Said differently, these things may not matter in a fight, but they absolutely matter in an MMA competition.

MMA is a fight as much as it is a sport, and there has always been tension between these two elements, even though both are necessary. A fight is chaotic; a sport is controlled. MMA does its best to balance those two elements, and most of the time it does so reasonably well. The fight element makes you want to watch, but the sporting element allows us to watch it regularly by preventing it from becoming unwatchable brutality.

The tension between fight and sport makes MMA as alluring and entertaining as it is, but on occasion the gray area between them causes head-scratching frustration. The result between Sandhagen and Dillashaw is only the most recent example of this phenomenon. B.J. Penn explained it perfectly 15 years ago when, after losing a split decision to Georges St. Pierre, he said, “I spent the night at the bar, he spent the night at the hospital.”

This is also the challenge of judged competition, as any figure skater or gymnast can tell you. No matter how clear the criteria is or how experienced the judges are, people will always interpret what they see differently. Some judges will underrate the effect of leg kicks that don’t do visible damage, some will overrate the impact of takedowns that don’t lead to any actual offense. Points are awarded, but unlike stick-and-ball sports, there is no cut-and-dried way of measuring them.

There is no doubt that more can be done to ensure better judging, but the most important change is to do away with the pay structure that halves fighter purses for losing close, controversial decisions. A tough loss becomes a lot worse when it comes with a reduced paycheck, and there’s no evidence that this structure actually does what Dana White claims it does. Rather, it’s quite clearly a mechanism to funnel more money away from fighters into executive pockets.

Alas, the rules are the rules, so it’s hard to say Sandhagen got robbed. It’s encouraging to see that Sandhagen himself agrees with this. In an interview with Luke Thomas after the fight, he blamed himself for making careless errors that allowed Dillashaw to gain top position on the ground and hold him against the fence for extended periods. He admitted to taking his foot off the gas in the middle of the fight to conserve his energy. This is a good sign, as these are fixable problems, but only if one recognizes the problems in the first place.

Ironically, this was probably the best possible result from a promotional standpoint. It did little to diminish Sandhagen’s status in the division, and it propelled Dillashaw back into the title picture after three years of bantamweight exile. Between Dillashaw, Sandhagen, Petr Yan and Aljamain Sterling -- with a surging Rob Font not far behind -- there are numerous exciting potential matchups to make. Plus, there can be no doubt that Sandhagen and Dillashaw will meet again at some point down the road, possibly with the title on the line.

Unfortunately, discrepancies between the sport of fighting and the fight itself is an intractable problem that will never fully go away. It can be mitigated with better, more consistent judging, and those are worthwhile efforts to make. But as long as human judgement is required to pronounce a winner, there will always be issues trying to negotiate the wilderness of a fistfight into a civilized sport.

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