UFC 118 was as boring as it was eye opening. American wrestlers had a day, with Nik Lentz, Gray Maynard, and Frankie Edgar grinding out boring, tedious decision victories; on the losing side were B.J. Penn, Kenny Florian, Andre Winner, and the fans. Mixed martial arts fans lost a genuinely thrilling talent in Penn, an intimidating gatekeeper in Florian, and a serious up and coming threat in Winner. In return we gained a Maynard-Edgar title match hopefully scheduled for February Two-thousand-never. Many, including myself, were left wondering how. How could the lightweight division become so utterly disinteresting so fast?
The answer came to me in the Lentz-Winner battle when Joe Rogan exclaimed “[Lentz] is imposing his will!”. Sure, Lentz had Winner pushed against the cage. Lentz wanted to be there, Winner did not, Rogan’s commentary rang true. Yet, Winner imposed his will by neutralizing Lentz’s takedown attempts and grappling while landing hard knees and punches every time they broke. Lentz’s grappling served best as a means for Winner to demonstrate incredibly technical defense. Whose will was being imposed more effectively? And does it matter? This idea pervades American MMA as Rogan boorishly reminds us in every fight he announces.
The recent string of controversial decisions can be attributed to this attitude: Couture vs. Vera, Penn vs. Edgar I, Shogun vs. Machida I. The losers in each of these fights dealt more serious damage to their opponents only to lose decisions due to pace or effective grappling. Winner vs. Lentz simply extended the streak. Many scored the fight objectively in favor of Winner 29-28, knowing that Lentz would get the nod for his grappling despite pathetic ability as a mixed martial artist. And this resignation among fans that the better martial artist stood no chance against the judges and the current culture of American MMA is echoed in the approach of the fighters as well.
Simply put, the rules and culture of MMA are stacked against true fighters so much that when faced with grapplers and their “game plans”, they must fight to avoid losing rather than fighting to win. This is what happened to The Prodigy. Fans (and FightMetric) believed he won his first match against Edgar because despite Edgar’s pace, B.J. landed harder shots and stuffed takedowns. The second time around, knowing Edgar would win by avoiding engagement and landing weak shots for points, B.J. was forced away from his exciting, finishing style. The sight of B.J. Penn defeated by the system should worry any MMA fan. Penn vs. Edgar II was not a fight. Instead, it was a calculated sporting match.
My point is that grappling should be a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. The same goes for pace. Fights should be scored based on damage done and aggression, not positional advantages that result in stalemates. Additionally, I enjoyed the Winner-Lentz fight specifically for the grappling. Winner was able to masterfully maintain his balance and neutralize Lentz's attacks while escaping to land hard strikes.