Perverse Incentives in MMA

After having a rather rough week involving two midterms, three assignments and no sleep, I’m too beat to offer my usual longwinded self indulgent posts about my perspectives on the sport.
Instead, today I’ll offer up a short and obvious post about some of the perverse incentives that exist in MMA.

I’ll start by making an assumption about the sport. Firstly, I assume that in every MMA fight, the goal is to simulate what would happen in a ‘real’ honorable fight. MMA has rules, time limits and rounds to protect fighter safety and to make the sport television ready, but the underlying ideal is that if two fighters face off against each other, the one who wins in the MMA match would also win in a no time limit, single round contest with minimal rules (think early UFCs).

Here are some of the rules and regulations that give fighters incentive to do things that they wouldn’t otherwise do in an actual fight.

Judges Scoring & Time Limits

This one is obvious. If a fighter is ahead on the scorecards, he has no incentive to finish the fight – instead, strategically it makes sense to play defense or get a takedown and win the fight on the scorecards. This exists in every sport, it’s pretty unavoidable.


Obvious again. The existence of rounds allows fighters who are winning the round to play it safe. It also allows fighters who are on bottom to wait out the end of the round, as they get a ‘free’ reset with no effort. In the third round, fighters who are losing have an incentive to act more aggressively than they otherwise would. Again, this one is unavoidable.

Referee Stand-ups

Here’s one that bugs me. When there is the potential that the referee might stand two fighters up, there is a strong incentive for the fighter on the bottom to stall and fight purely defensively. Without this rule, we’d probably see fighters on bottom working a lot more – going for submissions or striking from bottom. At the very least, we’d see fighters trying to get up with more desperation. The existence of stand ups makes no sense to me – and contrary to popular belief, it probably hurts more than it helps. Getting up would be a much bigger priority if not for this ridiculous rule. Also not helpful is the inconsistency that different refs stand guys up – I still shiver at the memory of Roy Nelson in side control on top of Arlovski clearly going for a kimura and getting stood up. Ridiculous.

No Knees on the ground

I can see soccer kicks and stomps being a real safety issue. But no knees on the ground makes no sense to me. If a guy is standing, he can be kneed, but if he’s got three or more ‘points’ on the ground he can’t? Soccer kicks and stomps are dangerous because of the potential of a guys head getting ‘crushed’ on the canvas. A knee on the ground is not so different from a knee standing. This rule is also a travesty because it benefits mediocre fighters – fighters with decent wrestling (but not top notch) can just shoot over and over again with relatively low risk. Even guys with good takedown defense will get taken down once or twice in the course of the fight – and one or two takedowns is more than enough to win a fight with scoring the way it is. If mediocre wrestlers ran the risk of getting kneed in the head everytime the other guy sprawled, I doubt we’d see as many poorly set up, badly executed takedown attempts (like the ones by Diego Sanchez of Martin Kampmann – who, may I add, was robbed badly in that fight ). Fighters who were actually good at wrestling on the other hand would have no problems with knees on the ground – if you convert at a relatively high rate, knees on the ground is a huge advantage. Side control and north south suddenly become lethal positions for the guy on the bottom, and good wrestlers would see their finishing rates increase substantially.

Warnings (rather than point deductions) for rule breaking

Barring an obviously intentional shot to the groin or eye poke, the vast majority of rule infractions go unpunished. This has lead to an epidemic of cage grabbing to stop takedowns. It’s a riskless decision – if a fighter is getting taken down, and is likely going to be unable to defend, fence grab is an age old technique that can be used to swing the odds in his favour. At worst, they get a warning – so if its choosing between getting taken down and most probably losing the round, and grabbing the fence, getting warned and possibly winning the round? The choice is pretty obvious. Grabbing the fence is clearly against the rules and is always intentional. A point deduction is pretty harsh for breaking this rule, so I propose an alternate solution. If a fighter grabs the fence while the other fighter is in the action of going for a takedown, the rule breaker is forced to go into guard on the bottom. A fair punishment, one which fits the crime and it removes the disgustingly clear incentive to flaunt the rules. Either that, or take out the rule altogether and make it legal.

Fight of the Night

I’m all for exciting fights and finishes. I don’t really have an issue with these bonuses, but it is clear that they give incentives to non top-tier fighters to try and win them rather than win the fight. Chris Lytle comes to mind. I know he naturally has an inclination to strike, but there are too many instances in my mind where he’s kept the fight standing, put on a terrible, boring, un-technical standup ‘battle’ and won FOTN. I give a dishonorable shoutout to Jorge Gurgel also, despite the fact that he’s not at all related to my point. I’m not suggesting the UFC get rid of this bonus – but please, give it to fighters who actually go in there trying to win, in any way possible, using their entire skillset. This is the premier MMA promotion in the world, not a Kimbo Slice barbecue. Don’t reward guys who just go out there and ‘throw’ while missing their punches and fighting with all the grace of a beached whale.

I’m sure there are more of these types of incentives that other people can point out – I myself am too exhausted to write much more. I guess this is just a short overview of things I would like to see change in the sport – my MMA pet peeves so to speak.

- See more of my writing at Total-MMA. The site is updated dailly, and I write every Thursday.

\The FanPosts are solely the subjective opinions of Bloody Elbow readers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Bloody Elbow editors or staff.

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