A few days ago, Bloody Elbow's technical striking guru Jack Slack revisited the uproarious Carlos Condit vs. Nick Diaz affair from UFC 143 for the UFC interim welterweight championship. This was not your typical "controversial MMA fight"; a phrase that brings conspicuous decisions to mind like Leonard Garcia's bouts vs. Chan Sung Jung and Nam Phan. In the contemporary era of our sport, only the first meeting between Lyoto Machida and Mauricio Rua or B.J. Penn and Frankie Edgar caused such a dramatic explosion of wide-ranging emotions and accusations from the MMA sewing circle.
Employing a "stick and move" strategy that was light on the stick and heavy on the move, allegations that Condit's track shoes showed more wear than Diaz did ran rampant. As the architect of the game-plan, Condit's coach Greg Jackson was not only riddled with criticism but quasi-indicted for "ruining the sport" by enraged fans. Beyond the roiling cauldron of emotional reactions, level-headed questions arose pertaining to how the fight should be scored according to the unified rules.
Condit vs. Diaz took place almost exclusively on the feet, which is the irrefutable commonality in just about every controversial decision in MMA history. There's a misnomer, albeit fading nowadays, that grappling is the most challenging realm of judging ... which is entirely untrue. In fact, grappling is the easiest aspect to judge because it lacks the subjectivity and ambiguity associated with a pure striking match. When a fighter is grappling effectively, there's usually not much up for vote: successful takedowns, passing guard, hitting a sweep, attempting threatening submissions, leveling heavy strikes or advancing to full mount and back control are all tangible actions that are easy to identify.
Assessing which combatant landed the greater amount of effective strikes is exponentially more difficult, especially when no visible damage is inflicted. Damage, while the most objective and toughest to dispute, is only one qualifier for effective striking and often incorrectly asserted as an exclusive necessity. When obvious damage -- like a gaping cut, a knockdown or a fighter being wobbled -- doesn't occur in a closely matched striking war with little or no grappling, the applicable unified rules undergo an odd transformation.
Anytime the cardinal judging priorities of effective striking -- who lands harder and more often -- and effective grappling -- which plays no role in a pure striking match -- are inconclusive, the unified rules provide secondary credentials to select a round winner: effective control and aggression. Again, in the grappling department, judging who is dictating the pace and location of the fight is pretty straight-forward and winning the control portion usually secures aggression as well.
Assessing effective control and aggression on the feet, however, is an entirely different story and the raging debates surrounding Condit vs. Diaz exemplify the issues. With grappling removed from the equation, the variables to measure control in a striking match are reduced to "dictating the pace and location" and "creating striking opportunities." The inherent conundrum is that there is only way to demonstrate effectiveness under those guidelines, which is by mounting effective offense; in this case, striking.
Well, in a striking sense, if a combatant is unable to land the greater amount of significant strikes, can we really view their methods as superior from the standpoint of effectiveness? The only reason to even consult the lower priority of control is when the highest rated value of striking is dead-even and indecipherable.
The same applies to aggression, which is defined as "moving forward and landing with a legal strike or takedown." Again, the only way an aggressive action counts is strictly when it's accompanied by mounting effective offense, which, in stand-up affairs, translates to landing strikes. If control and aggression must be effective in order to score, and that effectiveness is predicated on mounting offense, and mounting offense in a straight kickboxing match means lands harder and more often ... how does these secondary categories help to elicit a round winner when neither combatant outperforms the other in effective striking?
The only reason control exists is as a fallback value when striking is too evenly matched to call, yet control doesn't count unless it's coupled with effective striking; if striking is even, it's impossible to justify that one competitor is demonstrating control more effectively. If they did demonstrate effective control by landing more strikes, they would win effective striking and control would never enter the equation.
Confused? Don't feel bad. Before their second meeting at UFC 118, when they were the two best lightweights on earth, I asked Penn and Edgar who won the control category in their initial meeting and both flat-out admitted they didn't understand how control was supposed to be scored.
The clear definition of "moving forward" makes scoring aggression a little different. It's easier to identify when a fighter is moving forward versus backwards, and things that are easy to identify are always less subjective and more objective, which is the ideal ratio for unbiased judging. Unfortunately, the same constraints apply: one must implement effective offense in order to demonstrate aggression, yet aggression doesn't even factor in unless effective offense (striking and grappling) is undeterminable.
However, regardless of whether the significance and volume of overall strikes is even, there is often one fighter moving forward more often than the other, as Diaz was against Condit. This gives us a tiny shelf of ground to stand on to legitimize aggression as a scoring criterion, but only if we are comfortable deeming competitors as decidedly victorious and better overall just because they moved forward more.
I'm not okay with that. Are you?
I'm not saying aggression and control have no bearing on a fight's outcome, but isn't specific direction and movement just a means to an end? Doesn't striking and grappling out-weigh every other scoring element in the rules because they combine as the most important factors to decide who wins an MMA fight? And if effective offense is even with no clear winner, do we really want to ultimately prioritize forward movement higher than comparing strikes landed?
If two combatants stand up and throw for a whole round and there is no clear winner, and the control category is an ill-equipped solution, and we rely on the definition of effective aggression to break the tie ... that's exactly what we're doing.