There are some fighters who can win fights solely by making their opponents look less impressive than themselves. The classic example is Willie Pep, who was famously said to have "won a round without throwing a single punch." Technically, this shouldn't be possible. In fighting, defense is its own reward, and judges are supposed to only reward offense with points. But judges are human, and fans are human, and both can be won over with slickness as well as with actual effectiveness.
I'm slowly starting to realize that Benson Henderson is one of these fighters. I, like many others, was shocked and more than a little upset when Henderson was awarded the split decision over Josh Thomson after the main event of UFC on FOX 10. It seemed that Henderson wasn't active enough to win the fight, and let Thomson steal too many rounds with creative wrestling and back control. It wasn't a decisive enough performance from either man to make a split particularly surprising, but the final scorecard, 49-46 for Henderson, was certainly a shock at the time.
No controversy about Bendo vs. Thomson decision
Relax everyone, the Ben Henderson vs. Josh Thomson decision on UFC on FOX 10 wasn't a robbery.
How does Bendo so consistently get the judges on his side in these closely-contested fights? It certainly isn't his level of activity, which has dropped off significantly ever since the first Frankie Edgar fight. Nor do I think, as BE's KJ Gould has proposed, that the current incarnation of Ben Henderson can ever seriously be said to be working towards a finish. Rather, I propose that Henderson does a masterful job of convincing the judges that his opponents don't trouble him. In short, Ben is judged not by his own effectiveness, but by his opponent's ineffectiveness. This is the Art of Bullshit, and here's how it works.
Bendo's strategy was in full force in the first round, but Thomson managed to get him down too early and for too long to leave Henderson any chance of stealing the round, so it wasn't till the second round that we really saw Bendo seize the momentum. He made sure to establish some pressure early, initiating the contact with a left kick that, despite being blocked, sent Thomson stumbling (this becomes a theme in this fight), a hard right uppercut to the body (another constant), and a knee to the body. Thomson caught the knee, wrapping up Ben's leg for a takedown, but it was Henderson who ended up looking dominant.
1. Henderson skip-steps forward, his eyes on Thomson's face. This prompts Josh to block high.
2. Now Ben launches a hard left knee into Josh's midsection.
3. Josh wraps the leg up and starts working for a single leg takedown, the details of which are completely hidden by John "Better-Door-than-a-Window" McCarthy's torso and head.
4. Ben hops about impressively on one foot, denying Thomson the takedown with evident ease, and then casually smooths his hair out of his face.
The middle portion of the round was spent with Thomson's back to the fence as Henderson exhibited his considerable strength. However, with some more clever wrestling, Thomson managed to get Ben down and take his back once again. Things played out differently this time, however, as you can see in this GIF.
This time Henderson established a pattern that would repeat several times throughout the rest of the fight-a pattern of progress and nonchalance. The moment that Thomson took Henderson's back, he began working to stand up. At no point during this, or any of the other moments in the fight like it, did Henderson look worried or remotely in danger. His ability to get to his feet and shake Thomson off time after time eventually created the impression that Thomson's back control was nothing to be feared. The capstone moment is captured in this GIF, which shows Benson smugly fixing his hair before taking care of Thomson, who is firmly clamped to his back. Once on his feet, Bendo calmly walked to the fence, forced Thomson to abandon his position, and then backed him across all 40 feet of the Octagon, before landing another hard body shot. The rest of the round was almost all to Henderson's advantage, Thomson's brief moment of back control all but forgotten.
The third saw more of the same, with Thomson offering little to nothing by way of striking offense on the feet. Almost every truly significant shot was Henderson's, and the judges were probably starting to see a pattern of desperation from Thomson, who relentlessly pursued the takedown but was unable to get it.
The fourth round started poorly for Thomson.
1. Henderson crosses the Octagon quickly and lands a body kick that audibly smacks into Thomson's ribs and arms, and off-balances him momentarily.
2. Still, Thomson has caught the kick.
3. Since he hasn't been able to run Bendo off his feet so far, he elects to kick at his base leg. Bendo's leg doesn't move an inch.
4. Thomson releases the caught leg...
5...and throws a flashy looking high kick. The result?
6. Thomson is thrown off balance and has to catch himself with a hand to stay standing. Henderson looks barely interested, as usual.
This, in a nutshell, is what the art of BS looks like. Henderson doesn't react at all to Thomson's attacks. He is not only stoic, but disinterested in the little man attacking him. In pro wrestling terms, he is no-selling Thomson's attacks. Some of this is natural talent: Henderson's balance and powerful legs make him a difficult man to push around. Some of it is strategy: by starting every round with a rush of offense, Ben ensures that Thomson's attacks will be hesitant and half-committed. Some of it is technique: Henderson's own kicks are more than powerful enough to knock his opponents around, even when they're blocked.
But a lot of it is just good old fashioned BS.
The following GIF, from the fifth round, really sums up what the judges saw between these two fighters. Thomson, attempting to get the fight to the ground, tries to drag Henderson down, and Henderson doesn't even budge, with the result being that Thomson ends up looking like a kid wrestling with his dad.
Now let's be clear: none of this is a knock on Henderson. Convincing the judges that you're doing more than you really are is a tricky thing, and a skill that has a long and storied history in boxing. In fact, some of the most popular boxers today are renowned spoilers, fighters who's most profound ability is to make their opponents look ineffective.
The most recent example that comes to mind is Tim Bradley's split decision win over Juan Manuel Marquez. Most fans were somewhere between confused and outraged at the split decision, thinking that Bradley had dominated the fight, mostly because of exchanges like the one below.
Slick stuff from Bradley there, but watch it carefully. Use a site like GIFExploder if you want. Bradley lands officially one punch to Marquez's four, and it's only a glancing jab at that. And yet Bradley comes away from the exchange looking like the far more impressive fighter. By goading Marquez into exchanges like the one above, Bradley was able to make the Mexican great look unimpressive, forcing him to swing wildly just to find Bradley's head or body, and capping the sequence off with a little bit of hands-down, tongue-out taunting. Here's that final moment again, close up and in slow motion.
Bradley is the one that starts the taunting, but Marquez ends up looking like the frustrated, childish fighter. Marquez has always been better countering than coming forward, and looked better coming forward in this fight than he ever has. But he still missed enough and ate enough counters, especially in key "highlight" moments like the one above, to look like the loser, even though he landed more, harder punches than Bradley throughout the fight.
The obvious difference between these two bouts is that the crowd was by and large convinced by Bradley's BS, and completely unconvinced by Henderson's. Why would the judges be convinced by Henderson's performance, even giving him four of the rounds on one scorecard, if the fans at home were so convinced of Thomson's win as to fly into online outrage the moment the decision was announced?
If you can't get enough of this debate, here's our own Kid Nate and Zane Simon debating who really won the fight in the immediate aftermath (debate starts at 6:35):
he reasons are twofold.
First, Henderson actually was the more active fighter. Thomson had control, but didn't spend enough time on Henderson's back to outweigh his more consistent and powerful strikes in the remainder of each round. Even when Thomson managed to put Henderson on the ground, it was Benson landing the strikes and controlling Josh's posture with a high guard before escaping to his feet.
So then why didn't the fans notice Benson's effectiveness? This one is a bit of conjecture, but I feel fairly confident in saying that it had a lot to do with Thomson's broken hand. After round two, a strong Henderson round, Thomson returned to his corner and told his coaches that he had broken his right thumb (though, according to Thomson's post-fight comments, the injury occurred in round one). The commentators were quick to latch onto this. Joe Rogan and Mike Goldberg mentioned the broken hand throughout the rest of the fight, attributing almost every one of Josh's failures to the injury. Many fans felt that he was doing remarkably well in spite of his broken hand.
And again, this is merely conjecture, but I believe that Thomson knew this. I don't doubt that he did indeed suffer some sort of hand injury, but on the way back to his corner after the second round, he can be seen to remove his mouthpiece, gripping it with his right hand. After the break, he puts it back in, with nary a grimace. Josh Thomson is a tough guy who's been in some tough fights, so this doesn't surprise me. But then, before the start of the third round, after a quick glance that told him he was being shown on the big screen...
Thomson gave a big ol' played up "ouch" face after erroneously placing his hands on his hips. Again, I don't doubt that there is some kind of injury, and I don't doubt that this action actually hurt Thomson's thumb. But the reaction was out of place, and looked like nothing so much as Thomson giving himself an excuse in case of a controversial decision, like the one that ultimately occurred.
The judges, of course, didn't know about this broken hand. The judges had no vested interest in Thomson's narrative, nor any reason to excuse his inability to control Henderson on the ground or do anything with his back control. What the judges saw was a few nice wrestling techniques from Thomson, followed by some so-so positional grappling, and then about eighteen minutes of Ben Henderson methodically winning the fight on the feet. To the judges, Thomson's ineffectiveness was heightened by Bendo's excellent bulshitting abilities, rather than excused by Thomson's injury.
There are a lot of factors that play into the way we ultimately view a fight. Bullshit is one of the sneakiest ones, and yet some of the greatest fighters have mastered the use of such techniques. Did Ben Henderson fight a great fight against Josh Thomson? No. Did he end up looking like the more effective fighter? Certainly.
Watch the fight again, with the sound off, and tell me what you think in the comments.
For more baseless conjecture, as well as occasional fight analysis and fighter/trainer interviews, check out Heavy Hands, the only podcast that focuses on the finer points of face-punching. The latest episode features an interview with boxing trainer and practitioner of Bagua Kung Fu, Wilson Pitts. Now available on both iTunes and Stitcher.