A wise man once said that the truths in life depend greatly on our own individual points of view, and the main event of UFC Fight Night 29 between Demian Maia and Jake Shields in an excellent example of how true that can ring when it comes to MMA judging.
MMA judging is a mess of apples to oranges comparisons where judges, media pundits, and fans try to balance a strike to the legs vs a strike to the head, a right hook to the body against a takedown, and submission attempts in addition to ground positions. It is a balance that is damnably tricky to find and how we get there depends greatly on our own points of view.
Even when you try to isolate the judging at times into just striking or just grappling, it still remains very tricky because different backgrounds still color how we view fights. I personally come from a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu background, and that certainly colored the way I watched this fight as there are certain things I have been taught to value that are not universally held in MMA.
Now sport jiu jitsu scoring conventions are not, and should not be, applied to MMA matches, but understanding them is useful in that it gives a window in how jiu jitsu fighters view grappling, in a similar way understanding the rules of wrestling, judo, or sambo gives insights to what they value when deciding who won a fight. If you look at the pure grappling aspect of this in a sport BJJ context, Maia dominated.
I know that is not a fully accurate reflection of the fight as Sheilds was throwing elbows from top positions, and there were large portions of the fight that took place on the feet, but just bear with me. On the ground Maia cut through Shields' defenses twice, got the back, Shields escaped and then Maia's guard stalemated him. Maia was not able to sweep, but Shields was not able to advance his position past the half guard, despite working very hard to do so.
Maia achieved one of the primary goals of grappling from the view of jiu jitsu fighter, he attained better positions and put himself in better position to finish the fight than Shields ever did while grappling. Shields was able to escape those positions, but the fact that he allowed Maia to reach those positions in the first place puts him at a scoring disadvantage, at least that is what my BJJ instincts scream at me.
And while Shields did control from the half guard very well, he was unable to deal with the guard of Maia effectively. From a BJJ point of view getting the half guard is not any great accomplishment and is still mostly a stalemate. The half guard, while it does favor the top fighter, gives the bottom fight far too many sweep, escape, and submission options to be considered a dominant position, even in MMA where it favors the top fighter slightly more than in pure grappling. The guard represents a problem to the top fighter, something that must be dealt with, and Maia dealt with Shields guard by bypassing in entirely twice, while Shields was bogged down in Maia's guard and unable to do much with top position.
But again that is all from a jiu jitsu training background, and while I do try to embrace a view that views grappling as a homogeneous whole rather than separate styles, the idea of how to view certain positions is ingrained very deep.
Show a wrestler the half guard and they see any number of ride positions where the top fighter has the ability to control both the bottom man's hips and head, giving superb control and a strong pin. The pin is the ultimate goal of wrestling and to put someone in that position is winning the grappling exchanges, and that is one reason why many wrestlers put a premium on control when they grappling in MMA.
And that does not even take in account another critical aspect of grappling that there can be no agreement on how to score: takedowns. In three cases Maia took Shields down, and then was able to do directly to Shields back twice. And yet many scored one or both those rounds against Maia, while the single round in which Shields got a takedown but then was unable to advance position was by far the most decisive round on everyone's score cards.
And then there is the issue of how to account for failed takedowns. Does that fall into the category of "defense" which must then lead to offense for it to be valued, or is controlling the fight and count for something itself. It is listed in the official scoring criteria in both categories and from my point of view, both takedown offense and defense should be valued. One fighter is trying to get the fight to the round, while the other is trying to keep it standing, and whoever wins that exchange should be credited.
And again this is just an isolation of grappling, then there are the elbows of Shields to account for, and the fan favorite criteria of "damage", which is not actually mentioned in the scoring criteria but is implied.
In the end MMA judging will likely always be a serious point of contention as it depends largely on what the individual viewer values in fight and in many cases has very little to do what is actually listed in the actual judging criteria.
For more MMA analysis, history, technique, and discussion be sure to follow T.P. Grant on Twitter or Facebook.
SBN coverage of UFC Fight Night 29: Maia vs. Shields
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