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Is the Prevalence of Dominant Wrestlers like King Mo Bad for MMA?

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A very interesting thought came to me Saturday night, a thought that had been stewing for some time. As I drank my fourth gin and tonic, I had the unfortunate duty of slurring an explanation to my roommates about why King Mo was victorious over Gegard Mousasi. Granted, both of them are "casuals" in the most extreme sense of the term; two are only enamored with fencing and soccer and the other hasn’t been into sports since he quit the football team freshman year.

But, they oblige me when I watch MMA and are always down for me to show them a sick knockout highlight. Hell, one of the fencers has two Cro Cop montages in his YouTube favorites and the other fencer wants to go to the first UFC in New York with me. So they are aware of the sport and know the main card-type fighters, but never actively seek out MMA. That should give you an accurate estimate of what I’m dealing with here.

As I’m telling them about how big a factor this thing called "positional dominance" is on a judge’s scorecard, a drunken fencer says to me, "But it looks like Moo-sassy fucked up Mo way worse than vice versa." And that was indisputable. But, as GSP-Penn I, Sonnen-Marquardt, and any number of other fights can attest, aesthetic damage does not tell the whole story.

An argument ensued when we went out and got dumber and dumber as we kept drinking. The next morning, however, I started thinking about it in the malaise of a hangover and deduced the following:

That oaf had a point.

It’s a perspective I think a lot of people share, too. If Mousasi (discounting the deducted point for illegal upkick) had damaged King Mo more than vice versa, why should he lose simply because it was done from his back? Let me say, though, that I think Lawal deserved the decision even without a deducted point since he did more damage in the last three rounds. But let me deal hypothetically for a moment.

If Mousasi had an exact repeat of his 2nd round in the 3rd round, he should have been victorious in the fight (again, deducted point aside). I don’t think he would have been declared the winner, though. Why? Because perspective often has a wide chasm between itself and reality. The fact is, being on top of the other fighter grants itself to looking like you are winning; you are keeping him where you would have him therefore it’s impossible for your opponent to be winning.

Positional dominance has its merits, but to me the primary objective in a fight is to damage your opponent more than they damage you. Positional dominance is often the means to this end but rarely is the end itself. St. Pierre’s domination of Dan Hardy is criticized because we never witnessed said end, yet Hardy offered absolutely nothing to consider for him winning the fight. If Hardy had, say, unleashed some Kenny Florian-style elbows and some hammerfists like Mousasi, the fight would undoubtedly be viewed closer than the blowout it was. But this hypothetical Hardy would still be facing an uphill battle because of the credence given to top control and takedowns.

Takedowns, to me, are the equivalent of walks in baseball. They are positives and should go on the stat sheet but shouldn’t allow you to win if you can’t do anything with them (cough, cough—my Braves—cough, cough). That is, unless the guy you are taking down does absolutely nothing in the fight.

In a landscape where decisions like the Bas Rutten-Kevin Randleman fight seem almost mythically impossible, I worry how the "casuals", upon whom MMA’s development and growth crucially rely, will view the second Era of the Wrestler (following Mark Coleman, et. al). I’ve lately heard, "If you don’t want to be taken down, learn takedown defense." But a great kickboxer could drill TDD for two, maybe three years and would still be at the mercy of a GSP or King Mo. While I don’t accuse the aforementioned of doing so, what’s to stop world-class wrestlers from coming into MMA and laying on top of well-rounded, elite athletes who just don’t have the same wrestling and still taking victories?

Could this discredit the sport? I don’t think so, but it would certainly regress the action-packed reputation that has facilitated MMA’s growth. People might say wrestling can be dynamic and exciting, which I won’t dispute, but I would add that you certainly don’t see the NCAA Wrestling Championships doing gangbusters on PPV. GSP vs. Hardy could never have done for MMA what Griffin vs. Bonnar did, despite the exponentially higher skills on display in the former matchup.

Nary a striking-oriented fighter can be Anderson Silva, who keeps even the most accomplished wrestlers at bay with his lethal kickboxing. He is simply unnatural, and it was God—not training or genetics—that allowed that much fury into the human body. Thus, I think there has to be some sort of rule or a refined understanding that "positional dominance" is far from the most important aspect of a fight. This would eliminate any trend toward fighters who would commonly lay-and-pray; "riding time" doesn’t count in this sport. I also think the "ten-round must system" is detrimental to accurate judging of a fight; with as much as can happen in MMA, the boxing system just doesn’t translate well. If, in a title fight, Fighter A busts up Fighter B for two rounds and then, through sheer force of will, Fighter B keeps Fighter A on the ground for most of the last three rounds, Fighter B will likely win. I’ve been a strong advocate of the PRIDE system in which the fight is scored as a whole.

Thankfully, we have Fedor, Machida, Shogun, and Silva today. But all those guys in Nebraska at the NCAA’s a few weeks ago are well aware of this new sport that allows them to become wealthy and continue using the wrestling skills that, once upon a time, most would discard after college. There could be a time when Ultimate Wrestling is the order of the day. I doubt the sport will ever get there, but the window for this exists. An MMA landscape without victorious strikers will be irrelevant.

Wrestling is the strawberry daiquiri of MMA; it can fuck you up just the same, but there’s just something more exciting about a shot of Cuervo.