A collaborative work by Kurt Tellez and Luca Rajabi.
Two fighters are throwing heavy leather in the cage until one of them gets taken down. While in closed guard the fighter on top is doing everything possible to create distance while the fighter beneath has the back of their opponents neck in a vice-like grip. Pinned close to the chest, unable to move for risk of a triangle or Kimura, the fighter in the guard tries their best to land punches and elbows from the side. Unwilling to let go the fighter beneath clinches tightly while carefully opening their guard to position for an escape or submission. How long does it take for the crowd to boo and mock the two for their supposed hesitation? Thirty seconds? Ten seconds?
Cries from the crowd echo, “They’re just laying on there!” and “This sucks! This is so. . .” And the homophobic slurs pour out like water from a freshly thawed spring. The referee spots a disappointed look on the promoter’s face. They both know something must be done, or this might be the last paycheck they see for a while. Time to break this stalemate up and get these two moving!
Welcome to the Referee “Stand-Up” routine.
Addressing the “Stalemate”
In most regions this could be called “the unwritten rule of MMA” but in the state of Nevada it’s been codified as the “Stand Up” rule. And ass it stands today (pun intended), the rule instructs a referee to provide one verbal warning, before stopping the fighters and standing them up, if it is believed they have reached a stalemate on the ground (where neither are in a dominant position or working towards one).
Not unfamiliar to many sports, whenever a foul is left to the referee’s interpretation there can be dissent from athletes, fans and spectators. The explanation for the origin of this rule go back to a time when there were no “time limits” in an MMA match. If it went to the ground and you didn’t escape, it stayed there until you or your opponent were “knocked out” or “submitted”. At that time, only the most passionate combat sports enthusiasts would attend an MMA match and even then there were limits to what an audience was willing to sit through. Fast forward a couple of decades and you have modern MMA with broadcast time constraints. It was inevitable that time limits had to be placed on matches and along with those came more concise scoring by judges and more referee involvement to ensure fouls didn’t give an unfair advantage to either fighter in the cage.
All this seems well and good for the love of the sport and the desire to bring it to the broadest audience possible, on the surface it’s a win-win for everyone. But somewhere along the line the nature of what was perceived as contest versus a that of an unplanned rest period, for both fighters, became a matter of contention that lead to rules defining when and why a referee should “reset” the match by standing up both fighters.
Invariably the majority consensus for devoted grapplers is that there’s never truly is a stalemate. Grappling is a practice of patience and much like the venerable game of chess, exposing and capitalizing on an opponent’s vulnerability can take time. It’s more a game of strategy than it is of tactics. An experienced grappler who’s allowed to continue uninterrupted will strike like a viper when the time is right. But it certainly seems that “time” is exactly what grapplers are lacking in modern MMA.
For a number of reasons, audience expectations have evolved and even the time honored tradition of wrestling as a staple in the Olympic Games has recently come under fire. Being perceived as unengaging for the modern audience, it was almost eliminated from the 2020 Olympic Games. Meanwhile, MMA still attempts to make inroads as a mainstream sport that should be included in future Olympic Games. However, despite the International Olympic Committee’s attempts to revoke Greco Roman wrestling’s status as an Olympic sport, an enormous groundswell of support came forth to contest the decision in 2013 and it’s value to the athletic community was re-established.
Should the same be done for the ground game in MMA? It’s obvious we are seeing less and less ‘patience’ for matches that go to the ground versus those where fighters are on their feet. However, it’s far less likely a referee will get involved when both fighters are on their feet unless there’s evidence of “Timidity”. (A situation in-which deliberate attempts to avoid contact will result in a foul.) Yet, if you take an objective look at a vast number of fights you just might begin to see how much more timidity is tolerated versus that of genuine effort being exerted on the ground.
Why It’s Not a Stalemate
Consider just how much work is needed to takedown an MMA fighter. You’ve sized up your opponent’s movements, taken the perfect shot, avoided the sprawl and gotten to a position of great advantage to work from. But, all of that effort is taken away if you can’t make it obvious to the referee that you’re making immediate progress. It may make sense from a promoter’s perspective, after all, you’re expected to be putting on the most action packed fight possible. But all the good will you might gain from a few moments of action with the audience, is split in-two when a fighter is so close to getting in that Kimura or rear naked choke only to be interrupted by the referee’s observation and opinion.
To be fair, in modern MMA, many of the referees, and the judges for that matter, have their roots planted firmly in a Boxing centric world. Besides that anyone who is new to the sport can immediately understand the impact of the striking game, but the ground game takes more knowledge and experience to fully comprehend and that lack of comprehension has taken away many opportunities for fantastic grapplers in the cage. One could argue that, “this is the world we live in, so suck it up and adapt”, but that argument also falls a bit short considering the sheer number of MMA fighters who evolved from a wrestling or grappling background.
It could even be said that Rorion Gracie’s deliberate inclusion of Brazilian Jiujitsu in the early days of the UFC were exactly what the sport of MMA needed to bring it’s attention to the masses. Unlike more commonly observed grappling styles, Brazilian Jiujitsu brought a pseudo secret weapon into the arena that few in the western world had yet witnessed. Rorion’s younger brother, Royce Gracie absolutely dazzled athletes and audiences alike by sweeping through the eight-man tournament of UFC 1 and the brutal 16-man tournament of UFC 2, ultimately becoming the first of many MMA stars to come.
Most of the best western wrestlers and strikers of that time were completely defenseless to the submission techniques in BJJ. And Royce Gracie was renown for his ability to beat opponents who were both larger and stronger than he was and he did so with the appearance of relative ease through his relaxed approach (a corner stone of his father, Helio Gracie’s teachings of Gracie Jiujitsu). Over the years Brazilian Jiujitsu has expanded and branched off from it’s roots in Brazil to become one of the single most popular and fastest growing martial arts of the past decade.
(Foot note: Gracie Jiujitsu has fundamental, functional and philosophical differences with other forms of Brazilian Jiujitsu, though the term Brazilian Jiujitsu, BJJ or Jiujitsu by itself has been used interchangeably to refer to the overarching grappling style.)
Given the history and importance of the ground game, in what we all know and love as MMA today, what would our world look like if Royce had been stopped by a referee mid-submission only to be stood up and get knocked out by a superior striker?
Why Referee Stand-Ups Should be Repealed from MMA
Standing up fighters who aren’t aren’t making immediate progress from the ground makes sense from a promotional stand point. People want to see the most exciting fight possible and while the chess match on the ground is intriguing for those who know it well, the average spectator is not always impressed. Many fighters might argue that referees should have less influence on the flow of a match but their function is necessary to regulate conduct and ensure compliance with the rules of the sport. But as with all things “no good deed goes unpunished”, thus some fighters have quickly learned to use the “Stand Up” rule as a means to an end in gaining time, rest or perspective in a fight when they need it most.
One of the most celebrated and unfortunately controversial UFC fighters of his time, Georges St. Pierre, made good use of his wrestling skills throughout his career to secure most of his victories. In fact, after winning the Welterweight Championship from Matt Serra at UFC 83 in 2008 all but one of St. Pierre’s fights ended with a decision. The sheer number of consecutive fights that went to decision raised a few eyebrows among fans. But it was only after an, almost two year, absence due to a debilitating knee injury that many more fans began to carefully scrutinize his actions in the cage. When he finally returned to the Octagon to reclaim his title as UFC Welterweight Champion from the interim champion Carlos Condit at UFC 157 many fans and pundits believed his time was up. Some suspected he would not be able to secure a victory and still others believed he would tear Condit to shreds.
Not without a lack of blood, sweat and a massive hematoma to the head, St. Pierre went the distance and secured yet another decision win. However, the excitement over his return victory subsided after a rather odd bout with Nick Diaz. Some suspected Diaz wasn’t taking the fight seriously, though while many believed Diaz to be entirely outmatched against GSP, what fans had hoped would end in a finish lulled into yet another unanimous decision. At this point, with not so much as a single knock out since his bout with BJ Penn (in 2008) it was inevitable that his wrestling to stalemate strategy would come to have a name of its own among fans and critics. “Lay and Pray.”
The “Lay and Pray” method of fighting was attributed to an assumed strategy that consisted of carefully collecting points through strikes early in a round, then going for a take down towards the middle or end of the round and settling into a rather frustrating duel of sprawls and pseudo submissions to essentially run the clock down on each round. Ultimately, ending the fight in his favor via unanimous or split decision. There’s never been admission of the deliberate use of this strategy by St. Pierre himself but many were convinced his last few bouts, since returning to the cage, consisted of little more than “Lay and Pray”.
By far, his most controversial victory ever was that over Johnny Hendricks at UFC 167. Also his last fight since announcing retirement, St. Pierre having grown tired of the scrutiny from fans made a series of sincere attempts to take out (instead of takedown) Hendricks, but his reputation having been preceded by his actions most audiences only remembered a clearly exhausted and almost beaten St. Pierre use takedown after takedown to keep the devastating left hand of Johnny Hendricks from connecting with his face. After a good deal of damage was done St. Pierre did begin to revert to his old takedown strategy. Though, this time he was far less successful at getting and keeping Hendricks down.
While St. Pierre did manage to get a technical victory via unanimous decision, it came at a great loss in fan confidence and a blizzard of dissenting arguments contesting the validity of his UFC Welterweight Champion status. Even though the match was close and St. Pierre put an honest effort in for the last bout of his career he was unable to overcome the preconception of the audience. They wanted a stand-up knock out! If there ever were an argument for the “Stand Up” rule this would be an ideal example.
The Problem with Wrestling in MMA
Georges St. Pierre being an expert wrestler was by no means the only fighter that used his ability to pin an opponent and run the clock down to his advantage. As there isn’t a scoring system in place for MMA matches to account for “progress” or absolute victory when two opponents are simply wrestling, there’s little incentive for a fighter, with a point advantage, to give up a dominant position in favor of executing a decisive victory. In the sport of pure wrestling there is no “tap out”. Submission isn’t the point of the game, but rather it’s “control”. Control can last indefinitely so a series of qualifiers have been implemented to quickly identify when a wrestler has achieved a victory or scored a point through “effective” control.
In wrestling a victory can be issued at any time when one wrestler holds both of his opponents’ shoulders on the mat simultaneously. This is also known as a fall or pin. It only takes a few seconds to observe and once the referee sees the fall they will deliberate with the judges to conclude a victory. (Note how closely the referee is examining the match, pictured above, to watch for the moment the “fall” occurs. You rarely if ever see an MMA referee examining activities this closely in the cage.) Conversely, MMA matches can only be won decisively when there is a submission (resulting in a voluntary or involuntary tap out) or a knock out. Unlike competitive wrestling, in MMA pinning your opponent to the ground has little to no direct effect on the scoring of a match.
It could be argued that dominance (also known as Octagon control in the UFC) through wrestling can affect the score a judge issues but it is highly subjective. With no clear distinction on what constitutes dominance it’s largely left to interpretation by the individual judges.
In both Greco Roman and freestyle wrestling establishing control and dominance is much easier due to the design of the main wrestling area. In competition the area has a nine meter diameter and is surrounded by a 1.5 meter border of the same thickness known as the protection area. Inside the nine meter in diameter circle is a red band of one meter in width that is on the outer edge of the circle and is known as the red zone. The red zone is used to help indicate passivity on the part of a wrestler. Inside the red zone is the central wrestling area which is seven meters in diameter and encompasses the central circle, which is one meter in diameter. The rules of competitive wrestling match scoring clearly state that whenever a wrestler places his foot in the protection area, the match is stopped, and one point is awarded to his opponent.
Other missing elements from MMA match scoring that affect the value of wrestling in the cage are:
- Reversals: A wrestler is awarded one point for a reversal when the wrestler gains control over his opponent from a defensive position (when the wrestler is being controlled by his opponent).
- Exposures: A wrestler is awarded points for exposure when the wrestler exposes his opponent’s back to the mat for several seconds. Points for exposure are also awarded if a wrestler’s back is to the mat but the wrestler is not pinned.
MMA Unified Rules have no proper scoring mechanism to account for any of these nuances and as such much of the time spent wrestling in the cage goes wasted, instead used mostly to reposition for a scoring offensive or to stall for time and assess strategy. If too much time is spent on either of these activities the audience becomes disengaged. Even though, there is tremendous effort involved in maintaining control, because it doesn’t directly affect outcome it’s impossible to quantify the value of that time spent to a spectator.
When taking all this into consideration it becomes increasingly apparent that something must be done to ensure visible and relevant progress is made on the ground. One could argue that an obvious solution is to amend the scoring criteria in the Unified Rules to account for the effort and ability of a wrestler in the cage. But aside from the obvious challenges in reaching agreement on scoring criteria, changing the sport of MMA to become more wrestling friendly is unlikely to yield favor with the masses.
Putting the Ground Game Back on its Feet
Now that we understand how new audience expectations, time constraints in broadcast formats and fighter strategies that have gone from “sweep and submit” to “lay and pray” have exposed an oversight in the officiation of MMA matches we know that something must be done to ensure the ground game remains as intriguing as the standup game. Perhaps one of the simplest solutions would be to implement a ground fighting countdown. If a fighter knows, for certain, that they have only so many seconds in a round to execute that amazing “heel hook” they’ve been saving for a rainy day they might not be as hesitant to try. Even then, if the attempt fails it’s not a total waste as the audience knows that the fighters will be stood up when the clock runs down and the additional count down adds a sense of urgency, anticipation and excitement for the casual viewer observing a submission attempt.
Similar counts could be added to takedown attempts that result in a ‘perceived’ sprawl-stalemate or in a clinch where fighters are fumbling for grip instead of delivering those “killer knees” to the kidneys or quadriceps. Yet another position that is likely over due for a countdown is the often reviled and contentious “ground and pound”. Though it’s as much a beloved part of the sport as many other elements that have become regulated, it’s undeniable the observable qualifications for a TKO during a GnP are quite challenging to perceive. This could be handled by either resetting the opponents into a standing position once the count is over or delivering a victory to the fighter in a dominant position at the end of the count. (The latter is unlikely to garner widespread appeal but it does have merits that deserve explanation, for now we’ll simply list it as an option for consideration.)
The point should be to keep the fighters visibly moving. Ensuring there are clearly defined time limits for ground work makes the contest more obvious and leaves far less for the referee or judges to interpret during a match.
Saving the ground game from Referee “Stand-Ups” by employing clearly defined, communicated and/or broadcasted time limits will not only ensure a fair opportunity for each fighter to use their submission skills but also assure fight fans that referee intervention is beyond reproach. Further more, a ground work count down could make new audiences more tolerant, and perhaps even excited by the “ticking clock” as the struggle for dominance continues on the mat.