Home Fighting Techniques MMA Conduct: Should Referee “Stand-Ups” be “Put Down”?

MMA Conduct: Should Referee “Stand-Ups” be “Put Down”?

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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”

(David Becker : AP)
(Brit Hoffman: AP)

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.

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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

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Maia vs Shields

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.

Royce Gracie after a victory at UFC 1
Royce Gracie after a victory at UFC 1

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.

Royce Gracie in action at UFC 1
Royce Gracie in action at UFC 1

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

(Wikipedia)
(Wikipedia)

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.

GSP holding Carlos Condit down at UFC 157.
GSP holding Carlos Condit down at UFC 157

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”.

Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images
Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

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

UFC 168: Chris Weidman vs Anderson Silva
UFC 168: Chris Weidman vs Anderson Silva

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.

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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.

Olympic Wrestling Mat
An Olympic Wrestling Mat

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.

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Nick Diaz pinned by GSP at UFC 158

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

Jason High protests his TKO loss to referee Kevin Mulhall
Jason High protests his TKO loss to referee Kevin Mulhall

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.

UFC106MixedMartialArts_crop_exact

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.

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Luca Rajabi
Luca has been passionate about martial arts and eastern philosophies since childhood. As an athlete, inventor and entrepreneur Luca founded SciFighting on the principal lessons learned from his life experience "fighting" to preserve his health and fitness. Although born with inherently poor and inconsistent health he pushed forward to learn as much as he could about the sciences of technology, medicine and mental health. Years of study, working with physicians and combined analysis finally began to bare fruit by his early twenties. Starting with Fencing, cross training and body building then moving to Boxing, Western Kickboxing, Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiujitsu, Eskrima and an eclectic assortment of self defense techniques. Luca's core philosophy is that to win a battle every fighter must balance their mental and physical health. Luca has said that "With well developed technique, conditioning and mental focus a sound strategy will most often win over brute strength alone." It is in this spirit that he passionately advocates for the "Science of Fighting".
  • Edward Stamos

    First GSP never has been “Lay & Pray” fighter. GSP has always worked from the top & his technique is above & beyond what most fighters will ever achieve.

    Second: I do not believe in the stand up rule. Main reason because you can clearly put the fight in some ones favor which is very unethical. This can also favor cheating or cheat betting. Example in cheat betting, Fighter A is not good at stand up but fighter B is. Ref nonstop stands them up in favor of fighter B.

    Third: I believe USA is ruining MMA in this aspect, if you want to see fighters swing for the fences like 2 drunk guys thats cool, but trust me you will get bored fast & do not expect them to ever be champ or at least champ for very long. Smart fighters, that most call boring are true Martial Artist. It is a fact fighters that Bow are way better at being Champs.

    US needs to learn respect for these fighters instead of cheering on the drunk, blood thirsty crowd. Its called MIXED MARTIAL ARTS, not MIXED DRUNK FIGHTING

    • Hi Edward, reading your comments it sounds like you might have stopped reading right after the section on GSP. 🙂 We go on to explain how this concept of “Lay and Pray” isn’t a fault in strategy or style of the fighter but rather a fault in the ability for the system to properly measure and score progress in wrestling.

      Please do read through the rest of the piece and then let us know what you think.

      • Edward Stamos

        Greetings Luca & thank you for the reply. I read the artical in full, a great artical I might add. My first post was not a stab at your artical or your beliefs of GSP or MMA. It was more of a stab at the audience who beleives GSP is a lay & pray fighter.
        Correct me if I am wrong because I do not want to misinterpret your artical. You are saying that while on the ground MMA needs better rules fitting while they are on the ground?
        If you will allow me to get a jump start, if that is indeed what you are saying. First off I respect your opinion 100% & I can see where some might want this into play. But this is only 1 side of the story.
        Being the name of the game is MIXED martial arts clearly it is about style match ups, which is why Dana (UFC) has been pitting bangers against each other in order to get ratings, sales up. My take on this is if guy on bottom has no clue or the skills to get up or not to be put in the position in the first place than clearly he is not the better fighter. In short what I am saying I agree with you to a extent, I do not believe it should be timed, yellow carded or anything for that matter while they are on the ground. Evolution (not the monkey kind) but in order for arts to evolve or fighters they must learn from their mistakes and how to get up or submit in a better fashion. Sorry for the long reply

        • Hi Edward, no worries on your comments. Nothing taken personally regarding GSP. I’d just hate for people to think we are gratuitously bashing him. Thanks also for the compliments. Regarding your perspective. I believe we are in agreement on what needs to be addressed. The only counter point I would make to supporting the suggested solution in the article is that someone somewhere needs to do something to get the fighters to evolve. The current rules just don’t take the ground game into account. And honestly to properly judge a match on the ground you need to have judges and referees that truly understand wrestling, BJJ and at least Judo. If they were to amend the scoring to account for dominance on the ground like wrestling does. And maybe even employ a similar system to marking the mat with a center and perimeter to show clear position and control then it would be much easier to justify the time spent on the ground to the broader audience. We can’t turn every viewer into an expert but we can get better experts to judge and referee the matches or get better rules in place that are easy for less experienced judges to follow.

          • Edward Stamos

            You are welcome Luca & same to you. I agree w what you are saying about the ground game point system. I do believe however that because there are so many techniques in every art it would be hard to educate every judge on every art & what that art looks like while in control. Having a Karate/ Boxing back ground I believe in the 10 point must system. Why? Because it is not about damage, people today want to make it about damage because of blood & it is good for ratings. Lets not be fooled by this. If “A” hits “B” 100x but “B” hits “A” 25x but cuts his skin, does “B” deserve to win? Not even close… This is one of the reasons GSP won over Hendricks.
            I believe the ground game is part of the control scoring but while on the ground. But I do agree with you that Judges need to be educated about the sport they are watching. I believe MMA will get there. It took NFL Refs years to get there.