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The Aesthetics of MMA

“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” – Sun Tzu

(Matthew Polly is our resident big deal writer, having written books about his time immersed in MMA culture and a Shaolin Temple. Now he writes for us, which I assume means his next book is going to be about Asperger Syndrome. You can read more of his Fightlinker stuff here or check out his website here!)

In combat sports, fighting styles exist in a tension between what is legal and what is considered moral, between what is effective and what is considered aesthetically pleasing. Early UFC wrestlers like Dan Severn and Marc Coleman quickly realized that ground and pound was a highly effective strategy, especially against Gracie submission grappling. But in a culture steeped in boxing, it was considered barbaric to hit a man when he was down. What would the Marquess of Queensbery think? So old boxers led the charge to get MMA banned in 47 states.

It was a close call, but as we all know MMA won that fight and American cultural norms changed. It is now okay, even cool to some, for Dan Henderson to jump into the air and deliver a forearm shiver to the semi-conscious chin of Michael Bisping. But even within the Unified Rules of MMA, the tension between what is effective and what is considered moral and aesthetic exists and as MMA has evolved the fans have become as rigid as old boxers. It was inevitable. You can change the norms but you can’t escape them. And fighters violate those norms at their own peril.

Which is a long-winded way to get to the split decision between Gray Maynard and Clay Guida. People often forget that a MMA fight is judged not only by effective aggressiveness but also effective defense, which can be defined as “avoiding being stuck, taken down, or reversed while countering with offensive attacks.” Guida didn’t just run like Kalib Starnes; he avoided being struck while countering. According to Fightmetric, Guida, while landing slightly fewer strikes, was actually the far busier fighter. In total strikes, it was 52 of 229 for Maynard and 49 of 327 for Guida. With a hundred more strikes thrown, you can see how one of the judges might have scored it for Guida.

The problem was Guida looked ugly and cowardly while effectively defending himself. He violated our aesthetic and cultural norms about how a fighter should behave in the cage. Worse, he violated how we expect Clay Guida to fight. Dana White described Guida as a guy whose style is to wear his opponent down and take him out or “he goes out on his shield.” Guida’s 180-degree reversal in style surprised his opponent (generally a good thing) but it also shocked the audience, the referee (who gave him a rare warning against timidity), two out of three judges, and Dana White (“the fight sucked”) to the point that we felt cheated.

Guida and his camp made the mistake of conflating the tactic of Hit and Run into their entire strategy for winning the fight. If he had hit and run for the first two or three rounds to frustrate Gray, which he did, and then had switched back to his standard hyper-aggressive smothering style in the later rounds, he might not have won but at least he would have had a chance. His team took a win-win situation (even if he had lost he still would have gotten another fight as long as he was aggressive) and turned it into a lose-lose. By violating MMA’s collective aesthetic and cultural norms, he lost both the match and the patronage of Dana White. A very bad career strategy.

  • Reverend Clint

    nate quarry has been posting stuff about this all weekend which i agree with for the most part, not every fight needs to be rock’em sock’em robots but at least something has to happen or its not a fight.
    A lot of talk about the Guida Maynard fight. IMO, if you don’t look to
    WIN the fight, or FINISH the fight, why would I want to watch you on tv?
    I said that about Machida. He has the best final ten seconds of every
    fight highlight reel ever. Until then it’s him dancing backwards the
    entire fight. When he fought Rashad Evans it was 3 and a half minutes
    before a punch was landed. Same with takedowns.
    If you record is 50-0 with no finishes, why would I want to watch you
    fight? I’ll go to a wrestling match to see a takedown contest. If you’re
    running or stalling it’s the ref’s duty to take away points or at least
    give warnings. Land one punch and then dance away the entire time?
    Cool, you landed more punches than your opponent. But that’s not a
    fight. That’s tag. And that’s not what we pay to see. I want to see
    heart. I want to see skill. But until the refs start deducting points or
    the promoters just flat out say, “If you look to win fights by
    technicalities in the rules, lay and pray or hit and run, you’ll be
    cut,” the fighters will keep doing it. Couple of the greatest fights
    ever, Hendo/Rua, Forrest/Stephan and for me personally Me/Sell and
    Me/Credeur. What do all these have in common? Both fighters were looking
    to finish the fight the entire time. Isn’t that what we want to see? I
    personally want to see the human heart tested. I want to see Rocky get
    up off the mat for the 10th time with Creed shaking his head in
    disbelief. “How is it possible? What does it take to stop him?” Not see
    Rocky land a punch and then run away. But hey, maybe that’s just me.

    Fear of losing is so much worse than actually losing. If you fight to
    win, then win or lose you can hold your head high. In my last fight my
    left cheek was shattered and a little voice inside my head told me, “You
    should quit.” And then this big booming voice yelled at me, (edited for
    swear words) “If you quit you will be branded a XXXXing coward until
    you die. In a year your face will be healed and
    your scars will be gone. But you will live with that shame until you
    die. Now you get off this stool and either knock him out or you get
    knocked out.” And so I did. And I got knocked out. And two years later
    my face is fine. I have a little nerve damage but not worth mentioning.
    And I know every fight I fought to win. I’m not judging anyone and how
    they choose to fight. That’s not my place. All I can say is that I
    fought with everything I had to fight with, every fight. And I can hold
    my head high.

  • frickshun

    1st of all Polly, my penis was conflated when I saw you posted s’thing. Did I use that right? 2nd, pretty good assessment of things. I, personally was not as apalled as some. My boss (who bets our monthly salaries on each fight @ a minimum) was outraged just like the Baldfather. I feel that if Guido landed a couple more strikes per round, he wins easily & in the exact same fashion as Dominic Cruz does.

    As far as Quarry’s opinion, maybe that’s why he’s no longer in the big leagues. Going out on your shield may be great for your fan base, but not so great for your career or your brain.

  • dawgbone

    I don’t see how you can say Guida’s defence was effective, then give him credit for throwing 100 more missed strikes.

    The problem with Guida wasn’t that the wild man changed his style so it confused the fans and refs. The problem was he avoided the fight at all times. You can hit and run (like Edgar-Penn 1 and Condit-Diaz), but you have to hit first. There were countless times when Guida could have popped in for a punch and popped back out. The problem was he back peddled constantly, then got against the cage and then ran away.

    Yeah, getting out of harms way is a good thing as a fighter, but that can’t be all you do. Back peddle, step up and throw your combo, get out and reset is a perfectly viable strategy. Backing up all fight then running out of the way to reset isn’t.

  • Reverend Clint

    theres a difference between defense and retreat

  • voice of reason


  • matthewpolly

    Reverend Clint, That’s a great response. I didn’t know you fought. And I think your views perfectly reflect the ethos (aesthetics and cultural norms) of modern MMA fans. A fighter is expected to aggressively attempt to finish a fight or lose trying. A judge’s decision is considered a failure. My only point was that this is particular to MMA culture. Boxers usually go the distance. There’s no face lost in Chinese kickboxing (san shou) if it goes the distance. No one complains if you don’t pin your opponent in wrestling. But in MMA, fighters will often feel compelled to apologize if they win but don’t finish. And if they run, then they endanger their careers.

    Personally, I think this is a good thing. It makes fighters fight for the crowds and not the rules. Guida thought he could hit and run for 5 rounds, eek out a victory on points, and come out ahead. Instead he lost the fight, his fans, and Dana White. If he had hit and ran for only 3 rounds, he might have been forgiven. Now he’s a cautionary tale.

  • matthewpolly

    Frickshun, I’ll try not to conflate your post and your penis. I don’t mind a defensive strategy as long as there is some offense at some point in the fight. Just as a fighter must be able to intelligently defend himself, he ought to be required to intelligently offend, as it were. GSP is a much more cautious, risk-averse fighter than he used to be, but he still pushes the action. Guida jumped around like the Octagon was a burning frying pan. It was ugly. As Dawgbone said, he never engaged. Machida liked to run, but at some point in the fight he’d turn on the offense and knock people out. People hated that too but it was infinitely better than Guida’s strategy.

  • Letibleu

    i always appologize when i dont finish, but enough about me, back to MMA.

    I actually found that Guida fought like he always does except that all of his usuall offense was rendered ineffective against Maynard. He couldnt take him down and every time he hit Maynard, he was countered with a hook or a hard body blow. It left him 2 options: 1) Enter a slugfest and hope to win or 2) get on the perpetual pedal bike and try to be more active.

    We know Guida doesnt like getting hit (who does?). We also know he is aggressive as long as he is on the giving end.

    My angle is this: Bad matchmaking. I commented about it before the fight.

  • Reverend Clint

    haha not sure if you are serious of being a dick or didnt read the beginning… nate quarry wrote that and he is/was a fighter. He even fought for a belt so id take his opinion very seriously.
    No i dont train mma but does that make my thoughts on the subject invalid? If thats the case then maybe MMA should only be shown in gyms. Sorry the old “you dont train but i do so im superior thing gets under my skin.
    there is a reason boxing is dying and nobody watches wrestling, real wresting. If i want to watch a guy run around ill watch the 400m. if i want to watch two guys lay on each other ill watch old home movies of ryan and jake. But this is MIXED martial arts. there are practically an infinite number of ways to win but many choose to let the judges handle it for them. Either that or they dont have the skills to beat their opponent and give up… which is what i think guida did. he couldnt take him down, he couldnt knock him out so he chose to cruise to a 50/50 chance of winning.

  • Night Rider

    Well Put Clint on many points, I train however I also agree with your point on people who don’t train having the right to weigh in on what they see. The point about it only being shown in gyms is a great one, just because those who train are better able to critique a fight doesn’t mean someone who doesn’t can’t decide that a fight sucks. 
    Off Topic but for those who haven’t seen Rich Franklin’s post fight interview where he and Wand have a small interaction, find it and watch it. All class from two of the best representatives of mma.
    Oh and also Fuck Clay Guida . this man is Diseased…..

    Oh and also Fuck Clay Guida this man is diseased….

  • thingvolds

    Cool article. Actually to be honest, I didn’t read it.  But I liked the title.  It made me want to write my own article called “The ASSthetics of MMA”.  It would basically be an article about what mma fighters have the best asses, what fight shorts are the best for showcasing their asses, and how we can get more assplay going on during mma fights.  Off the top of my head, my mind goes to Frank Shamrock having one of the worst asses ever in mma.  He was all jacked and cut up, but had a flat ass.  Someone like Vanderlei, on the other hand, had a pretty nice, muscular ass and showcased it often in those little swim trunks.  Maybe if I write this article and it gets posted here, guys will feel encouraged to start wearing the little vale tudo swim trunks again and ditch those horribly restrictive board shorts that are killing the sport.

  • Reverend Clint

    nick diaz should have this interview on repeat 24/7

  • Reverend Clint

    thing… that was beautiful

  • chimps

    thingsvold that was funny as hell…

    As to the article, I am with Nate Quarry, I will not pay 55$ to watch hit and run or lay and pray, I don’t care if a guy is good at it or not, I have no interest.  It’s not just about getting a win, the quality and style of the performance matters.  I am fine with decisions, as long as the performance is high quality.  Look at a guy like Roy Nelson, he doesn’t always win, but he turns in good performances routinely, and I always like to see him fight.

  • matthewpolly

    Hey Reverend Clint, my apologies. I wasn’t trying to be a dick. I was just being stupid and missed that you were reprinting Nate Quarry’s post. Of course you don’t need to fight to have a valid opinion. In fact, it is the opinion of the fans that the post is about.

  • Oontyex

    Agree with Quary; thats tag and not a fight.
    I think that those types of taps, should not be considered significant strikes (by fightmetric or the judges). The intended effect of striking is to damage with the strike or use the strike to set up something else (e.g a takedown, a followup damaging strike) – if no damage is done, this is not significant and should not particularly factor into a rounds outcome. If a round finishes and there were 10, 20, 30 of these non-signficant pats, then just declare the round a draw. This would avoid the bullshit of ‘nothing happened over 5min, but you couldnt touch me and i touched you afew times so i win’ – no you didnt! and any fan watching can see it. There should be some % by which the round is won for it to not be a draw. Let these tap and run fights go on the record as draws, and dont validate their efforts by forcing ‘it could go either way’ decisions.
    Also – in terms of aesthetics, the history of the sport is important. It began as a no rules, no time limit tournament, where the one and only thing you had to do was find a way to finish your opponent. People still feel that this should be the ultimate goal of every fighter during a fight and feel that fighters who are not at least trying to work towards a finish are abusing  loopholes in the rules/ judging criteria to get an ill-earned W

  • Symbul

    Clay Guida’s not going to outwrestle Gray Maynard, and his camp knew that. So they had to try something else. This is what they came up with, and I’m not sure I have any better ideas for Clay.

    It’s a lot easier to ask someone to take an assbeating than it is to go into a fight employing a strategy you don’t believe in. Clay Guida’s not rich. He can’t retire whenever he feels like, so he has to try to win.

    Not that any of that makes a bad fight any better to watch, but them’s the breaks. The UFC should’ve thought the style matchup through a little better if they wanted guaranteed fireworks.

  • Reverend Clint

    polly, thats what i figured. god knows ive done the same thing

  • matthewpolly

    Oontyex, that’s a great point about the no-rules history influencing the belief that fights should be to the finish and anything less is a form of cheating.

  • Rodriguez

    I was early on this Guida confusion train:

  • iamphoenix

    hi polly.

  • matthewpolly

    hey iamphoenix.

  • frickshun

    1) Rod–>WE MISS YOU, MAN!! Site pretty much sucks black caulk in 2012.
    2) Clint–>HAHAHAHAHA. Your formatting suxxorz so bad that I had to read your 1st entry 4 times before I understood where your thoughts ended & Quarry’s began. Dumbass.
    3) Polly–>Thanks so much for making Clint get mad. When he’s angry, he looks like the main character from The Human Centipede 2 in the masturbation scene.
    4) Thing1–>not sure why some people think you’re joking. I get it. And that’s why I switched my underwear over to low cut Euro-briefs a few years ago. My wife thanks you. Also, EVERY fighter should have to wear these.
    5) Polly again–>The collective “We” fucking HATED MACHIDA til he got some finishes. Then we held our collective breath that he would continue to get finishes. Cuz if he doesn’t get the finish, “we” hate him again. Clay kicked Gray dead in the face & (soft) rocked him. Unfortunately, he couldn’t finish. But if he did, there would be no discussion here. See: Guida vs Gomi fight for reference.
    6) Dickjuice. In your eyes.
    7) Polly again again–>We should meet up near Sheep’s Meadow Field in Central Park. You can bring your black leather jacket & I shall bring a volleyball & my library copy of your book. We’ll make magic.