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To Be the Champ

MMA decisions don’t get any closer than 48-47, 47-48, 48-47. And yet the GSP-Hendrick bout at UFC 167 is still churning up outrage. Going into the fifth frame I had Johny up 3-1 (losing only round 3), but as I watched him lean back against the cage I started screaming at the TV, “Get active, Johny! He’s going to steal this from you, Johny! Put him in a body bag, Johny! Why does your name only have one ‘n’ Johny?” When my wife wanted to know why I was so worried if I had it 3-1, I said, “Round 1 was close: To be the champ, you have to beat the champ.”

This old chestnut drives certain members of the MMA media crazy. Ariel Helwani thinks it’s meaningless. Adam Martin at Cagepotato wrote, “Listen up, jackasses: There is NOTHING in the Unified Rules that says, ‘To be the champ you have to decisively beat the champ.’ It’s made up logic by people who don’t know how to properly score a competitive round.”

Adam is both right and wrong, because he is confusing the way the world “is” with the way the world “ought” to be. It shouldn’t make a difference that GSP has been the reigning champion for nearly as long as Hendricks has been in MMA, but it does. Why? Because of who your average MMA judge is.

Boxing and MMA judges are patronage jobs. Typically, they are the brother-in-law of some state legislator. Sis goes to her brother and says, “I know you think my husband is an idiot, but I’m pregnant again and we need the money.” What does the state legislator say to the idiot brother-in-law? “Whatever you do, don’t embarrass yourself or me.” How does a judge avoid embarrassment? By remaining anonymous. How does he remain anonymous? By scoring fights the same as his fellow judges. (There’s a reason why we all know who Cecil Peoples is: his scorecards are outliers.) How does a judge predict how his fellow judges will score a fight? Based on tradition. What is one of the oldest traditions in boxing and MMA? Close rounds are scored for the champion.

Is this the way it “ought” to be? No, but it is way the world “is.” Every single MMA fighter understands this truth in their bones: If the fight is close, the judges will almost always give it to the champion. Two-time NCAA Division I wrestling champion, Johny Hendricks, certainly knows this. And Dana White knows Hendricks know this. That’s why Dana bit off Johny’s head when he said at the post-fight presser, “I only used 70% of my power.” Johny thought he was ahead enough on the scorecards to coast through the fifth round. GSP knew he was in trouble and dug deep, just as Jon Jones did against Gusty. That’s why they are still champions and their challengers are not. To win that fight Johny needed one more round—that round turned out to be the fifth. It’s not fair, but, to borrow another old chestnut, “it is what it is.”

But here’s another hard truth. If MMA judges are biased towards tradition, MMA journos, fans, and even promoters are biased towards the “new.” GSP has been champ for six years. He hasn’t finished a fight in four, since B.J. Penn on January 31, 2009. His reign has become as boring as his five-round technical fighting style. That is why so many people are outraged over such a close decision.


Matt Polly is the author of American Shaolin and Tapped Out.