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On Luck and Referee Discretion in MMA

by Al Alvir

I will continue to study the goings-on of mma, but I will not stop complaining about its flaws until change is made. Fedor Emelianenko’s defeat to Dan Henderson was fun to watch on the surface, but it contained the underlying contradictions and drawbacks of the sport. Although this bout did not have the feature of a buffoon jumping up and down in a dry pre-fight warm-up or doing some victory dance after landing a Hail-Mary overhand, the outcome can arguably be credited to luck. Emelianenko knocked Henderson down after rushing in, fell into being swept, got punched, went limp, got punched in the back of the head a couple of times, seemed to recover, then the fight was stopped.

The halting of bouts in mma is much too subjective – to the point of exacerbating chance. After Cheick Kongo recovered and knocked out Pat Barry, no one cried foul at Dan Miragliotta not stopping it earlier when it seemed Kongo was out. That is, perhaps, the finest example of professional refereeing. With the protocol of stopping contests understood, and safety being the primary goal, consistency is essential for the evolution of mma. Let the fighters go out on their shields, as the saying goes. With the amalgam of prohibited moves in mma, it is negligent for referees to be given liberty to pick and choose when rules may be ignored. There are times in a bout, boxing or mma, when an illegal strike is made at no fault of the person throwing the strike; sometimes incidental contact is made in a controlled assault. When the person throwing a strike has an urgency to finish a fight, however, he often loses control and punches the back of his opponent’s head, and referees tend to allow it in mma as though it is just incidental. Incidentally, mma fighters habitually lose control, and it’s one of the most glaring pieces of obliviousness in these sportsmen’s existences. I had never before opposed hitting to the back of the head in any form of fighting, because I believe that it’s a fighter’s fault for having the back of his head exposed. But in a sport such as mma in which there is an overabundance of small rules, as well as an overabundance of immature/amateur artists of stand-up fighting, “no rabbit punches” should be enforced in a timid ground and pound as well as in a near conclusion to any fight. It’s an unspoken convention of fighters to hit the back of the head if it’s available. One prominent mma figure (who I will not name) told a class of fighters to “punch the back of the head of an opponent when he’s hurt, the ref won’t say anything.” It’s bad luck – and some bad technique (even Fedor the Great ran in like a schoolboy at a fight during recess) – that landed Emelianenko on his hands and knees, but the fight should arguably have gone on. Not to say that he wouldn’t have been really hurt, but I’d bet he would have liked the opportunity with whatever outcome.

On wrestling in mma:

When fighters aren’t running in and trying to get lucky doing the “rush and punch,” they often seem to just lay down – pure wrestling. I can think of a dozen ways to fix the problem of having a Tyrone Woodley rest on Paul Daley, or a Tim Kennedy lay on Robbie Lawler. (Yes, it is a problem because it undermines the object of fighting: to inflict more damage on an opponent than he inflicts on you.) Besides applying a Hierarchy of Fight Action for scoring fights (see article on Shootafairone.com), a “no advancement time limit” on the ground must be put in effect. If a person cannot transition or advance on the ground in a given time, the fighters must be stood up. There can’t be an indefinite amount of time spent in limbo. Again, the current provisions allow too much subjectivity and too much referee discretion. Improved definitions are overdue, as they would limit the variety of interpretations of inaction on the ground.

Is Mayweather Mittwork All Show?

By Al Alvir

There is a new phenomenon in the boxing world.  Like Muhammad Ali followers who fluttered like butterflies and Mike Tyson wanna-be’s who imitated his substance like aluminum for iron, it seems that everywhere there’s a new garage opening for a gym, one of its trainers believes he could duplicate the success of Roger Mayweather with some flashy  mittwork.  Some believe so without a semblance of understanding of his fighter or for mittwork in itself.  

Focus mitts were incorporated into boxing many decades ago and more – so there are different theories on its origination.  Boxing trainers use focus mitt work (aka padwork or mittwork), to give dynamic practice for fighters to work on the things that happen while fighting.  It gives a live body to train in front of.  It continues to be used today for warming-up a fighter, working on movement, and fine-tuning skills.  The problem is the focus of the mittwork; what is a trainer trying to achieve? Boxing trainers are increasingly adopting a cookie-cutter approach to teaching skills.  Today, padwork is more for warming up guys or showing-off than for fine-tuning skill-sets.  People love the way the Mayweathers do padwork perhaps because it looks so intricate.  Other trainers stick to fads like towel slipping and tube punching – useful in some ways and some much less than others – but should not replace good ol’fashioned mittwork – the kind that is almost like sparring.  And we don’t replace sparring, right?

The repetitive and fast action of the Mayweather style of mittwork indeed helps reflexes, short punches, and making things second nature, but bad habits may develop from it, too.  There are plenty of young non-Mayweathers who don’t have the pedigree or time to become good in spite of paddy-cake padwork.  They aren’t sitting on punches, turning their hips, or learning how to improvise within the fundamentals.  There is no doubt that Roger, Jeff, Floyd Sr., and Floyd Jr. were each tremendous talents who exhibited those skills, but I think the chipmunk quick mittwork we see for two seconds clips on tv had less to do with it than the amalgam of everything else.  Evidence suggests that they spent years touching up on the how’s and why’s before they became known for what many experienced eyes would, and do, call nonsense.  But far too many boxing trainers are selling it to kids without the substance.

The biggest benefit of Mayweather mittwork is that it teaches fighters the way to react in a fight and that “touching” (not trying to throw punches too hard) is essential to good boxing.  It’s arguable that the rhythm of punching is more important than sitting on punches because “touching” happens the majority of the time.  But if trainers can agree that a fighter must learn the fundamentals first – where to stand, angles, all the defenses, how to adjust – they could agree that many fighters are wasting time reacting and being fast over learning the essentials.  Also, trainers may agree that they need to learn their fighters and the fighters need to learn themselves.  Form and technique are paramount.  Trainers know this intuitively, but many of them allow their fighters to tap the mitts dropping their hands, not turning over punches, not extending their jabs, and fouling up distance and being naively vulnerable.

Mayweather mittwork, as some people would call “paddy-cake-paddy-work,” is almost completely choreographed.  And good feeds (the holding of the pads) should mimic the head, body, and real shots coming back.  The feeder should clearly differentiate what is the target and what is a punch, because in a fight the head doesn’t regularly come to your fists.  With Mayweather mittwork, the trainer does almost as much work as the puncher does.  Of course, trainers are supposed to meet the punch with the mitts to provide feel, distance, and resistance to the puncher, but the Mayweathers and their copycats do it too much.  Also, like the speedbag, mittwork can be too routine, the combinations and the feed has to be random that fighters have to go “freestyle”.  It should always be challenging.  So the fighter shouldn’t always know what to expect and shouldn’t always do the same things off of his defense.  And for many fighters, especially beginners, speed becomes rushing, and that kind of speed sacrifices form just as much as punching too hard.
Evidence suggests that the sales-pitch of mittwork has been lucrative, but can cost in the skills department.   One white-collar boxer showed me a tape in which he was hitting the pads, and he did it like a prodigy.  He said he tried boxing ONLY because his coach (who remained anonymous) held pads like Mayweather and he was sold.  He told me, however, that he couldn’t transfer any of that choreography into the ring because he never learned real defense, “how it feels to take a knockout heavy punch on the gloves.” 

I don’t condemn this philosophy completely, as I do believe that the Mayweather “speed-pads,” as some people call it, is the best cookie cutter mold for approaching offense and defense.  The basics of Mayweather mittwork come down to a few basics (for those of you who have no clue to the mystical sleight of hand they see before them):

  • Catch a left hook, come back with a left hook
  • Weave a right hook
  • Shoulder roll a right hand, come back with a right hand
  • Roll (pull back) or catch a jab, come back with a right hand
  • Catch a left to body, come back with a right uppercut
  • Catch a right to the body, come back with a left uppercut
  • Pivots to stay in front of feeder

There are variations on these basics (e.g. you can weave a left hook, too) and various combinations that come off of it, but the trainer calls out the defense and lets you know what’s coming after the combinations are each rehearsed.  All trainers do this to some extent, but some of the best feeders I’ve seen have done it with as little rehearsing as possible.  Once a fighter has done Mayweather mittwork a bunch of times, he may be able to do it with his eyes closed like Floyd Mayweather Jr.  That is my contention to it.  But it is also evidence supporting that it builds muscle memory.

One big suggestion is the use of the body shield, so fighters can sit on shots and get hit at the same time they’re going downstairs.  The body shield helps you find angles instead of being right in front of the feeder who is supposed to act as the opponent rather than a partner.  This mimicking of a real fighting helps, too.  Any ad hoc hypothesis that my idea makes doing other non-fight work-outs pointless ignores the issue:  train target areas, but make it as close to real fighting as possible without sacrificing the intention.  Fighters benefit greatly when a trainer throws punches back with some realistic intent and randomness.  Fighters benefit from trying different moves. 

Ultimately, the Mayweather mittwork can be effective when it supplements the myriad of conventional boxing training, but don’t sell it long.

PS. If a fighter isn’t training to throw kidney shots, is there absolutely any reason for the behind the back mitt feed?

What Gym Owners Don’t Tell You

By Al Alvir

Gyms are businesses like anything else, and there a very few gyms that put the fighters first.  The number one truth gym owners won’t tell you is that “they don’t care if you quit as long as you keep paying.”  Gym owners actually count on people paying their dues and not attending. 

One of the most common dilemmas that owners face is price planning.  Should they let members pay monthly or pay by the package (multiple months at a time)?  The problem is that people tend to quit whatever pursuits they take up, at least when it comes to martial arts.  So gym owners want to whore their gyms as much as possible – this means taking people’s money who don’t want to be there by forcing people to buy into an idea that may not be for them.  Corrupt gyms don’t offer month to month membership. Yes, I said “corrupt,” and some of the most famous establishments operate this way.  Suppose you go into a gym looking to train for two weeks because you’re in town only for that period.  Many gyms will try to suck the most money out of you by trying to convince you to sign on for a longer time frame and they’ll let you continue once you come back into town.  Or they’ll only offer private training which costs so much more ($50 an hour minimum). Other idiots will just send you off because your two weeks are too short.  Turning anyone down from minimal time in a gym is just bad business, and it does not promote martial arts.  The inner-city boxing gyms that have had the most success – in creating fighters and even in making profit, ironically – tend to allow people to pay a low and reasonable day to day membership.  Most other places, I found, will sell you on all the benefits of being there for their minimum 3-6 month plans.  Some schools require a minimum of 1 year membership.  Supposedly, this is because they don’t want quitters to join.  So why don’t they give refunds to people who decide they don’t want to be there after one month? 

School owners may swear that they only want dedicated martial artists to join, but the corruption lies in the fact that they thrive on people who are not dedicated at all.  Owners actually count on quitters to pay the overhead.  This would be okay if schools offered month to month membership – or even less (i.e. boxing gyms) – but gyms usually try to scam you into paying for months that they don’t even expect you to be attending.  If owners claim that they make contractual pricing of multiple months because they want people to dedicate themselves to a longer amount of time, they are in denial.  An allotted membership based on the long-term is NOT the way to motivate anyone into being there.  The proof is in the numbers; membership retention and turnover are consistent among gyms of all sorts from city to city.  And the most glaring irony is that most of these martial arts gyms operate with restricted schedules that bar certain members from using the gym at other times and other classes.  How the hell does that work out?  A serious fighter usually trains for 3 to 4 hours daily, and many gyms offer one or two ‘classes’ for such a fighter only every other day.  Corollary to that, the best fighters in history had always trained on their own schedules at full time clips of 8 hours daily.  Gyms that don’t recognize this population are simply non-conducive to the serious, real martial artist who wants to be the best.

What most combat gym owners don’t recognize, and that popular sports do recognize, is that the best physical activity is done with breaks.  Football players, baseball players, basketball players, each have training camps and a terminable season and schedule.  The majority of pro-fighters don’t even attend gyms year-round; they go to 8 to10 week training camps for each fight.  Power-lifters, similarly, plan around meets for their more rigorous, “not just maintenance” routines.  “Seasons,” or camps, with significant breaks are essential to avoid burnout.  That’s just the plain truth.

My advice is to sign up with gyms that allow you the freedom to come and go as you please and pay accordingly.  The tell-tale sign of a great gym is the diversity and the strong attendance at any given time.  You’ll see people coming in at odd times just to get a few rounds on a bag or to do stomach work.  You’ll see people come in just to hang out.  You’ll see trainers stop in just to see how it’s going and to give some tips.  If you can’t find a gym like this, pay to attend clinics and training camps. (For more info, read the articles on Personalized Program Training, PPT™.) 

Another gym experience that is severely underestimated by the common martial arts gym owner is a dingy ambiance where years of abuse are visible and finishing touches are only imagined, and where a ring is its centerpiece.  People tend to consciously work harder when a gym consists of used equipment and an organized mess of devices, bags, duct tape, holes in the walls, and at least one ring that makes the sound of an retarded band of bass players when it’s crowded with fighters.  Have you ever been in a martial arts school that has no ring or cage?  It’s awkward.  It can be filled with everything but a ring or cage, and it will still be depressingly empty.  Everyone wants a ring.  The late Al Gavin once said that if you can’t afford a ring [or a cage], “don’t bother opening a gym.”  He said, “Some owners lack the forethought when they presume a ring takes up too much space.”  The thing they miss is that it is space, open space, and it’s the space that everything relies.  Real fighters are drawn to work-out in and around a ring.  Newbies are drawn to learn around a ring that they can watch fighters move around in.  Workouts are enhanced and everyone has a tangible goal to workout to – stepping in the ring to fight.  And sparring is a joke without the boundaries that allow a fight to continue uninterrupted.  And for the pungent smell that separates the finest gyms from the finest havens of artist bourgeoisies, know that it is more than just novelty, and that there is merit in it whether it’s charming to you, meaningless, or just repugnant.  Always remember the saying “sweat begets sweat.”

And nothing makes a gym like its members. Gyms that allow anyone to attend indeed tend to create a more loyal following and indeed better sparring, rather than a small uniformed cult in dress and in complacency.

Sports Farce Part II – the Delusions of Being Competitive

by Al Alvir

I just caught Magic & Bird on HBO while hoping, instead, to watch a replay of the Pacquiao-Clottey 24/7, but I sat through the basketball documentary taken aback by the pretense. To me, Larry Bird acted like some monster readying himself to eviscerate his opponents, the greatest of which was Ervin Johnson. Johnson explained away at how he was, as well, a super-human whose personality when not at home was encapsulated by being “Magic.” When he was in front of the cameras, he was an entertainer, and pure Magic. When he was on the court, he was a competitor trying to do whatever in the world he could do to win. The retrospective bravado they displayed was just another sample of sports stars likening themselves to fighters and soldiers with lofty self-praise and post-game rhetoric. Basketball players talking about “courage” and “killer instinct?”

The clichés that star athletes recite and replay at every public appearance, impromptu or planned, are all seeming indicators of some sort of retardation – either the athletes’ abilities to reflect as years amass, or of the athletes’ mental development, period. What competitive spirit are they trying to embellish?

When I was a boy rooting-on the New York Knicks against Michael Jordan and company, I had never realized the emptiness of all the pretentious trash-talking they all partook in. Michael Jordan was sold to the public as a “fierce competitor” who “wanted to win at all costs.” He “hated to lose,” and the Knicks “awakened the beast.”

Until I spent significant time in a boxing gym, I hadn’t noticed how unaccountable even the great Michael Jordan had been.

He was never a fighter.

In the fight game, there had been defectors in between rounds of major fights and established names who had given-up without a towel thrown, but I would bet my life that they have more mettle than the common sports athlete in non-combat sports. Football players like Ed “Too Tall” Jones and Mark Gastineau tried their hands at pugilism only to conclude their retirements in embarrassment. They were not built to be fighters. And fighting brings out the truth, as the old maxim says. Recently, Herschel Walker, a lifelong martial artist, said he was a fighter first and if mma were around 30 years ago, he would have never played football. He was a legendary football player who expressed how much more difficult fighting and its preparation is compared to anything he has ever seen or done. We have yet to see if his fighting career will even exist at his advanced, but fit, age 47. Perhaps he played football too long.

It’s obvious that people have different levels of drive when it comes to competing, but the thing that can never be determined is how much anyone has when they have not been taken to the limits of their will. Sometimes “heart,” or “will to win,” comes down to a player just being better or being in better shape. When referring to who has the most competitive spirit, Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan sited Tiger Woods. When Karl Malone discussed his mentality when entering the arena to play basketball, he said he goes in “like Mike Tyson, ready to take you out.” How does the public encourage such nonsense that pose such limited parallels? These guys, greats in their respective sports, are nothing – in any way, by any relation or resemblance – like fighters or “tried” soldiers of any sort.

It’s a joke to even consider these non-combat sports figures to be decorated with titles of “courageous,” “relentless,” etc. Football is rougher than basketball, but it is just another contact sport that thrives on two sides having opposing objectives at every moment of the game: One team is trying to keep the other team from scoring. It doesn’t even share the same feature of any engaged combat or battle in which two sides are trying to inflict damage onto each other simultaneously. This is arguably why other sports are infamous for perpetuating the “bully” athlete that is virtually non-existent in combat sports. The last time I checked, there was no “enforcer” even on the wrestling team.

Larry Bird, like Michael Jordan, can talk about his “wanting it more” or “loving to do battle,” but it seems to exclusively be post-game grandiosity. When athletes use such talk, they make themselves into caricatures of fighters. It is easy to say that pre-game words “angered the beast inside” and it is why “I scored 45 points on the Knicks,” but it’s hollow without revealing before the game the intent to score however much. It’s hollow without any quantifiable cause and effect. It’s empty without causing injury or pain. Bird spoke about “loving [the idea of doing battle]” and not shaking hands “with the enemy,” but there is no consistent action during the game to validate or warrant such projections of being a warrior. It’s just impotent make-believe. Others may idly accuse Bird of just being an arrogant racist thriving on opposing the black man. It was nonsense anyway. Years later, when Michael Jordan was helped off the court by Scotty Pippen after Jordan scored 38 points with the flu, it marked the day I stopped watching basketball. I would have only respected him for his warrior effort if he had died that night, because the whole scene was melodrama reserved for the gullible. Sure, he was probably exhausted, but I am forever convinced that he was not that exhausted only at precisely the 48th minute.

Sports figures like Michael Jordan and an arguable non-athlete in golf’s Tiger Woods have lent a generation of kids who are “all talk.” How many times have we heard, “I’m just so competitive and I want to win so badly… I will not accept defeat”? Whatever is behind the talk, the talk is all there is and just that in too many non-combative pursuits. People stroke their egos and society programs them to believe in that feel good hard work; it’s the American way, but it’s not at all doing what is so hard to do. Many of the most famous sports figures have built considerable skills in cheating, too.* Cheating referees by flopping, and gaining advantages on technicalities each may get wins, but they are not necessarily indicators of beating the competition, and certainly not a feature of competitiveness. Wouldn’t the desire to win despite any technicalities or disadvantages be a greater sign of competitiveness? What we have in most sports is a dynamic fallacy in which there is no real measure of hard work or competitiveness simply because there is no empirical level of suffering. Most sports are games. However one looks at it, these sports have an imbalance of drive to win, ability to win, talent, insecurity, conditioning, and luck (and in most cases, those of their teammates) – nobody knows what to blame or extol. Like in everyday life’s pursuits, less talented people have to work harder but, in turn, they may excel because they work harder. In sports, that could mean that they get in better shape to play at a slightly higher level. And, like in life, the even more successful people almost always give the kudos to hard work. Anyone with some experience living knows that story is cockamamie 19 times out of 20. And when it’s not cockamamie, it’s at least a fight.

*It has been said that “there is no such thing as cheating in fighting.” This comes from the idea that fighting is self-governing… other than bringing a weapon to a fight. See the article Steroids and Cheating in Boxing and MMA (coming soon)