Lauren Murphy hit Sara McMann a whopping 193 times Saturday night in Bangor, Maine, banging her about the head over and over again over the course of 15 minutes. McMann, in return, scored less than one-third as many blows, with a relatively paltry 64 punches landing cleanly on her opponent.
On paper, with just those stats in hand, you'd expect an easy decision win. The blitzkrieg from Murphy was never-ending—in fact, she landed a strike every 4.66 seconds. But when the decision was read, McMann's name was called twice and Murphy's once—a split-decision win for the heavily favored wrestler. When the decision was read, McMann's face lit up in an unabashed smile. Murphy's fell, if only momentarily, as she lost her composure, however briefly.
And me? I just shook my head. The wrestler's bias, once again, had reared its ugly head, and another fight was stolen from the hands of the rightful winner. New week, same story.
It wasn't always like this. The early days of MMA, in fact, were spent re-educating the audience about what a fight would look like if athletes weren't confined by the artificial constraints of boxing. It turned out—surprising absolutely no one who had ever seen two lugs rolling around on the ground—that fights all too often hit the mat.
Slip and fall? Knocked down? Driven to the mat with a powerful takedown? In boxing or kickboxing, that meant a cessation of the action, while everyone involved—the fighters, referee, fans and even the judges—regrouped to consider what they had just witnessed.
Not in MMA. There, the fight wasn't ending when things hit the ground—it was just getting started.
One of the most interesting things we learned, as a collective, is that the fighter on the bottom is not always losing the bout. Though it violates all the rules of "big brothering" someone on the playground, Royce Gracie disabused us all of the notion that being on your back necessarily means you're losing the fight.
At UFC 4 he sneaked his legs up to the gargantuan wrestler Dan Severn's neck, choking him out from the bottom position with a triangle. Maurice Smith, likewise, won the UFC Heavyweight Championship from top-control wrestler Mark Coleman, controlling his opponent from the bottom and landing a succession of elbow strikes and punches from a seemingly disadvantageous position. Bas Rutten re-enacted the scene to win his own title at UFC 20 in 1999 against Coleman's protege Kevin Randleman.
But, somewhere along the way, the primacy of top control became unquestioned. A fighter who could take his or her opponent down and keep them there, even if they did little else, was more than likely going to win the fight once it went to the judges.
McMann didn't create the system—she was just gaming it.
“I was very surprised that it was a split decision because I was sure I had beaten her every round,” McMann told Steven Marrocco of MMA Junkie. “When she was landing those shots in the first round, they may have looked effective, but you can’t really generate much power off your back like that. I was allowing her to throw those and concentrating on passing her guard.”
|McMann vs. Murphy By the Numbers|
|Fighter||Total Strikes||Sig. Strikes||Takedowns||Pass|
Who really won the fight? Everyone has an opinion, but it's important to have an educated one. And that requires a glance at the actual rules in place for determining a victor. Maine, like most states, uses a version of the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts—created in New Jersey at the turn of the century—the first real step toward MMA becoming accepted across the country as legitimate sport. Judges decide who won each round based on the following criteria:
Judges shall evaluate mixed martial arts techniques such as effective striking, effective grappling, control of the fighting area, and effective aggressiveness and defense.
Evaluations shall be made in the following order of most to least weight: effective striking, effective grappling, control of the fighting area, and effective aggressiveness and defense.
With that criteria alone, Murphy was the clear winner of the fight. While she gave up five takedowns, she also controlled the action even from her back, winning striking exchanges despite being on the bottom looking up. She outlanded McMann whether counting total strikes or just significant ones. With effective striking considered first and foremost, her clear statistical dominance should have resulted in the win.
But, of course, it's not as simple as that. The Unified Rules flip the script when a fight is contested mostly on the ground:
Judges shall use a sliding scale and recognize the length of time the competitors are either standing or on the canvas, as follows:
(a) If competitors spend a majority of a round on the canvas, then effective grappling is weighted first and effective striking is then weighted.
(b) If competitors spend a majority of a round standing, then effective striking is weighted first and effective grappling is then weighted.
(c) If a round ends with a relatively even amount of standing and canvas fighting, striking and grappling are weighed equally.
Now the picture becomes a little less clear. With this in mind, perhaps McMann did enough to win despite her relatively paltry output on the mat. She didn't attempt a single submission or ever risk it all to win the fight with ground-and-pound. But she was on top. And, in MMA, like it or not, that's often enough.