November 6, 2018

#TrueTalkTuesdays 13

Better rules makes better fighters

It seems that there is a new organization coming up every week with a new set of rules. I have mixed feelings about this that I will go into later, but what is relevant is that we are moving towards better rules.

Why are rules important?

The UFC started with essentially no rules, except no biting or poking at orifices. For you TUF newbies, there was no time limit, competitors would fight up to 4 times in one night, there were no weight classes, you could head butt, and even strike the groin. While it was entertaining, there was definitely safety issues with these rules that could have long lasting effects, like getting TKOed by punches to the groin, as we say Keith Hackney did to Joe Son. That cannot be good for the gonads, lol!

The athletic commissions jumped in and regulated the sport, adding a bunch of rules (too many for my taste). But the idea was to promote safety and make the fights more entertaining. Let’s break down just one example of the new UFC rules versus old school UFC rules: No time limit versus rounds.

With no time limit, you need a finish. There is no reason to “score points” to win rounds as their aren’t any. Every match has to be finished by a KO or submission. Because of this, fighters can become very patient, and take their time in looking for a win. Some fighters might look to gas out their opponents and drag them into the deep waters, while others might go hard for a quick finish.

The problem with no time limit is that we have no way of knowing when the fight will end. Especially with ground work, a long fight can mean a boring fight with nothing happening. For TV productions, long boring fights that have no scheduled end time are not good.

With rounds, we have a predictable structure, which is great for TV. The rounds also break up a fight that perhaps was boring, or save a fighter from being finished and give him a second chance. Rest between rounds also gives the fighters more energy to come out harder the next round. So instead of preparing for a marathon that is long and drawn out, fighters are prepared for a sprint (more or less), and know the maximum amount of time a fight would last.

There are several problems with rounds. First, it is harder to finish someone on the ground as it is going to take time to get a take down, pass the guard, and finally get into a finishing position. So rounds favor a striking based style. Second, it can save a fighter from being finished. While some people like that aspect, purists like myself don’t. Third, people can “game” rounds. Stalling the whole round to score a take down at the end of the round is something that happens quite often. Or giving up a round in a 5 round fight to rest also happens quite often. These last two reasons are subjective, but I think they are valid issues to bring up nonetheless.

As you can see, these rule changes make different fights and as a result different fighters. So the question is, which is better?

That is up to us to decide. As a purist, I believe fighting should be a close approximation of what a street fight would look like, barring the “dirty” tactics of biting, scratching, eye gouging, hair pulling, or poking orifices. The reason I don’t want the “dirty” tactics is because they can easily cause permanent damage while not adding anything technical or impressive to watch. But I believe in all forms of elbows, striking downed opponents, all submissions allowed (minus small joint manipulation for the same reasons as dirty tactics) and one 10 minute round versus three 5 minute rounds.

Submission Only vs Points

But whatever rules you make, your fighters will figure out how to “game” it. For example, in EBI (Eddie Bravo’s Invitational submission only grappling tournament), they have a unique rule set. It is one 10 minute round with no points. Only a submission ends the bout. But, if the round ends, they go into overtime. There are 3 overtime periods, where each fighter will start either in back mount with a seat belt grip, or from the “spider web” (an arm bar with the opponent’s near leg hooked). The person who submits the person quickest, or the person who controls the position longest after three rounds wins.

As a competitor, there are two ways to play this. The first is you look to score a submission in the 10 minute round (which has financial incentive of $5k). This is obviously the intention Eddie had and for the most part is what people go for. But there is a second option: you stall and wait for the over time and work to ride your opponent for as long as possible. I have seen it happen and it creates extremely boring matches. It goes against the spirit of the event, but the rules do allow for this to happen, so it does.

But besides the stallers, there is a second problem with these rules – over times happen quite often. Based on results I found on Wikipedia (EBI 3-14 source), out of 180 matches, 65 of them when into overtime, or simply put 36% of matches go into overtime. Compare this to another sport, like the National Football League (NFL). Doing some GoogleFu, I found that in the NFL there has been 325 games then went into over time out of 14657 games, or 2.2% incidence. Yes they are very different sports, but my point is that the rules in the NFL have been setup better to allow a contest to finish within a regulation period, and not require an over time the vast majority of the time.

Coming back to EBI, personally, I dislike the overtimes. The starting positions favor certain styles of grappling and body types over others. For example, if you are a short and stocky person, chances are your back control game is not going to be as good as someone who is long and lanky that can lock a body triangle with ease. It doesn’t really translate to who is the better grappler, just who is better at controlling the back.

The other major problem I have with submission only formats is the lack of importance given to wrestling and positioning. For the most part, wrestling is non-existent as there is no reward other than top position, and a lot of people like to attack submissions off their back more, so they pull guard immediately. So with these types of rule sets, the athletes training for them would neglect wrestling, and focus less on sweeps and guard passes – taking most of their time on submission holds (often leg locks as a guard pass is not required), and their back control plus escapes.

This competitor is not going to be as well rounded in their grappling, because the rules don’t reward it. So in my humble opinion, I believe this makes inferior grapplers.

How do you make the best rules to produce the best fighters?

I believe that when rules are well crafted, athletes will “game” them but in doing so make for an exciting contest. In other words, there isn’t a boring tactic that goes against the spirit of the rules. That is easier said then done.

Personally, I have found that for grappling events, scoring points has always been very difficult. The ADCC Submission Wrestling World Championships, arguably the most prestigious grappling event, it is also common to have over times in ADCC. I couldn’t easily find results to show incidence of over times, but from my personal history 5 out of 18 matches went to over time, or about 27% of the time. I think that would probably stand true to most competitors.

ADCC uses a point system similar to IBJJF rules, with one 10 minute round, and a 5 minute over time. ADCC rules change often though, sometimes during a match (unfortunately I have a good amount of experience with this lol). So I have a lot of issues with them.

The main rule that I believe makes scoring difficult is that regardless of what technique you do, whether it is a sweep, a guard pass, or a take down, if your opponent turtles immediately afterwards, it counts for nothing. That person can then roll back into their guard after 3 seconds, and nothing has happened. So imagine you hit a picture perfect double leg and put your opponent on their back. Then they roll away and turtle, and after seconds roll back to guard. That is worth nothing. Do that 4 times in a row, all no points.

I find this a huge oversight. The whole point of a take down is to take someone from standing and put them on the ground where you are on top. Whether a person is in guard, mount, or on their fours makes no difference. Let’s be honest, being on your fours is not a strong position. No one in a street fight will go into turtle immediately and expect to win, lol. So to me, getting to the turtle should be a scoring position.

Sure there are some people who are good at defending and attacking from there (Eduardo Telles, or Tarsis Humphries for example), but that doesn’t make it a strong position. That would be like saying bottom mount is a great position because Aleksei Oleinik has tapped out people using a modified Ezekiel choke in the UFC.

Back to the point, the easier it is to score points, the more action there will be.

Why? Because competitors will seek to score points to win. When points are hard to attain though, fighters are much more conservative because they don’t want to open themselves to risk or fatigue in attaining points.

While I like the idea of submission only, it is hard to execute in a reliably entertaining fashion for this very reason. The purist in me wants no time limit submission only matches, but the reality is that its not practical. Since there is no reward for anything except a submission and no time constraints, there is no rush to do anything. So two well matched fighters could go for a LONG time. When Keenan Cornelius grappled against Gordon Ryan, it was about 90 minutes long, with a lot of nothing going on.

So you have to do a compromise and put a time limit. Then comes the decision of what to do after the time limit. EBI uses over time, so that can be problematic. Why? Because now competitors can essentially wait out the timed portion of combat and save their energy to fight hard in over time as I mentioned before.

I would prefer it if there was no over time – just a 10 minute time limit. If no one wins in regulation, they are both disqualified. This will create a very strong incentive to go for submissions, and see people taking more risks. Of course, this can create problems in a single elimination tournament format, as what do you do when when a third of your competitors get draws and are eliminated in the first round?

It isn’t easy. I give EBI a lot of credit for giving their all into make submission only entertaining. And to their credit, most competitors are keeping with the spirit of the event. But I believe on average that points based scoring will produce more entertaining matches and better athletes. But we still haven’t gotten to a point system that is great yet. In my next post, I will propose my idea for a scoring system. 🙂

What do you think? Do you agree or disagree?

Comment with your take on this. And if you like this article, please do me a solid and share it with your friends. Thanks!

  • I agree that barring certain types of elbow strikes is a questionable practice. Barring elbows to the spine certainly makes giving your back a less dangerous proposition. This takes away some of the “realism” but may prevent serious injuries. It is a trade-off that distinguishes sport from reality fighting. I disagree with you about small joint manipulations. Like attacking your opponent’s spine with elbows, attacking your opponent’s fingers as you would his elbow, shoulder or leg can be extremely effective for real fighting. However, the risk of serious injury from such attacks is virtually non-existent. Sometimes even very high level grappling matches are won by wrist locks (look at Wagner Rocha over Marcin Held) which could be considered finger locks. The loser suffers no serious injury and can fight another day (probably more careful in defending such attacks). Is it a “cheap” submission? Maybe so, but the ultimate goal of martial arts training is to give the smaller, weaker, less athletic person the chance to hold his/her own against a bigger, stronger more athletic person.

    • Wrist locks are legal in competition. Finger and toe locks are not. I have broken fingers and toes and they are not fun to deal with, but it doesn’t stop you in combat. I have run with broken toes and grappled with broken fingers. Most people are not going to tap to them, and just take the break if it’s for real money. So it would just have more people breaking small joints for no reason. It is not technical, not impressive to watch, so from a sporting aspect, it doesn’t belong. At least in my opinion. Yes it could have a real impact on a real street fight in certain situations, but for the most part, I think the trade off for sports is justified.

    • You might be right about finger attacks being ineffective against professional fighters today, but 23 centuries ago Sostratus of Sicyon won a record three Olympic pankration titles by attacking his opponents’ fingers.

  • Couldn’t agree more regarding the turtle position, if you want to make combat sports as realistic as possible then going to turtle and offering your spine to a downward elbow is obviously not realistic.
    It’s about time that bottom turtle is penalized in the point system.

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