The Hamill-Bisping fallout and trust
Wow! The 24 hours since I wrote my UFC 75 recap have seen this blog light up with the comments of angry UFC fans who agreed with my assessment that Matt Hamill had been robbed in his split-decision loss to Michael Bisping. So far, only one of the comments discussed the potentially more newsworthy fact that Quinton Jackson is the unified light heavyweight champ or the fact that Mirko Cro Cop appears to be at a major crossroads in his MMA career. No one wanted to talk about the new light heavyweight phenom, Houston Alexander.
The blog comments have been nearly unanimous in their sentiment that Hamill was the victor. Many readers also didn't appreciate Bisping's comments in his post-fight interview. Others vowed they wouldn't pay to watch UFC again and some likened this decision to what they have endured with boxing. Even others felt the outcome was rigged, WWE-style.
In fact, a petition was started Sunday morning in response to the outcome of the fight: http://www.petitiononline.com/ufc75pet/petition.html
I discuss MMA periodically with a friend of mine, Cale, who lives in England and who is himself a big MMA fan. When he read the response to my blog entry and the comments of disenchanted fans, he mentioned that MMA in general and UFC in particular have to build "trust" during this period of growth. I couldn't agree with Cale more.
And, as I told him, I think the sport faces two problem areas right now and both come down to how much fans trust the product they are watching:
Fighters and fans alike want all fighters to be tested and they want the tests to be random. While this does not fall under the purview of promotions like UFC in states where the sport is sanctioned, these promotions still take a hit for the current policies, whether fair or not.
It turns out that at UFC 75, drug-testing was under the care of UFC since the sport is not sanctioned in England. The question then is, who specifically did the drug-testing, how many fighters were tested, and what are the results?
Fans simply will not accept cheating, even if there is only a perception of cheating. Barry Bonds' reputation with baseball fans is a prime example of this attitude. But, even the reputation of professional wrestling -- which is not a competitive sport -- has been tarnished by its recent drug scandal.
Fans want to feel that those who hold the power in the sport -- the promotions and the sanctioning bodies alike -- are doing everything they can to combat abuse and appropriately find and punish offenders. Fans want to feel that the product they are watching is as clean and as fair as possible.
The Hamill-Bisping fight is not the first time a controversial decision has been reached by judges. The problem with such decisions is the perceived lack of accountability and some very wild differences in scoring seen not only at UFC 75 but also in other events (for example, IFL's team semifinals last month.)
In this case, because MMA is not sanctioned in England, UFC brought in the judges to score the bouts. Couple that with the fact that UFC is clearly trying to make inroads into England's MMA market and the fact that hometown boy, Bisping, received what many felt was an undeserved victory and you have the ingredients that help make the conspiracy theories so popular.
As I mentioned in my recap, three professional judges should not be able to watch the same fight and come up with such wildly different scores. Somehow, objectivity must be injected into the scoring equation. Are takedowns, submission attempts, and Octagon control given proper weight as compared to striking? Does the power of a punch or kick or damage done with a strike come into play? Should judges have to explain their decisions? In other words, should judges be held to a higher standard -- not simply render a score based on the 10-point must system but also explain how they arrived at that score? Do we need something like CompuBox for MMA?
Regardless of the answers to all these questions about steroids and judging, building the trust of the fans should be MMA's main goal. The sport is enjoying unprecedented success and mainstream acceptance right now. But, the public is weary of perceived boxing-like flaws and won't tolerate them for nearly as long as it tolerated boxing's indiscretions.
And besides that, shouldn't today's conversation really be about Rampage's victory and Cro Cop's fall and not about a decision between two middle-of-the-road light heavyweights? Unfortunately for UFC, all the fans want to talk about is the latter and that can't be good for the sport.