The Big Picture: The Gray Area Between Cheating, Savvy

By: Eric Stinton
Sep 17, 2020

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As much as we try to quantify and categorize combat, there will always be things that evade scoring but still influence the result of the fight. When a fight goes to the judges, it is not just effective striking, grappling and cage control being scored. No judge sees everything, so the perception of who is winning is just that—a perception, as innately limited as any other human endeavor.

It should be noted that this is not a criticism of judging or any particular judge, rather a plain assessment of an inherently complex task. Attentively watching a fight unfold from a fixed position and rendering a score in the whirlwind of the moment is incredibly easy to do poorly, and everyone notices when that happens. Fighters and their coaches also know this, and often actively employ tricks to capitalize it.

One of the most obvious examples is shooting for a takedown or unleashing a flurry at the end of the round. Leaving an assertive final impression can help judges forget the previous three minutes of being on the wrong end of exchanges. It’s no coincidence that commentators refer to such tactics as “stealing the round.” Successful stealing in any context requires some form of blindness or inattention, and when those are purposely inflicted on people, it’s called deception.

Deception—or the art of bulls---, as striking analyst Connor Ruebusch calls it—is a part of the game. Nudging judges toward a preferred perception is a skill in its own right. Fighters use several tricks to convince judges they are doing more than they really are or that their opponents aren’t doing as much as they really are. The idea is to play with the limited perception that judges have, to show them what you want to be shown and deny them from seeing what you want to hide.

Sometimes this is instinctive and subtle, like when someone smiles after getting blasted with a low kick, communicating that the thing you just saw really wasn’t as meaningful as you may have thought it was. Sometimes it’s rote and cliché, like when fighters raise their arms in victory when a round or the fight ends. It can even come from a fighter’s cornermen, when they cheer for every strike thrown from their fighter, regardless of whether or not it landed. Sometimes it’s more deliberately incorporated into a fighter’s style.

At UFC Fight Night 177 in Las Vegas, the main event between former Invicta Fighting Championships titleholders Michelle Waterson and Angela Hill was close enough that deception may have played a part in the final decision. For the record, when I watched it live, I thought Hill won, taking Rounds 1, 2 and 5. When I re-watched it, I gave the final round to Waterson. As such, a split decision seems like the most accurate possible result, and nothing close to a robbery occurred.

Waterson attempted more strikes than Hill in every round, though she only landed more strikes in Rounds 3 and 4. Still, the perception was that she was the busier fighter throughout the bout. That Hill landed more strikes and quite visibly landed the more damaging ones did not matter. Waterson always looked like she was doing more. This became especially resonant in the final, most crucial round. Both fighters went blow-for-blow until the final buzzer, but Waterson started adding an audible kiai to each of her strikes. Adding a sound gives the impression of contact, even if there is none. Whether or not this changed the result is impossible to know, but it’s a reasonable hypothesis in such a close fight. Had one judge scored Round 5 differently, there would be a different winner and Hill would have walked away with an additional $60,000 in win money.

The illusion of volume and the impression of contact are no doubt aspects of deception, but it’s important to point out that intent is not relevant. Unless Waterson outright admits to using this kind of strategy, we can only speculate. Still, the functional consequence is unchanged. It’s bulls--- when you get down to it—the skill, not the frustrated exclamation—and it works. The questions then become: Is it cheating to steal rounds via deception? Does it contradict the ethos of competitive prizefighting that dictates the better fighter is supposed to win?

Contrast Waterson’s kiai strikes with Hill’s illegal kick to Waterson’s head at the end of Round 3. The former was deception, but the latter was actually illegal and likely caused real damage. Which is worse? Assuming the best intentions from both—that Waterson shadowboxes at range and barks with her punches to pump herself up and Hill made an honest error kicking a downed opponent in the face—can either be considered cheating? What about Ed Herman, who got dropped with a knee to the chest but played it cool when the referee paused the fight to let “Short Fuse” recover from a low blow that never happened? What about the countless fighters who grab the fence or poke an eye knowing they can get away with it at least once before a point is deducted? Are they dirty fighters ruining the integrity of the sport, or are they savvy for taking any advantage they can get?

The difference between purposefully flouting the rules and strategically deceiving the judges is difficult to delineate. A large, blurry gray space exists between cheating and fighting smart. I don’t blame people for doing whatever they have to do to win. This is prizefighting, after all, and with the bogus incentive scheme of show money and win money still touching most fighters’ contracts, you’d be foolish not to capitalize on whatever opportunity you can get. As the saying goes, if you ain’t cheating—or toeing the line as much as possible—you ain’t trying.

Eric Stinton is a writer from Kailua, Hawaii. His fiction, nonfiction and journalism have appeared in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat, Medium and Vice Sports, among others. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint, or find his work at ericstinton.com. Advertisement
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