After nearly every major event, there is at least one decision that forces us to take sides, dig in our heels and defend what we think we saw. May I remind you that television itself is an optical illusion, seemingly moving images made of billions of glowing pixels re-stimulated 60 times a second to fool us into believing what we are seeing is true motion? In watching a fight, we must remember that our view is only as good as what is presented to us in two dimensions. While the UFC has mastered the art of fight presentation, some angles hide true impact. Others obscure it. Even if you are in the arena watching live, split-second flurries happen in seconds, too fast for our eyes to fully process. We see what we believe we see, not always what actually happened.
The same is true of the much-maligned judges that populate the sport. To be sure, there are times the judges clearly get an obvious decision wrong, so much so that it is fairly accurate to describe their ruling as a "robbery." The UFC 163 match between Phil Davis and Lyoto Machida was not one of those times.
In full disclosure, I scored the match live for Machida 29-28. I gave him the first and third rounds. Yet, I still don’t feel he was robbed. Instead, I would say he was a victim of a finesse style that virtually guarantees controversy anytime he goes the distance.
When Machida was new to the UFC, and still somewhat unknown, his unique approach to fighting was mystifying. He would sit back and wait for his opponent to attack, and use his brilliant footwork and accuracy to turn their aggressiveness against them. But as time has passed, and opponents can more accurately study his tendencies, the mystery has faded. His foes understand exactly what he aims to do, and prepare accordingly. His matches have become a sheer tactical game.
As a result, Machida foes no longer rush him with strikes. They often try to exhibit the same patience he does. It is, in effect, a high-stakes game of chicken. Eventually, someone must make a move. But they only happen in short bursts, and if no one is hurt, both reset to begin anew.
Go back a few years in Machida’s career, and you will see a trend. Whenever he is involved in a match without a finish, there is controversy. Against “Shogun” Rua at UFC 104. Against “Rampage” Jackson at UFC 123, against Dan Henderson at UFC 157, and now against Davis. Those were his last four decisions, and every one of them ended with debate over who won.
While fights are scored round-by-round and not as a whole, the total strike numbers paint a certain picture of what judges see while watching him. And here’s what they saw in Machida’s last four decisions:
• Against Rua, he was out-landed 82-39, yet he was awarded the win
• Against Jackson, he was out-landed 70-53, yet only lost by split-decision
• Against Henderson, he was out-landed 54-28, yet was awarded a split-decision
• Against Davis, he was out-landed 29-27
Here is where you will say it is not about quantity, but quality, which is true in theory, but difficult in practice, because as we said, it is not always easy to accurately see what happens in fights with short, staccato bursts. In 2004, a study published in the scientific journal Physical Review Letters showed that the human brain copes with speed by predicting an object’s trajectory rather than following its true, completed path.
Machida’s style favors quality over quantity, but for judges it’s easier to see the inverse because they have static positions around the cage. Yes, I’m saying that the illusion of activity may be more valuable than effective finesse. It may not be fair, but it’s reality.
Machida does enough to make it clear to some he’s the better tactical fighter, but he is subtle. Remember, in his early days in the UFC, he was derided as boring and risk-averse. Over time, observers have gained an appreciation for his methods, but he remains just as patient as he ever was.
That remained true against Davis, when he threw a total of 61 strikes in the fight, just over four per minute, or one every 15 seconds. That is not a significant output from which to judge him on. Much like a poll, that small sample size leads to a greater margin of error in drawing a conclusion.
In my mind, the swing round was the first, but upon viewing it again, it’s clear that neither man distinguished himself in a way to make him a bulletproof winner. (For the record, according to FightMetric, Davis landed more strikes, 12-10.) Aside from a short Machida barrage, action was limited mostly to single strikes and a Davis takedown.
Was it obvious Machida won the round? Even his corner wouldn’t say. In between rounds, the very first thing they told him was this: "So you started the first round very well, but towards the end you didn’t do too well."
A second look at Machida’s one flurry shows he landed almost nothing of note. Here is the sequence: a left kick which Davis partially deflected, then a straight left that Davis blocked, a right missed, a left came up short as Davis backed out, a right missed, and a left knee just skimmed past Davis’ head as he ducked near the cage. The swarm served to back Davis up halfway across the octagon to the fence and excite the HSBC Arena crowd. It may have exhibited cage control (No. 3 on the Unified Rules list of scoring criteria) but the total impacts were almost zero. Six of his 20 attempted first-round strikes came in that two-second storm.
Here’s the thing: watching it live, most of us thought at least a few of those strikes landed clean, and that Machida had the effective striking edge (No. 1 on the Unified Rules list of scoring criteria) in at least two of the three rounds. As I mentioned, I thought he won the first and third live, and I think there is still a case to be made that he did. But the trend of decisions involving Machida and controversy shows that judges have trouble scoring bouts with limited action. Small sample sizes lead to error. It’s up to Machida to adapt to that problem or face it again.