Looks can be deceiving.
Ever watch a cage fight? It’s a pretty brutal affair by any sporting standards. Two combatants step into an octagonal ring surrounded by chain-link fence, wait for the referee’s nod, pound fists and proceed to beat each other down with any combination of punches, kicks, knees, elbows, throws, slams, chokes and submission holds until the clock stops or someone’s unable to continue the fight. Forget the abstracted violence of NFL football, the blatant pandering and showmanship of pro “wrestling,” or the comparatively gentlemanly hands-only, above-the-belt restrictions of pro boxing. Mixed martial arts (“MMA” for short; practitioners shy away from calling it “ultimate fighting”) is, with a few modifications for legality’s sake, the oldest sport on Earth.
To the untrained eye, it looks gratuitous and barbaric, as though the promoters had simply swept the dregs of the local bars into a ring, to beat each other for the pleasure of the crowds. However, no amount of blood – or “bloodsport” advertising – can obscure the elegant depth of the game, once you know where to look. Contrary to popular belief, cage fighting is indeed a thinking man’s game, one no fighting game – not Street Fighter, not Tekken, and certainly not the dreaded Ultimate Fighting Championship: Tapout and Sudden Impact series – has adequately captured.
Mixed martial arts is the latest in a long history of combat sports that trace back as far as the ancient Greeks’ “pankration” contests. Likewise, when it comes to individual fighting systems, virtually every civilization out there has had its own history of striking and grappling arts – American boxing, Muay Thai kickboxing, Russian sambo, Japanese judo and karate, and so on. MMA in its most popular current incarnation, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, started as a tournament to “determine the strongest martial art,” inspired by the vale tudo (“anything goes”) fights that started in early 20th-century Brazil. When 170-pound Royce Gracie won the tournament three out of the first four it was held by submitting much larger fighters, however, it began to look more like an infomercial for Brazilian jiu jitsu, a system of ground-fighting and submission holds that is now a staple inside the octagon.
Under its current management, however, the UFC looks less like a bloodsport and more like, well, an actual sport. There are – though it might not look like it, at first – rules to follow: no eye gouging, small joint manipulation (breaking fingers and toes), pulling hair, biting, head-butting or groin strikes, among other things. In general, the competitors are allowed to punch, kick, knee and elbow each other; slam each other around; and choke or attack an opponent’s various joints – the elbow, shoulder, knee, and ankle, usually – with a particular set of submission holds designed to allow the opponent to voluntarily surrender before losing permanent use of something vital. Once a fighter voluntarily submits (by “tapping out”) or forces the referee to intervene because he is no longer “intelligently defending” himself, the fight is over. Which is, for most people, more than enough.
The easiest way to begin to understand the game of MMA is to examine the basic anatomy of a fight. Like boxing, both competitors start standing up and make the most of the striking arts; kicks of all different kinds, punches to the head and body, and when slightly more inside, elbow strikes to the head and knee strikes to the head and body, including the occasional crazy “flying knee” a la Sagat from Street Fighter.
Now, most people don’t find getting punched, kicked, kneed or elbowed a whole lot of fun, so after a while a fighter will usually opt to take the fight into the “clinch,” which is considered the second basic stage of a fight. Where boxing referees will separate the fighters when they get too close together. MMA fighters will fight from the clinch, generally by using it as an opportunity to control the opponent’s body to unleash even more debilitating strikes from in close, or opt to slam, throw or otherwise bring their opponent to the third combat phase – the ground.
Ground fighting is where MMA most greatly deviates from boxing and most other martial art competitions, and it is where the game of MMA is at its most elegant and most vicious. Early UFC events saw plenty of wrestlers fight plenty of stand-up fighters, and the results were almost always the same. While the striking specialists could usually get off a few good shots, they were never well trained enough in any grappling to be able to defend against a good wrestler’s takedown efforts, and would inevitably end up on their back getting punched in the classic schoolyard-bully-beating position, the “ground and pound.”
Brazilian jiu jitsu fighters, however, train to win fights from their back by using the leverage of their body to sweep their opponent from the top to the bottom and taking the dominant position for themselves, or to catch them in a submission hold from their back and leave them unable to continue the fight for fear of breaking something or being choked. While the ground-fighting often leaves the layman bored, those who have practiced any submission wrestling of their own know to look for the little things – a slightly exposed arm or the briefest hint of poor posture – that can reverse a fight’s momentum. No matter how much has happened in a fight, anyone is liable to be knocked out or caught by a submission that would change the tide of the match.
The combination of these three phases of combat makes for an incredibly deep game. Before a fight even begins, a player needs to find the right balance of breadth and depth in a particular skillset and incorporate that into his training. Specialize too much, as in the case of the early UFC stand-up fighters, and your opponent will be able to control the momentum of the match by keeping you in the clinch when you want to stand or staying upright when you want to duke it out on the ground. If you don’t specialize enough, you won’t be able to create a space in the game you can control well enough to make the opponent want to avoid it, and the same thing will happen.
Furthermore, each phase of combat has several different options. Randy Couture, current UFC heavyweight champion, and Wanderlei Silva, former Pride light heavyweight champion, are both known for their proficiency in the clinch. However, Couture’s background is primarily in Greco-Roman wrestling, and his clinch fighting focuses on slick grappling skills to keep the opponent constantly off balance and in danger of being thrown to the ground, with a healthy dose of in-close boxing uppercuts to do some damage. Silva, on the other hand, is known for the use of devastating Muay Thai knee strikes from the clinch to demolish his opponents. Even though they’re both known for fighting in the clinch, the strategies are worlds apart.
If the depth of the MMA game is hard to see in actual fights, it’s impossible to see in the various UFC videogames. Fighting for a submission in an actual fight is a chess match; you need to be 100 moves ahead. In the videogame, sadly, the nuances of the ground game are reduced to button mashing at its worst and a who-can-press-two-buttons-first contest at its best. Same goes for the striking game; in a sport where mere inches can determine the effect a punch has, the subtlety gets completely lost in the unrefined, stilted UFC: Sudden Impact. Granted, a videogame is never any substitute for the real thing, whether it’s Wii Sports or Madden, because it’s not the real thing. But what is so profoundly disappointing to MMA fans everywhere is the game of MMA could be translated to a videogame – it just needs a game designer who understands the intricacies of the game itself. And while fans everywhere are gearing up for UFC 2007 thanks to some really impressive trailers, given the previous games’ track record, it looks far more likely that we’ll get a game that looks like MMA, but doesn’t play like it.
Pat Miller has been doing this for way too long. Stop by his blog, Token Minorities, for more on race and videogames.