The Ship Be Sinking

Mouth Almighty

Craig Bellamy

A quick note on his getting off without FA sanction for fighting with a fan-

I haven’t seen the whole incident, but from everything I’ve read this is a 100% correct decision. The nature of professional spectator athletics ensures that there’s going to be both crazy people and high feelings at sporting events; in the wake of the Monica Seles incident, those dipshits who attacked a Royals coach here in the states, etc. I don’t believe there’s any way you can argue that the moral imperative is on the professional athlete trying to do his or her job to try to discern or guess what the intentions are of a fan who has already committed one crime- trespassing- simply by virtue of being on the filed of play to begin with. If anything this is an even more meaningful concern in football, which produces fan emotions deeper and more uncontrolled and more likely to erupt in violence of one kind or another than any other sport worldwide. No other sport has the history of hooligan issues; no other sport has the present reality of coins and other objects hurled at players with regularity, a disgusting practice which happened in the Manchester Derby as well. So far as I’m concerned I believe a player has the right to assume violent intentions of any pitch invader and the right to defend themselves by any and all reasonable force until such time as stewards and police have the moron handcuffed. If Bellamy punched the fan, well, give him one more for me Craig.

September 23, 2009 Posted by | Other Soccer | | 1 Comment

Cung Le Drops Strikeforce Middleweight Title

Right then: explain to me the idea behind having titles if they’re never defended, champions drop them because they have better things to do, and beltholders commonly fight in other organizations for years at a time? I don’t mean to bash Strikeforce here; but the reality is that they’re essentially a pro wrestling promotion at this point, built around creating clashes between strong personalities independent of sporting considerations like specific weight classes, titles, contender slots, etc. Why not just embrace it and save yourselves the iffy publicity of titles which mostly serve to draw attention to questions like why Alistair Overeem is so huge, and why he fights almost exclusively in Japan, or why your two star women fighters can barely make weight, or why your (ex) middleweight champ doesn’t want to fight for you, or why your interim lightweight title has been defended more than your actual lightweight title, or why you have such excruciatingly poor divisional depth that you can’t even create a welterweight title, etc. etc.

The idea behind titles in combat sports has always been a simple one- to draw money by creating a symbol which demarcates those fights which are in theory of the highest possible caliber, such that a premium can be charged to watch them. Strikeforce already has a basic credibility issue here because the only division in which they have even a remotely serious claim to the best fighter in the world is heavyweight (with respect to Gegard Mousasi, he’s got a VERY limited track record at 205…for now) and that guy isn’t even the champion or scheduled for a title shot, so their titles have a junior varsity or regional feel to them already. Throw in the cavalier treatment they get from fighters and the promotion and there’s simply no way that most of them are going to draw money right now. Casual fans don’t know who the champions are and they’ll have trouble buying them even if they’re informed; hardcore fans know who they are and know that they’re not serious contenders for best-in-the-world status. Anyone who watches a couple of Strikeforce shows in a row is powerfully reminded of the roster size issues. It’s a conundrum.

Two possible solutions, short of just shitcanning belts as a concept: since you need to try something outside of the framework established by UFC (you certainly can’t compete directly), cut all titles down to 1: the Strikeforce Openweight World Championship. It makes the roster size issues much less glaring, it’s an open license to do the kind of freakshow fights which, frankly, Strikeforce SHOULD be doing right now, and there’s no reason you can’t still do interesting smaller weight fights like Jason Miller vs. Jake Shields which will have the same amount of interest whether or not it’s for a 185 pound lump of metal and leather. Alternately, if this is too radical, you can half-ass it: cut it down to 2 titles, one for above 190 pounds and one for less. Many of the same advantages, and it gives a specific focal point for smaller guys. I have difficulty seeing how either of these approaches aren’t superior to the current mix of chaos and disinterest, unless the adherence to the traditional belt and weight class structure is mandated by the TV partners at CBS and Showtime.

September 18, 2009 Posted by | MMA | , , | Leave a comment

Apparently You CAN Work a Worker

(Accidentally held over from Friday)

I wish I could link to Dan Rafael’s chat today as illustration of this, but it seems ESPN’s awful software has eaten his responses for like the 5th week in a row. Before that happened however, Dan (who I usually really like) had one of those awesome Old Boxing Fart moments. He took something like 5 or 6 MMA comments during his boxing chat and all of them about Brock, buried Brock and defended boxing against people who brought up Tyson, et al. by citing a chatter saying at least someone like Floyd Mayweather only pretends to disrespect his opponents (which is apparently better). He also complained mightily about Brock’s disrespecting the paying customer with his middle fingers; which was fascinating given Dan’s own insult-and-ban chat gimmick and that Brock’s doing so got him a bunch of attention from Rafael and mentions in a forum he’d never otherwise come up in as a result of his actions. Almost like he was self-promoting and looking for attention. Self-awareness is a terrible thing to lose, kids- especially if your job is substantially composed of deciphering promotional bullshit.

It remains a damn shame that boxing and MMA are far enough apart as sports that it’s very difficult to come up with a functional and logical way to draw on this kind of animosity to build an event. The best I’ve been able to come up with is that Brock vs. Wladimir Klitschko under something like modified San Shou rules would be a huge money fight (prediction: 2 million buys), but unfortunately it’s also got 0.0% chance of ever happening given the injury risk to Klitschko on takedowns, the decent chance that Lesnar would get KO’d quickly, and the fact that both guys can make huge money without it. I will say though- someone in Fedor’s camp should at least bring up an idea like this if they’re determined to avoid UFC once Affliction is cured.

Side note: Rafael also took a sideways shot at “MMA reporters” for letting Brock off easy. I hate when people do this- and there’s been a lot of it about of late in things I’ve read with Arseblog and Goodplaya also taking shots at Myles Palmer/ANR without using his name. My philosophy on these things is simple: if you’re willing to criticize someone for something, you should name them and link to what you’re criticizing if possible so that a reader can make up their minds for themselves. I recognize that this runs the risk of looking like trolling for controversy if it’s a smaller blog criticizing a larger one, but that’s not a good enough reason in my mind to avoid doing so- one of them is a functional problem and the other is an image problem. It’s just way too easy consciously or unconsciously to construct a strawman or engage in over-sweeping generalizations, otherwise.

July 20, 2009 Posted by | Boxing, MMA | , , , , | Leave a comment

Oh, Do Shut Up

Gotta get this one off my chest:

If I read one more person who says something to the effect of “yes, Brock Lesnar draws more eyeballs to the sport of MMA than anyone else, but he’s bad because he could scare off potential new fans and stop the sport from being regulated”, I’m going to scream. Listen: this is the exact same argument which went on in the gay community (as it does in most minority groups, identity or interest-based, with aspirations to something more) for decades between the people who- speaking REALLY broadly here- wanted to be activists and confront prejudice loudly, and the people who thought the best way to win acceptance was to cancel Pride Week before it scared the straights. It would be a lie to say that time and events have completely vindicated either position; but they have proven that a great deal more was possible more quickly than the conservative elements of the movement believed was the case. And that’s GAY PEOPLE. Ask yourself, which has more historical respect and acceptance in mainstream American society, combat sports or open homosexuality? Which is more famous, Muhammad Ali or Ellen Degeneres? The Stonewall Riots or the Thrilla in Manilla?

The gay rights movement needed and needs both sides the same way MMA needs both Georges St. Pierre and Brock Lesnar, the sportsman and the showman. The people talking about Brock as the doom of the sport sound exactly like the people who used to say that gay marriage was impossible in America in the next hundred years, and half of those people are now married, the poor bastards. Brock is not hurting anything. The obsessive boxing purists are going to die off and largely not be replaced in this country at least; the sport will survive a goofy Brock promo and some snarling if it can survive Tank Abbot’s (speaking of….) talk about a KO giving him an erection, John McCain’s vendetta and the entire Kimbo Slice era; regulation in Ontario and New York will happen, if for no other reason than because in the end the power of the dollar rules. The sports fans who watch Terrel Owens, “Captain Dickhead” Sean Avery, Ron “Malice in the Palace” Artest, Mike Tyson the rapist, Eric “Karate-kicked a fan” Cantona, John “IT WAS OUT” McEnroe, Didier Drogba, “Just Being” Manny Ramirez, A-Roid, Fraud Mayweather, Kobe “Denver hotel room” Bryant, Mark McGuire’s congressional testimony, Michael “The Jordan Rules” Jordan, Ray Lewis, Donte Stallworth and the rest of the menagerie will hardly be scared off by Brock being Brock.

The only counter-argument ever offered is that fans make excuses for sports they follow but not for those which they don’t; left unsaid is how you get fans to follow a sport in the first place without stars like Lesnar who draw new fans because of their personalities- because with due respect to Brock, it’s not like he’s considered by most people to be the best heavyweight, nor does he have the most exciting fights. Without something to get attention you end up as MLS- the most stagnant, going-nowhere league in the country, whose highest rated game this year on cable TV drew 327,000 viewers- or something like a quarter of the people who were willing to pay $50+ to watch UFC100.

And at this point, after 16 years in business, after having already drawn major public attention on several occasions before for good reasons, bad reasons and Brock reasons (when they signed him, and for the Couture fight), whoever’s going to be turned off by MMA is already turned off, and yet somehow that number isn’t large enough to stop UFC buyrates from continuing to rise or to stop CBS from being so entranced by the ratings of B-level MMA that they’re willing to forget about the Kimbo debacle, Ken Shamrock allegedly holding them up for more money and Seth Petruzelli’s “they paid me to stand” comments in order to make a deal with Strikeforce- who don’t have a single star the caliber of Brock! UFC just got on TV in Mexico, on the biggest mainstream network, and drew peak ratings (for Brock’s fight) greater than the ratings on the same day on the same network for a competitive soccer international. They just got their first Chinese TV deal which reaches 80 million homes. They just set their all-time highest buyrate, the biggest ever outside boxing, in all likelihood. They ran a new country for the first time this year- Germany- and enhanced the presence of the sport in Europe. Where, exactly, is there evidence of anything other than strong, internationally-diversified growth for the sport of MMA and the company UFC both in home markets and new markets?

Ultimately this whole pointless and frequently witless debate boils down to a minority of MMA journalists blue-skying nightmare scenarios about what might happen some unspecified period of time in the future when some unspecified portion of the populace decides that Brock is just too rude to be tolerated, although they were actually ok with that whole bleeding-violence-half-naked-men-in-a-cage-punching-people-when-they’re-down thing. It would be uncharitable to say the people who envision this are talking to the voices in their heads, but they’re certainly not talking about any recognizable or identifiable section of humanity, sports fans or otherwise, in this country or others. The lessons as always are: visibility matters, publicity matters, personalities good and bad are the getters of attention, no matter what you’re selling not everyone is going to buy it, and there’s more important things to worry about in life and business than whether you’re scaring the straights. The lessons of history across wildly different circumstances are not exactly ambiguous on this one.

But…don’t let that from stopping you.

July 15, 2009 Posted by | MMA | , | 1 Comment

Kidd Derangement

An addendum to why I want no part of Jason Kidd anymore: he may be the most overrated player of his era despite also being a hall of famer, and a huge chunk of that is due to the quasi-inexplicable media lovefest he tends to engender, especially from national columnists who don’t deal with him regularly. Today’s example: Ric Bucher writes that “But when all was said and done, Harris was at home watching the playoffs, while Kidd led the Mavs, not considered one of the West’s top eight in talent, into the postseason with 50 wins.”

Two problems with that: one, it’s a mindless dig at Devin Harris because it doesn’t take teammates into account. You might have said the same thing with the roles reversed when Kidd was going nowhere serious with the Nets and Harris was in the finals with Dallas. More importantly for Bucher’s point, let’s take a look back at ESPN.com’s consensus NBA predictions for last year. Yep, there’s Dallas, projected at 45 wins and…7th place, a prediction only 5 wins and one standings spot away from the actual results. Hmm, not top 8, you say? Misrepresenting something fairly easy to check, I’d say. Keep in mind, the consensus picks include both people who’ve ragged on the Mavs and Kidd for years like John Hollinger, and Kidd apologists like Bucher. I’m guessing his individual predictions for the Mavs were even higher, and I’d love to show them to you but ESPN.com’s search engine is totally useless.

What does this tell us? It’s a specific example of the general mode of argument for Kidd apologists, which usually consists of about 80% gauzy, hazy, non-specific and unverifiable “intangibles” claims, mixed with some convenient forgetting of relevant facts. You can see this with some of the other claims in Bucher’s article: Terry had his best scoring year as a Mav! Well, yeah- he played a lot more with a guard who never shot the ball, and his actual shooting percentages were essentially identical (57.4/57.1 TS%, a slight decline.) Dirk was more aggressive in the post! Maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t- it’s totally unverifiable, if you wanted to try and research it you’d have trouble (82 games only has shooting range data for this last season), and there’s no particularly obvious reason why Kidd should affect post aggression- and in any case, aggression isn’t effectiveness. It’s a claim without meaning. Dampier shot his best ever! Sounds very impressive and is actually true…except that it represented the third straight year of a major increase (.626/.643/.650 over a career mark of .492) which started before Kidd got there, and was a grand total of .007 higher than the year before. Sadly this did not actually transform Dampier into James Bond, which would be a pretty impressive intangible for Kidd to bring to the table.

All of this, in the end, is basically a fine example of the logical fallacy of special pleading, executed on behalf of a player who many in the media seem to want to lionize because of his supposedly fine on-court “character”- for the triple doubles (which remain overrated and ignoring the suspicion that Kidd selfishly overpursues rebounds to get them), the pass-first point guard mentality which brings out the wistful things-were-better-in-the-old-days quality in many writers, the supposed winner’s mentality (of a player without a ring), the leadership qualities (of a teammate who forced his way out of a team three times in his career), and so on and so forth. The reality is that Kidd doesn’t need it: he’s one of the best players at his position of his era, he’ll be remembered as a man who could in his prime single-handedly transform the fortunes of an entire franchise, and he’s still in fact a pretty good player- his defense has slipped but isn’t the worst for this position, and his PER is still over 16 where 15 is average. At age 36 that’s impressive enough, and while he’s obviously in the middle of his decline phase, he’s also having a more gentle and drawn-out decline than the vast majority of point guards and even of players in general. For my money all of this is impressive enough; I’ll never quite understand why it’s not enough for some people. Like most players and most people he’s had his good and his bad, and he only works as an unsullied symbol so long as half the story goes ignored.

July 7, 2009 Posted by | Other NBA | , , | Leave a comment

Leave Tom Atencio Alone!!!!

So many issues here.

– He’s trying to “be methodical about everything” but admits he entered large-scale business on PPV with fighters signed for hundreds of thousands of dollars without any meaningful business plan (“we did a huge show, we did a second huge show, now I’m just trying to figure out how we do our third show”).

– Complains about being judged as though he’s had experience on promoting before, fails to consider whether starting out smaller might have made sense.

– Complains of lack of experience, but does not appear to have learned thing one about the reasons for the death of IFL, Elite XC, etc. (among them, the need for good TV plus control of expenditures).

– Has begun blaming his customers (“The fans and the media treat me like I’m on my 10th show”) which is never ever a good sign, and probably indicates that he’s spending WAY too much time reading hardcores on the internet. Not that that’s a surprise.

– In response to the question “So what’s the message you want fans to hear directly from you?“, he answers “First and foremost, that I’m a fan”. Except that he’s now a promoter, at least in theory; but a promoter who thinks like a fan isn’t a promoter, he’s a money mark, and will soon be back on the sidelines from whence he came, standing next to the Bodog guy.

– “‘I’m not saying that we’re pulling out, I just don’t want to get ahead of myself.” What a great tag line for their next show, “Affliction: We’re Out of Money.”

– “I didn’t come out to compete with the UFC, but a lot of people have put me in that position.” Gee, perhaps allowing your major star to issue grandstand challenges to the UFC champions while competing in not just the same PPV industry, but the same MMA section of the PPV industry, may have given people this impression? Perhaps, say, having Randy Couture in the ring with Fedor to hype a fight between them while Randy was under UFC contract and in litigation with Zuffa  might have contributed to the perception of competition?

I’m going to blow a synapse if I go through too much more of this stuff. The worst part is, Atencio comes off as a fairly nice guy in interviews and I bought and enjoyed his first two shows and would happily buy the third if they do Fedor/Barnett on top; you almost have to feel sorry for the guy. But my god, the lack of understanding of the business here is amazing, and it’s the kind of thing that should be easily remedied: pick up the phone and call Richard Shaeffer at Golden Boy, your theoretical partners, or else pony up the $10 monthly for the Wrestling Observer and pay attention to Dave Meltzer. No matter how you define the market- PPV, combat sports promotions, specifically MMA, whatever- it’s no longer a business in its infancy. Enough people have tried enough things and lost enough money that we have a relatively clear set of strategies which will work and strategies which won’t, enough so that there’s every reason to believe that a non-UFC promoter who pays attention, like say the guys at Strikeforce, can make a very profitable go at this. Affliction hasn’t done everything wrong of course (they’ve done a good job promoting Fedor into being a low-level drawing card, and their shows themselves are fun), but beyond their small successes here and there they’ve been almost a textbook example of how not to run a fight promotion and this interview really illustrates why. Being a fan is a wonderful thing; but thinking like a fan when you’re a promoter is the kiss of death, because it leads to things like paying Matt Lindland hundreds of thousands of dollars per fight which you won’t make back, because you think he’s really good. Which he is; but he’s also absolutely no buys, which no TV-less startup can afford. Promoting is about understanding how to appeal to average and peripheral fans, not sharing the tastes of hardcores.

Obviously it’s never a good thing when a promotion goes out of business. Lots of people end up unemployed and fighter pay goes down with the reduced leverage for negotiation. But with Strikeforce expanding, I think there’s enough space here to say that sadness isn’t my first reaction to watching Affliction die. It’s a bit like that old-timey news footage of poorly designed flight machines, pre-Wright brothers: an ungainly contraption designed by amateurs and doomed from the start, falling apart in hilarious fashion without ever really getting off the ground. Tragicomedic. Hopefully the next generation of promoters learn from this.

March 3, 2009 Posted by | MMA | , | Leave a comment

Fighting and Promotion

I’m not even going to attempt to say much about Marquez/Diaz over the weekend, other than that it was one of the best fights of the last few years and in my opinion would have won fight of the year for last year had it happened a few months earlier. It must be watched by anyone who enjoys any of the fighting sports genres. Marquez has become one of the best fighters of his generation, and the way he’s adapted over the years has been amazing- these days he wins with heart and power, giving up rounds and taking significant damage before he adjusts and uses his still excellent accuracy to pound guys out. He’s not half as quick or agile as he was 10 years ago and barely resembles the defensive wizard he used to be, but he’s lost remarkably little if anything from his overall effectiveness. He (and his trainer, Nacho Beristain) are sort of boxing geniuses.

I’ll never understand why that’s not enough for some people. For instance, Dan Rafael:

“Many believe he won both of his fights against pound-for-pound king Pacquiao despite winding up with a controversial draw and split decision loss….And now Marquez has designs on junior welterweight, where he’d love a crack at the winner of the Ricky Hatton-Pacquiao fight.

And later regarding Glen Johnson:

“…Johnson, ducked by too many top fighters to name… Johnson, the former champion with wins against Roy Jones and Antonio Tarver…came close to regaining the title in April, when he pushed Chad Dawson to the brink in a very, very close fight. But nobody wants to fight him….”

Rafael’s usually pretty good, but he’s founding these drums with an excessive fury, and he’s not alone. It’s amazing to me how hard it is for some people to let it go in these sorts of circumstances, or to develop a perspective about what actually happened. Pacquiao fought Marquez twice; both were very close fights; Marquez did not initially want the rematch over money concerns, while Pacquiao did; Marquez won more rounds in both fights, but did not win because Pacquiao knocked him down 4 times in 2 fights; these are facts. If you believe that Marquez won those fights, that’s certainly a defensible position- but why then are you obsessed with getting a third match between the two when you believe the results of the first two weren’t captured by the judging? The first two were very similar, and apparently the things judges look for were better exemplified by Pacquiao, whether that should be the case or not. Why would that change with a third fight? And if the first two were razor thin, why would a third fight make all the difference if, say, Marquez won by a point? It would just underline what we already know: both guys are utterly great, and essentially equal in ability. There’s a weird undertone from Marquez partisans which seems to indicate that they believe they’re being screwed by the system, that it’s unjust that Paquiao won’t fight their man until the stupid judges see it their way. And yet, the reason both decisions went the way they did is, ultimately, that Marquez kept getting knocked down; it’s not as though this is GSP vs. Penn, where there’s at least a specific incident to base a claim of getting screwed on. It’s very strange. Don’t get me wrong, I’d be happy to watch the fight, but it’s not a black mark on either man or boxing history if it doesn’t happen; Pacquiao owes Marquez and fans exactly nothing over this situation, in my view.

If Marquez inspires thoughtless devotion, I’m not sure what Glen Johnson inspires- whole-hearted lack of perspective, perhaps? I like the guy- he’s incredibly hardworking and devoted to the sport, he produces very good fights, he’s competed at a world class level and has been a world champion, and honestly I’m a huge fan of reggae music and so end up rooting for Jamaicans on that basis. But seriously now- let’s look at his record: he fought Bernard Hopkins for a middleweight championship 12 years ago and was knocked out; fought Sven Ottke 10 years ago for a super middleweight belt and lost a decision, which came as part of a 4 fight losing streak to such names as Omar Sheika, Syd Vanderpool and Silvio Branco; fought Clinton Woods 5 years ago for a light heavyweight title, and got a rematch after a draw; followed that up with a 3 fight streak against Roy Jones, Antonio Tarver, and Tarver again- three big money fights including 2 for the legitimate light heavyweight title; fought Woods again for a lesser 175 pound belt 3 years ago; then fought Chad Dawson, exactly the sort of young fighter who’s supposed to be ducking him, last year and lost. Throw in fights here and there against guys like Montell Griffin and Eric Harding, and it’s really hard to find too many notable names who Johnson DIDN’T get a chance to fight who he deserved a shot at during his career- Except Joe Calzaghe, but you knew that already.

I just don’t get it- I look at Johnson and see a very good fighter who’s aged gracefully and had a long and successful career, who’s made the absolute most of his natural ability to overcome seemingly more talented fighters and eventually compete, and sometimes win, at the world title level. I see a man who’s gotten many chances over many years in big money fights, nationally televised fights, belt fights and world title fights despite being worth almost  nothing at the box office and having several bad-if-questionable losses on his ledger- and who has ultimately deserved those chances on account of his ability and overall performance. I just can’t find much in here to make me think Johnson is some horrible victim of the boxing game who’s being ducked by everyone, who’s never gotten his due or his fair chances. It’s true that lesser fighters have gotten more in some instances (Zab Judah, take a bow), but that’s just the reality of fight promotion: there’s more slack for the men who mean money. That does’t mean Johnson’s being screwed, just that for whatever reason- lack of charisma, wrong place at the wrong time, not a big knockout artist, whatever- he never mastered the art of breaking through into the public consciousness and projecting an image that would draw money. Maybe that makes him a more honest (sports)man, but it’s also almost entirely responsible for the difference between his career and, say, Tito Trinidad’s run post-Hopkins: Tito was a shell of himself and almost a fraud on the public in his comebacks, but he was a huge puncher and a superstar with his audience who paid money to see him; Johnson, despite being a much better fighter by that point, had appeal really only to hardcore fans.

Those hardcore fans, and every fighting genre has them, might prefer it if their sports were run purely as sports; but it’s never been done that way, it never will be done that way, and for the overall financial health of the sport it shouldn’t be done that way. Ask yourself what the boxing match with the most public appeal over the last year was- the answer’s Pac Man vs. De la Hoya, and the sporting rationale for that encounter was almsot nonexistent. There were well over a million other reasons for that fight however. And that’s the story for Johnson, to a lesser degree Marquez, and a lot of other fighters to learn: they may have a huge number of sporting reasons by which to demand chances and fights, but not nearly enough of the second to get everything they demand. Such is the nature of fight promotion, and because it’s grounded in the nature of human psychology, it’s unlikely to change soon or very much; better to recognize it and adjust than to complain.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Bonus rant:

When I was becoming a serious boxing fan, Max Kellerman was the lead analyst on Friday Night Fights on ESPN, and he did a lot to shape my understanding of the sport along with watching and reading guys like Teddy Atlas, Dave Meltzer, Al Bernstein, old AJ Leibling stuff, etc. I miss that Max Kellerman, and I really wonder who that look-a-like working for HBO is, because seemingly every broadcast these days he says at least one thing which is somewhere between highly questionable and utterly asinine. The one which caught me on Saturday was his throwaway celebration of the lineal title as the gold standard of recognition of fighting success. What a pernicious idea this has become, because it’s based around encouraging failure to recognize what titles are supposed to stand for: superiority. UFC titles these days mean a lot, because there’s only one, and the best fight for it; boxing titles mean nothing, because there’s 62 in each weight class and people who haven’t been heard of by their own families compete for them. In theory the lineal idea should cut through that; but the lineal title to which Kellerman was referring was the one held by Joel Casamayor, which perfectly illustrates the issue.

You may remember Casa as the guy who was handed the single worst decision of all of 2007 right after winning the title, as Jose Armando Santa Cruz knocked him down and pounded him relentlessly for 12 rounds only for Cepillo to be gifted the split decision. What on earth is a title worth after that performance? JASC was a peripheral contender at the time- am I as a fan supposed to give meaningful credit to a theoretical belt retained by theft against an average opponent under those circumstances? There’s just no way to maintain that Casamayor was the best lightweight in the world anymore, which is what that title is supposed to mean; treating Casamayor as better reduces the lineal title to just another trinket to be bandied about, the equivalent of the IBO Southern Hemisphere Under-18s Interim Heritage title or that theoretical World Cup title in soccer which gets traded in direct competition and currently resides with Scotland or Georgia or the like. None of this is to take credit away from Marquez, whose achievements speak for themselves, or from Casamayor who I believe is a hall of famer and a wildly underrated fighter who could easily have won some of the fights where decisions went against him (he beat Jose Luis Castillo, for example); but what makes those men great fighters is that they’re great fighters, not that they’ve held this or that theoretical title. You can see this in non-UFC areas of MMA as well: does Fedor make the WAMMA belt, or does the WAMMA belt make Fedor? Not a hard question.

UFC titles, because they’re protected and largely competed for on the basis of sport, mean something- they usually indicate the best fighter in the UFC (which is often the best fighter in the division), and champions can’t really get away with ducking opposition, while finishes are more common so there’s less of an opportunity for bad judging. In short, the title derives meaning from how closely it adheres to the sporting rationale for titles in the first place: to indicate the best. In boxing the profusion of bad belts, bad judging, and a tendency to think the possession of a belt or title matters more than what it signifies has eroded the credibility of almost every title. Put another way: does anyone think, after the Santa Cruz fight, that billing Casamayor as lineal title holder meant anything in a sporting or business capacity? Did it draw one eyeball or convince one person that Cepillo was the best?

I guess it convinced one person, but maybe that says more about him than anything else.

March 2, 2009 Posted by | Boxing, MMA | , , | Leave a comment

Oh No! Who Could Have Forseen This!

Three examples of a larger point today, about injuries and outcomes:

Let’s start with Arsenal. Fans have been saying this entire season that Arsenal have been hobbled badly by injuries, and just wait until all of our hurt players come back- we’ll be a force then. An example from today at Arseblog: “…imagine this formation with Arshavin and Walcott in place of Eboue and Bendtner and with Cesc in the centre of midfield.” I don’t mean to pick on Arseblog here, this is simply the most recent example of this I’ve seen.

I don’t buy it, and never have. The premise is that Arsenal’s injury woes are somehow uncommon or unexpected, a freak occurrence which is unlikely to be repeated and thus has little predictive value for the future performance of the team. There’s two major problems with this line of reasoning. The first is that while this year’s team have had a few freak injuries which were largely unpredictable in that they happened to usually durable players (like Cesc, or Kolo’s malaria), there have also been players like Robin van Persie with very long histories of frequent injury who have been almost totally healthy all year long. The uncommon and possibly unrepeatable outcomes have been on both sides of the ledger, so it’s difficult to say that Arsenal’s luck has been exceptionally bad from the standpoint of reasonable expectations of player health.

The second major problem is the assumption that injuries are usually non-predictive events. Arsenal are, in fact, a team full of fragile players: Diaby is rarely good for more than 2 or 3 games at a stretch, Eduardo, sadly, has suffered minor issues after the majority of games in his comeback after a year away, Rosicky’s problems are well known, RVP is usually injured for substantial stretches, Gallas has suffered his share of pulls and muscle problems and such (and is now over 30), Walcott has natural issues with his shoulders which have put him out more than once for extended periods- the list here is substantial and no doubt you can add to it. In all of these cases, there’s a track record of repeated injuries of a similar character which arise from the normal conduct of play, the sort of things which a player is simply going to have to do in order to perform. A non-predictive injury would be one like Cesc’s, where there’s no history of similar injury, or one like the tackle which put Eduardo out for a year which was exceptionally vicious. When Diaby, for example, misses several weeks with a muscle strain, that’s simply to be expected based on prior performance; if that sort of thing was in fact not repeated next year, THAT would be a freak occurrence because of how far it would depart from reasonable expectations.  Assuming that next year’s Arsenal will have a better track record of health than this year’s is an expression of hope, not reason.

So what, you may ask? That’s our second example. Take this article as an example of what happens when people fail to take into account the overall team-wrecking effects of having star players with major injury histories which are ignored.

(Aside: I just wiki’ed Eric Lindros, whose page as of right now has been edited to read “Eric “Biggest Waste of a Hockey Player Ever” Lindros (born 28 February 1973 in London, Ontario, Canada) is a retired professional ice hockey player.” Lol, as the kids say.)

The article attempts to defend the acquisition of Lindros on the grounds that what was traded for him ended up being no big deal, and that Lindros was ok. This is foolish analysis on the face of things, since Pavel Brendl’s eventual flameout was not known at the time, and therefore his perceived value could have been used to acquire many other players than Lindros; the trade shouldn’t be evaluated just on the basis of what each player did, but on the potential value of what each asset in the deal could have been used for at the time.

That niggle aside, the real problem with Lindros wasn’t the trade, but what Lindros did when he was with the Rangers. Wiki has the stats; you’ll note a good first year, healthy, followed by a healthy second year with a major statistical collapse, and then a third injury ravaged year before he left the team. If you’d been watching regularly (I had season tickets at the time), you’d have seen a player who was playing in a totally different fashion than he had previously in order to shield himself from further injury (Lindros had a history of concussions which ended his career, for those who don’t know), who had given up his physical style of play and was avoiding certain positions in order to minimize his risk.

The problem for the Rangers then was twofold: firstly they had ended up trading for a player who, even when healthy, was not at all the player he had been before his injuries became a constant risk, and the similarities for Arsenal fans to the situations with Eduardo, Risicky, etc. should be obvious; the second was a much more insidious cost, which is usually still not recognized. Read that article again, and focus on this sentence: “Losing puck-mover Kim Johnsson was somewhat more painful, though not the franchise-magnitude sacrifice Bondy would have you believe compared to the potential upside of Big E. “

That’s everything wrong with this mentality in one line. By the time he reached the Rangers, Lindros had suffered seven reported major concussions. SEVEN. Each concussion suffered predisposes the sufferer to a greater risk of another- was it at all reasonable to assume that a player who had suffered 7 major concussions in 8 NHL seasons was unlikely to suffer any more? But because Lindros was big and strong and had a good touch, people continued to fall in love with his “upside”- even the author of this article, 5 years after Lindros washed out of New York due to…a concussion.

Lindros was at all successful with the Rangers because he changed styles to minimize his risk, becoming less effective but more durable; this was entirely predictable based on his history, because the only other option for him was to continue to suffer debilitating injuries which were likely to be career-enders. While he was still somewhat effective, the unjustifiable assumptions (which were not his fault) that any day now he would play just like he did in Philadelphia ended up hamstringing the team for years on end, as they budgeted and made player moves around the idea that big number 88 was going to give them far more than he was physically able to do. The result was three years of failure in which the team finished 11th, 9th, and 13th in the conference, with no playoff appearances. The implications for Arsenal here should again be fairly obvious.

A final example to illustrate probability and outcomes. Take the fighting world, where these distinctions are usually clearest: at UFC 95 recently, Paulo Thiago fought Josh Koscheck. Kosckeck, a striker and wrestler who had previously fought the current champion, was a heavy favorite in that fight and considered a top-5 welterweight in the world; Thiago was considered a less experienced and less well-known UFC debutante reliant on his jiu jitsu. So of course Thiago knocked Koscheck clean out in the first round with a two punch combo.

And yet, anyone who gave the matter much thought would realize that if these two were to rematch, the smart money would all be on Koscheck. He has a far greater skill level, a stronger track record, more options in a fight; that Thiago knocked him out despite a demonstrably lesser skill level is what is colloquially called a lucky punch, but should be understood more specifically as an unlikely but possible outcome. Let’s say you could get those guys to fight 100 times under identical conditions- odds are, Thiago knocks Koscheck out, say, 8-10 times out of a 100; maybe he submits him another few times, ekes out a few decisions, etc. Kosckeck still probably wins 60-80% of those fights based on greater demonstrated ability. That doesn’t make Thiago’s victory hollow, or unimportant; it makes it an uncommon outcome which was always possible, but which it would be foolish to bet on happening more than a small fraction of the time.

An even better if less recent example would be the two Georges St. Pierre vs. Matt Serra fights. GSP, clearly the more talented of the two, got knocked out in the first round in their initial encounter; in their second, he humbled Serra badly and destroyed him in the second round, and not once since then has there been any talk of a third meeting- for many reasons, one of the biggest of which is that UFC matchmakers and most fans instinctively understand the concept of possible but unlikely outcomes, which because they’re so infrequent, have little predictive value for the future.

To summerize: Arsenal have been badly hit by injuries this year, it’s true; but they have not been more badly hit than might have been expected given the histories of their players, and if you’re banking on them being substantially more healthy next year, you’re either assuming they’ll have substantially different personnel, or else you’re counting on a miracle.

February 25, 2009 Posted by | MMA, The Arsenal, The NY Rangers | , , , , , | Leave a comment