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Playing the Game by Jamie Clubb

Playing the Game by Jamie Clubb

Thank you to Jamie for allowing me to post this article here. Jamie is one of the most reflective and thoughtful martial arts I know and our personal discussions always see me thinking, re-thinking and re-evaluating. To learn more about Jamie please visit his website:

NOTE: This is a newly edited and extended version of Jamie Clubb’s article “Playing the Game”. Jamie’s ebook “Mordred’s Victory and Other Martial Mutterings” is available and his upcoming multi-volume series, “Bullshitsu and the Fight to Make Martial Arts Works” is currently in pre-publication with Ex-L- Ence Publishing. Jamie delivers courses, seminars and private lessons in self-protection and martial arts cross-training.

Playing the Game by Jamie Clubb

I remember the feeling well. It was 2nd September 1995 and I was watching my little television mounted on a wall bracket in my room. Frank Bruno, the loveable sports hero of our country, had finally achieved his dream and claimed a version of the heavyweight championship of the world in Wembley, England.  I remember jumping from my bed in uncontrollable joy, cheering for a man I didn’t know and for a fight that no Boxing coach would ever look to for instruction. However, looking back now I see that it exemplified something that defines combat sports and sets it aside from every other form of violence. Bruno won by a unanimous points-decision that he had painstakingly accumulated over a tight 11 rounds and then retained by holding onto his opponent in the last round.

Amidst getting lost in and happily surrendering to the drama, a typically cynical voice in my head wondered whether the judges sat at ringside had also been won over more by the need to give the public the fairy tale ending we demanded than by what had occurred in the ring. Looking back at the footage and having read various expert commentaries on the rather unspectacular yet unforgettable event, I see our collective patriotic hopes were vindicated and Bruno decisively out-boxed McCall. Bruno, for all his head-butting and rabbit punching tactics, won the game fair and square and did his supporters proud. However, how he won speaks more about the sport than it does about combat.

Almost 20 years later, on 2nd May another hugely popular professional Boxing contest was won by a unanimous points decision, but the response from “casual boxing fans” – a term that gained a lot of currency at the time – was very different. The bout was hyped as another “Fight of the Century” and was the highest selling pay-per-view in history. Manny Pacquiao, Boxing’s first and only octuplet champion, was at long last getting his shot at the undefeated and undisputed world champion Floyd Mayweather Jnr. They were rated as the two greatest pound-for-pound Boxers of their time. Pacquiao, with his rags to riches success story, aggressive in-ring fighting style and Henry V-style playboy to pious man of God public image, was the obvious people’s champion. Mayweather’s public persona was in the mould of the brash and arrogant fighters of Boxing history: Chris Eubank, Naseem Hamad, Sugar Ray Leonard and the great Muhammad Ali. One of his nicknames was “Money”, which many felt was further justified in the defensive way he fought for the entire bout.

Mayweather’s victory angered Pacquiao’s massive global fan-club and they swiftly turned their attention to the “boring” nature of the bout. Mayweather was called a coward for “running away” from Pacquiao’s attacks and “hugging” him. The fight could never have been called exciting, but Mayweather had played the game well and deserved the victory. Because Mayweather had been reprimanded for holding his opponent, many tried to insinuate that the judges had been paid off. It was a ridiculous assumption and is a common sour grapes argument used when viewers don’t understand Boxing. Pacquiao’s shorter range had been no match for Mayweather undeniably efficient defensive skills. Not only had Mayweather landed the most punches, but he also scored with the most power punches.  Pacquiao’s fans could argue all they wanted about Mayweather’s tactics and the lack of entertainment, but he had out-boxed his opponent in line with the rules of the game.

From 1792 to 1795 Daniel Mendozer was the English heavyweight Boxing champion. Today the man is hailed as “the father of scientific boxing”. He introduced a defensive strategy, which included side-stepping. At the time, critics of the fighter famously called him a coward for the way he avoided punches. This was at a time when it was expected for fighters to stand toe-to-toe and trade punches. By introducing footwork and developing an effective guard, Mendoza was able to make use of the straight left and knock out much larger opponents. What Mendoza was doing was perfectly in line with the rules of his time and his success would lead to more fighters wishing to emulate these tactics. Footwork and the guard have since undergone over two hundreds of refinement within the changing sport of Boxing, and today it would be unheard of for a Boxing coach not to teach these very early on in a fighter’s education. Many of Boxing’s most famous fighters were strong defensive strategists, including Muhammad Ali, Jack Johnson, Willie Pepp, Sugar Ray Robinson and, of course, Floyd Mayweather.

Willie Pep, a winner of 229 fights and two-times world featherweight champion of the world, enjoyed being known for winning a fight without ever throwing a punch. Given the expectations of the general public, it seems to be a dubious claim for one of history’s best boxers to be best remembered. Pep was fighting nearly every week during the 1940s and after an injured hand meant he would miss a pay day he made a point of telling everyone he liked to preserve his hands, only knocking out opponents that gave him trouble. People still debate what Pep did in round three of his fight with Jackie Graves, but it would appear that Pep certainly did throw punches, he just might not have landed any and still won the round. 

Boxing is a notoriously cruel industry and the exploitation of fighters is such a well-known aspect of the game that it is a virtual cliché.  Many Boxing films from the fictional “Rocky V” (1989) to the biopic, “Fighter” (2010), portray promoters as amoral people that use fighters as if they were no better than fighting cocks. It is a view that marred the build-up to the Pacquiao versus Mayweather bout and comes over in the documentary, “Manny” (2014). Therefore, it is little surprising that boxers like Pep, Chris Eubank and Floyd Mayweather Jnr wear their cynicism on their sleeve when one considers the often unscrupulous business of the sport. 

The Mayweather’s controversial “hugging”, which earned him a warning from the referee, is far from an unconventional or illegal Boxing technique. In fact, it is actively taught. Clinching, to use its correct term, is even older than side-stepping and evasive manoeuvres in Western Boxing. From the 18th to 19th century Boxing permitted grappling above the waist. Fighters could and often did throw one another. Grappling as a means for throwing an opponent was taken out of bouts with the introduction of “mufflers” or gloves. However, clinching remained and is still taught as a crucial part of the game. Footage from the 1890s shows fighters often pushing each other apart without referee intervention. Later referees would call a “break”.

The great Jack Johnson who, despite only having a handful of his fights recorded on early 20th century cine-film, is on most experts’ list of top fighters of all time was an accomplished clinch-fighter. The “Galveston Giant” went down in history as the first African American to win the heavyweight championship of the world and had fought a war to attain the crown, and beat just about everyone to hold onto the belt. His tactic would be to bait his opponent and then tie him up in a clinch to wear him down. This process, born out of a time where fighters such as Johnson had fought over 60 rounds in a single fight, was a great strategy for a fighter who knew how to play the long game. 

Experience is what has kept fighters alive and winning throughout history. When heavyweight boxer, Bruce Seldon was in trouble in the first round he faked a knockdown to avoid more punishment. It cost him a point, but he went on win the bout by knockout. Such a method is not unknown in Boxing circles and, in fact, goes back to the limitless rounds of bareknuckle pugilism. In the 19th century a round wasn’t timed, but concluded when an opponent was knocked down. They were given a minute to get up and stand by their scratch mark, hence the expression “coming up to scratch”. Taking advantage of this rule, many fighters fell on purpose for strategic reasons. They often faked a slip, which the reports at the time acknowledged and even commended as wily ploys rather bad sportsmanship or cowardice.  Lighter fighters often used the tactic to wear down their heavier adversaries through the early rounds. Evidence of this was reported in the way Tom Sayers from England fought the much larger American, John Heenan. The almost four hour long bout of 37 rounds was declared a draw after the police intervened. Heenan scored the majority of the knockdowns and damaged Sayers’ arm early on, but wore the worst facial injuries with a completely closed right eye. Bitterness after the event ensued with both English and American camps declaring their man the victor.

“Rope-a-dope” is now considered one of the most ingenious strategies in Western Boxing history and yet it serves a similar purpose as clinching. Ali learnt the move from “Ancient” Archie Moore who called it the “turtle shell”. Ali famously used it to defeat “Big George” Foreman in their meeting in Zaire for world heavyweight championship, called “The Rumble in the Jungle”.  It was the backbone of a series of tactics Ali used to enrage the stronger and younger Foreman. Needless to say Ali wouldn’t have been able to utilize it if he hadn’t had the ropes of the Boxing ring to lean back on to absorb Foreman’s devastating punches. Not realising this tactic, Foreman responded to Ali’s baiting and tired over eight rounds by aggressively driving his challenger into the ropes, at which point Ali knocked him out.

Ali, despite playing the taunting braggart throughout his career, was not accused by many of being a coward or a bad fighter for not fighting Foreman in the middle of the ring. His trickery was venerated maybe because the audience couldn’t help cheering the man who defied the odds in this remarkable contest and would be declared sportsperson of the century. Ali took his cue from a professional wrestler called “Gorgeous George” who played the role of a heel (bad guy) as he entered the ring. George knew how to work a crowd who would pay good money to see him get “beaten” by his opponent. Ali used this so effectively that audiences went from loving to hate him to simply loving him. He brought them entertainment and made the Boxing industry a fortune. The same could be said for the world of Mixed Martial Arts with the likes of Ronda Rousey, who brought professional respect to the women in the sport whilst effectively playing the “heel”, and Connor McGregor, who has helped the Ultimate Fighting Championship win back a lot of its pay-per-view audience due to his flamboyance in and outside the cage.

The evolution of the art and sport of Mixed Martial Arts is as much influenced by rules on safety as it is by its mass entertainment appeal. The early bouts were based on Brazilian Vale Tudo rules, where untimed fights could go on for hours and usually largely consisted of ground fighting. Ground fighting added a different element for many viewers, but what might be seen as a very interesting technical game to those who knew what they were watching can be rather boring for a lay audience. Although Mixed Martial Arts fighter, Cro Crop once argued that ground-fighting should be limited because it looks more brutal. This was certainly a sentiment shared by several outspoken British Boxing teachers of the turn of 20th century when Greco-Roman Wrestling and Ju Jutsu were popular in music halls and touring fairs. Aesthetics often prevail in a sport with the powers that be moulding the game to fit what they think best sells the style of combat. Judo is a strong example of this feature with officials clearly showing awareness of the burgeoning sports of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Russian Sambo, both of which are breakaway schools of the original Kodokan Judo. Hitherto less and less time has been permitted for newaza (ground-fighting) and any throw involving gripping the leg in anyway has also been taken out to distinguish Judo from these other two jacketed grappling sports.

Rule changes in combat sports contribute massively to the evolution of a fighter’s gameplay and martial arts training on the whole. Western boxers no longer needed to worry about grappling once gloves became mandatory along with other decisive rule changes and although the clinch remained an important aspect of the game, fights would be wholly focused on delivering and avoiding punches. With greater emphasis and protection afforded to the hands, western-style boxers became the most efficient punchers in the world. Muay Thai and its equivalents in Laos and Cambodia also adopted the western “mufflers” in the 1930s, but the way the fights were judged did not promote much of an improvement on punching techniques. These improvements would possibly come from Holland, where they would develop their own brand of Muay Thai-based Kickboxing. An unfortunate side-effect of the compulsory wearing of gloves is that rather than making the sport safer, it allowed for a greater volume of direct impact to the head.

The new neutral corner rule might have cost Jack Dempsey his rematch fight against Gene Tunney. Dempsey, who was behind on points, had floored the current champion in round seven. However, he had forgotten about the new rule that forbade fighters from hovering over their opponent, which was a favourite tactic of Jack Dempsey. They were to immediately go to a neutral corner and only when they had reached this corner was the referee to begin counting out the fallen fighter. It was estimated that Tunney, who went on to win the fight by unanimous decision, was given anything from three to eight seconds extra time to recover.

The fight remains controversial, as it was noted that when Tunney knocked Dempsey down later the referee commenced counting before Tunney arrived at the neutral corner. Other factors, such as the use of a 20 foot ring rather than 16 foot ring are also thrown into the “what if” argument on Dempsey’s behalf. A ring of that size favoured someone with better footwork, such as Tunney, rather than a fighter that used crowding tactics, like Dempsey. Dempsey was the people’s favourite and remained more so after this bout. However, the case for Tunney is quite clear. He had soundly beaten Dempsey a year before to gain the heavyweight championship of the world. He dominated the majority of the fight, including the closing rounds, and also scored a knockdown on Dempsey. At the end of the fight Dempsey had little doubt Tunney fought the best on that day and told him so, upon raising his hand.

Another perceived victim of the long-count is not so accommodating. 23 years after his title fight with Buster Douglas – “Tyson Returns” - Mike Tyson actively encourages his “Undisputed Truth” live audience to watch Douglas’s knockdown and count alongside the referee. Douglas might have received four or five seconds longer than he was allowed due the referee’s undeniably slow count. This was hotly disputed by Tyson’s flamboyant manager, Don King. Nevertheless, Douglas had been dominating the fight up to that point and Tyson knew it. The champion came out guns blazing in a desperate attempt to knock the challenger out, but Douglas could not have been as hurt as Tyson had hoped. The 42-1 underdog fought back hard and continued on the front foot all the way to the end of the round. By the next round it was clear Tyson was the far more damaged fighter and it was here that Douglas knocked him out, causing one of the greatest upsets in boxing history.

Tyson’s mental state was not good at the time with his marriage with Robin Givens heading for divorce and many problems in his training camp centring on promoter, Don King.  However, Buster Douglas was also going through his own personal hell, having split with his own wife who now faced a kidney operation and the loss of his beloved mother just 23 days before the fight. Despite the controversy kicked up after the fight – and I recall being a teenage fan getting swept up in it all – the cold truth to Tyson fans is that Douglas won the fight. He may have taken a long count, but he was merely responding to the referee as any good fighter will do.

In 2016 Anderson Silva’s loss via unanimous decision to Michael Bisping at UFC Fight Night 84 on 27 February 2016 was met with the sort of criticism we have come to expect from matches that have a version of the “long count”. However, this instance was more of a “saved by the bell” argument than an actual long count. The bout was awarded “Fight of the Night” for its entertaining to and fro. Bisping won because he clearly put in the more regular work throughout the match and didn’t allow Silva to dominate. However, Silva scored the most telling and effective strikes, one of which floored Bisping at the end of round three. Not without controversy, Silva had hit his opponent with a flying knee strike whilst Bisping was signalling to the referee that he had dropped his mouth guard. The controversy went two ways. Silva had taken advantage of the situation and his move might have been seen as somewhat unchivalrous by some, it was still perfectly legal. Others argued, somewhat weakly, that Bisping had been knocked out and was saved by the bell. Bisping was not knocked out and would probably have stood an eight count if this had occurred earlier in the round.

In the world of competitive Brazilian Jiu Jitsu a peculiar new guard has emerged that demonstrates the direction a sport can go given its unique environment and rule-set. To the bemusement of the martial arts internet community at large a video appeared showing the first match in the 185-205Ib purple belt division of the 2015 Color State Championships - Hastings vs Debelak. Around 53 seconds into the bout Hastings turns his back on his opponent and begins to walk on all-fours backwards towards him. Possibly puzzled and/or disgusted, Debelak stamp kicks Hastings on his backside, causing an immediate disqualification. The video of this match went viral and many outside of the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu world immediately began to ridicule Hastings’ behaviour. Many were further shocked to discover that Hastings was attempting a legitimate move known as the donkey guard. The donkey guard’s origins came from the infamous banned Judo takedown known as kani basami or “flying scissors”. For my sins, I recall being taken down by an excellent Freestyle Karate (Kung Fu) instructor using this technique during sparring and being completely perplexed by what had happened, and I also recall a few times when I ended up holding an incidental version of the donkey guard!

Due to the danger kani basami can present to opponents, many Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Submission Grappling tournaments banned it. Jeff Glover developed the donkey guard to get around this rule. The move first came to public attention during the 2011 ADCC, in Nottingham, England, when Jeff Glover used it against Tom Barlow. Disliked by many traditional grapplers due to the disrespect it shows an opponent by simply reversing into them, there have also been arguments made that it has no combat efficiency outside of the sport. Glover has hit back, saying that he has effectively used it in a “real life self-defense situation”. I feel this particular argument really exemplifies the nub of this article. Glover used the donkey guard effectively because the environment he was fighting in allowed him to do so and, although it is a relatively new concept, the guard is gaining some ground with competitors.

In the world of semi-contact competition I have heard and seen widespread manipulation of the rule-sets that have little bearing on what we might perceive as “combat”. Traditional Karate competition saw many competitors being trained to automatically turn away from their opponents, particularly after scoring a point, as the back is not a legal scoring area. As with the donkey guard, it seems incredible to consider that any fighter would think it was a good idea to turn their back on an active opponent. In Freestyle Karate many competitors worked out a distinct advantage offered by a certain brand of protective equipment in the 1980s and early ‘90s. The Supertag/foot semi-contact range offered a lot of buffy padding and a loose fit. It wasn’t long before wily veterans of the sport worked out that a slight yet significant reach advantage could be afforded by pulling the glove forward a bit. Accuracy became the name of the game in semi-contact fighting rather than effect. So, for a certain period, several fighters would make contact with the end of their extended glove and then simultaneously slap their chest with their free hand to provide the illusion of making good contact.

My friend, the writer and martial arts instructor, Malcolm Martin, once wrote an article for “Combat” magazine that argued semi-contact competition could sometimes be more dangerous than full-contact. This was largely due to the fact that many fighters did intentionally use of excessive contact to cause an injury and cover it as if it were an accident. If they weren’t disqualified or penalized, such fighters were immediately given the edge for the rest of the fight or even a victory if the other fighter could not continue.

Kano Jigaro’s grading system is responsible for what many regard to be a rather egregious yet well-known practice within many martial arts tournaments. Several clubs have been known to hold back pre-black belt competitive fighters even at the much earlier end of the grading scale, stopping them from grading in order that they might accumulate more victories at their rank. I have even heard students beg their instructor to award them a higher grade after they had won yet another important national tournament, only to be told that they would not get it unless they competed internationally. Whereas other combat sports that do not use the coloured belt system would not so easily get away with putting in experienced fighters at novice levels, the coloured belt method offers a unique opportunity for manipulation by both students and their teachers. As it stands, a student who has only had a year’s experience in martial arts could find themselves competing against an individual who has been fighting in tournaments for several years or even someone who has had additional experience in a different style of martial art that uses a similar or even the same type of competition framework.

Returning to that fateful night in 1995, we note that few people complained about Frank Bruno using the clinch tactic at the end of round 11 and for all of round 12 in his match with Oliver McCall. McCall had not been out-fought. He had more energy in him than Bruno and was coming back with a vengeance towards the end of the bout. Bruno’s most recent losses prior to this bout had been stoppages in the fifth and seventh round to Mike Tyson in 1989 and Lennox Lewis in 1993 respectively. He seemed to have shaken these initial concerns off as he made it into the final rounds, outpointing McCall, the man who knocked Lewis out in a shocking second round upset. However, there were more apt shadows now casting themselves over him.

Towards the end of round 11 McCall brought forward a sudden sense of vigour that had been missing in the previous rounds and Bruno had little choice but to hold on. Long-time fans feared that older spectres of Bruno’s fights against Tim Witherspoon and James “Bonecrusher” Smith. Both these defeats had occurred in the same arena where he now fought. Witherspoon had beaten him by a stoppage at the three minute mark in round 11. However, looking at the challenger’s situation in the 12th round against McCall it seemed he was on his way to a repetition of the first defeat of his career. Smith had been behind on points and knocked Bruno out in the final round.

Our worst fears looked like they might be realised in those painful last three minutes of the fight. Far from looking down on Bruno for holding, even casual Boxing fans must have praying for him to “hug” his opponent, as it was clear McCall was in a much better condition and was going after a very realistic last ditch shot at victory. Bruno had won the adulation of his army of supporters because of his cheerful personality, something that some believed deprived him of a killer instinct, and his 95% knockout rate. He was a powerful puncher of his era, but isn’t considered by many to be one of the hardest hitters of all time. He possessed a superb physique, but is an example that mental determination and physical endurance can be mutually exclusive. Criticism for his “niceness” in the ring was contrasted with criticism for his reliance on “dirty” tactics, such as head-butting, and lack of technique. Bruno was known for being flat-footed and was no technician. What came out of the end of his fight with McCall was the thing that tends to allow most fighters to rise to the top: experience. He knew what was required in that situation to win the game.

Inspired by a need to see more decisive battles and to encourage fighters to fight rather than play the game, there have been occasional rebels who have tried to recreate their sport to some degree. Aware of the manipulation of the evolving rule-sets of the International Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federation, Relson Gracie, the second-eldest son of Helio Gracie, created the Gracie Pro-Am competition circuit. A principle area of contention he had with the IBJJF format was the way fighters could stall or hold positions in a fight to hang onto valuable points rather than working for a submission. Many a white belt competing in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu competitions will be familiar with the cry from their more experienced team-mates as well as their teachers to “Stay there!” when they have achieved an early pin. Relson argued it was becoming all too common in black belt fights too, where many were winning by advantage rather than actively going for submissions. As we have seen, many a lay spectator would share Relson’s views that stalling and hanging onto points makes for boring viewing rather than actively engaging. Under the Gracie Pro-Am rules, fighters are not allowed to hold onto positions for extended periods of time without making an attempt to submit their opponents.

Manipulating or simply playing the game is what most of history’s best fighters have always done regardless of their sport. Nine years after watching Bruno’s victory I was reminded of how well he had used the rules of his particular sport as opposed to out-fighting his opponent when I attended my judging course in Muay Thai. Bruno’s strategy would not have won him a Muay Thai bout, where a fighter’s condition in the final round can determine the outcome of the fight. Even if one fighter has unanimously won all the previous rounds he can still lose if he is in worse physical shape than his opponent. Muay Thai scores mainly on visible effect. Unlike Tae Kwon Do in all its competitive formats, Muay Thai does not award points according to the technical difficulty of a successfully landed technique. This is a crucially different dynamic that determines a fighter’s strategy and the difference can lead to a lot of confused responses from uninformed spectators. An uninformed audience watching a Muay Thai match might cheer at a beautifully aimed yet ineffective head kick or illegal throw from the clinch – and have frequently witnessed both of these instances happening with British audiences – or, alternatively, I have seen Muay Thai students puzzled by the kiyup shouts of Olympic Taekwondoin  as they alert the judges and referee that their technique has landed. 

Many have argued that awarding for technical difficulty in a combat sport - which has influenced many freestyle strike-based martial arts tournaments - may have contributed to more crowd pleasing moves yet it actively promoted the use of techniques with a low chance of success outside of the world of competition. I have seen some amazing examples of flamboyant techniques being pulled off with great effect in Muay Thai and Mixed Martial Arts, but they are often the exception to the rule. History shows us that those who have dominated the ranks of full-contact combat sports certainly have their own unique styles and a high level of athletic ability, but what they are using tends to be an intelligent use of solid basics.

Fights don’t always go the way we want them to.  Behind our indignation there is a primitive side to our personalities that first spawned the trial-by-combat sense of justice. We want our heroes to be victorious and this desire often allows us to bend our perceptions of reality to accommodate the result. Our superhero myths come from our ideals of fighting for justice. However, when it comes to a match fight the winner is most often rightfully decided by the individual who plays the game best with the tools made available to them – tangible and otherwise.

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