Posted 01/28/2014 by Mike Fagan in Untethered MMA

On Henderson vs. Thomson and Back Control

On Saturday night, the judges awarded Ben Henderson a decision over Josh Thomson and everyone lost their shit or feigned said shit-losing and the sport was being ruined by the commission officials again. I scored the fight for Thomson live, but couldn’t find too much outrage over it. After parsing the FightMetric in-depth report, I noted in my column on Monday that Thomson likely lost the decision because “he did little with his positioning,” seeing as Henderson ended up trumping him in every striking metric.

That played right into the hands of friend of the column Luke Thomas. Thomas noted on Twitter, “Who is going to be the first idiot to publicly float the following idea: ‘Thomson had Bendo’s back a lot, but he didn’t do anything [with] it!’” I am that idiot. He followed up with a video blog detailing his thoughts. In summary, he argues that taking the back is one of the most important actions one can make in a fight. By taking the back, a fighter nullifies his or her opponent’s ability to create any significant offense, and, therefore, taking, and holding, the back is valuable in and of itself.

Now, Thomas and I don’t disagree here. Taking the back, like any other action of significance during a fight, measures some value. In fact, I’d go as far as saying we both, personally, understand the value that taking the back holds. Where we disagree, I believe, is how that value should play in the minds of judges.

Thomas is correct: taking the back nullifies your opponent’s ability to generate offense. But the value in stifling your opponent’s offense is that it allows you to unleash your own without having to worry about defense. We don’t award Lyoto Machida extra points for making opponent’s miss on the feet. His elusiveness allows him to score points through counter attacks on opponents that are off-balance or out of position. We didn’t award Randy Couture extra points for putting his opponent’s backs up against the fence. He scored points dirty boxing from that position. It’s the same with taking the back.

That’s not to say taking the back (or standing elusiveness or effective clinch work) has zero value when it comes to judging a fight. Those advantages can mean the difference between a 10-9 or a 9-10 in an otherwise close round. It’s when a round isn’t as close that there’s an issue.

We can see that in three rounds of Henderson vs. Thomson. Here are the Fightmetric stats for rounds 1, 2, and 4:

Round 1
Henderson: 1 significant strike | 8 total strikes | 1 takedown | 1 submission attempt
Thomson: 1 signifiant strike | 7 total strikes | 1 takedown | 1 back take

Round 2
Henderson: 11 significant strikes | 16 total strikes | 0 takedowns
Thomson: 6 significant strikes | 11 total strikes | 1 takedown | 1 back take

Round 4
Henderson: 6 significant strikes | 41 total strikes | 1 takedown
Thomson: 2 significant strikes | 8 total strikes | 2 takedowns | 1 back take | 1 pass to half guard

You’ll notice one common thread: Thomson took the back in each of these rounds. Without any further information, round one is very close, but it’s an easy round to score for Thomson when we note that he spent half the round on Henderson’s back.

Rounds 2 and 4, however, is where things can get tricky. Thomson held the back for 30 seconds in round 2. In round 4, he held the back for the last 45 seconds, in addition to keeping Henderson on his back for two minutes.

How should we score these rounds? On rewatch, I scored the second round a decisive 10-9 for Henderson, and the fourth a very, very close 10-9 for Thomson. Thomson’s offense from the back in round two was mostly non-existent. In the fourth, Henderson broke Thomson’s posture in guard, and, as the stats show, outlanded Thomson in strikes. Had the last minute of the round stalemated, Henderson likely wins the round, and the fight, without much debate.

But it didn’t, Henderson lost the round (though you could still make a convincing argument for him), and we went into the fifth, on my rewatch card 38-38. And that fifth round is a tossup. Fightmetric scored it 10-10 based on effectiveness scores. I scored it 10-10 on a rewatch. You could make a convincing case either way, which is probably the criteria we should use for actually utilizing the 10-10, but I digress. But whether you agree or disagree with the judges, it’s hard to argue that Thomson would have been better off with more activity from the back.

For a great example of making the most of back control, which unfortunately is not available through UFC Fight Pass, watch Demian Maia’s fight against Mario Miranda at UFC 118. Maia takes Miranda’s back in the first and third rounds. He’s not content to work for submissions. He’s throwing punches, often in conjunction with his submission attempts. (Maia, at his best, is a great example of using strikes to complement your ground work.) That’s the value of back control actualized.

Mike Fagan is a weekly contributor to MMA Owl. He also hosts Untethered MMA every Thursday at 7 p.m. ET. Follow him on Twitter


Mike Fagan