Rept0n1x/ Wikimedia Commons
Rept0n1x/ Wikimedia Commons

Hometown advantage too often proves insurmountable in combat sports

At the UFC’s recent Fight Night 130 event in Liverpool, a rising star of British MMA had the chance to stake his claim as a top contender in the UFC’s welterweight division in his hometown. Already a top 10 ranked fighter in his division, Liverpool’s own Darren Till took on the number #1 ranked welterweight in the UFC, Stephen ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson. The prevailing question going into the event was whether or not the hype surrounding Darren Till was justified. The prevailing question coming out of the event was, well, whether or not the hype surrounding Darren Till was justified.

Darren Till was identified by the UFC’s promoter, Dana White, as an opportunity to appeal to British MMA fans in Conor McGregor’s absence

After upsetting the legendary Donald ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone with an violently emphatic first round stoppage in Gdansk last October, Darren Till was identified by the UFC’s promoter, Dana White, as an opportunity to appeal to British MMA fans in Conor McGregor’s absence. White seemingly had so much faith in the confident Liverpudlian that he effectively organised an event around the young Till, to take place in his own backyard. Till was to be paired off against ‘Wonderboy’, a two-time title challenger, and former kickboxer (whose record in that field stood at 57-0). The clash of styles – Till’s Muay Thai versus Thompson’s karate – was intriguing on paper, as was the dichotomy of a young, brash Scouser coming up against a seasoned veteran, known as the nicest guy in MMA.

What followed was unfortunately a disappointing contest that seemed to feature more high fives and displays of respect between the two fighters than significant strikes. Most disappointing, however, was the controversy surrounding the outcome. The majority of pundits, pros, and fans saw the result as a ‘Wonderboy’ win. The three judges scored the fight as a Till victory, thus a unanimous decision. The official fight statistics show that Till landed more strikes, more significant strikes, a higher percentage of the shots that he threw, and dominated with octagon control. Furthermore, Till scored the only knockdown of the fight. Many readers may see those facts and question how a Till victory could ever be doubted. However, these official stats are perhaps what should really be questioned. YouTube user Alpaca Thesaurus, who specialises in UFC analysis, recently uploaded an intriguing video in which he looked closely (more so than the UFC’s statisticians, it seems) at every strike in the fight. The video shows ‘Wonderboy’ out-striking Till 66-47, whereas the official stats read 38-30 in Till’s favour.

Everyone who follows boxing and MMA is aware of judges’ tendency to favour a hometown fighter

In this regard, it seems that UFC statisticians and the three judges on the night missed something. The judges’ biggest miss, though, was relating to the hometown crowd. Even those who believe Till won haven’t dared to argue that the hometown presence didn’t influence judges. The role that a hometown crowd can play – cheering and reacting to almost every punch and kick thrown by their hero, regardless of whether or not it lands – is well documented in combat sports. It can even be seen in other sports such as football, with fans’ furore at challenges threatening to inform referees’ decisions as to whether or not a penalty or red card should be given. In boxing, it has been suggested that judges should wear noise-cancelling headsets to eliminate the possibility of scoring based on a crowd’s reaction to strikes. This was in fact a big topic following the Golovkin vs. Canelo fight last autumn, although one fears that more nefarious factors were in play to result in that split decision draw. Fans, pundits and pros alike are so aware of judges’ fallibility in this area, that it is often factored into their fight predictions (or tactics, in the latter’s case), should a fight go to a decision. It is often suggested that the travelling opponent will have to ‘do more’ to ‘prove’ that they are worthy of the win. That this is so widely accepted – albeit begrudgingly, and rightly so – highlights the size of the issue.

Given that everyone who follows boxing and MMA is aware of judges’ tendency to favour a hometown fighter, many are rightfully incredulous that judges themselves seem to be so unaware of this blatant inclination. A hometown fighter should not gain an advantage beyond that which is granted to them by the crowd’s support. Judges should remain unbiased, but for the sake of playing devil’s advocate, if anything it is the hometown fighter who should need to prove themselves to the judges, not their opponent. The travelling opponent is the one in hostile territory, and in international cases, such as that of Till and Thompson, they must often travel quite a long way just to be subject to this hostility. This is the disadvantage that they accept by fighting in their opponent’s hometown, and they should not be further disadvantaged by judges.

On the matter of proving oneself – this is simply what UFC fans wanted from Darren Till. Fans wanted him to live up to the hype, and to do so he wouldn’t have even needed to knock out Thompson, just beat him deservedly. Some will argue that he did this, but it was certainly far from convincing. Till wants his next fight to be at Anfield stadium in Liverpool, but this should be avoided; if the venue were to sell out – as Liverpool’s Echo Arena did for the Thompson fight – official stats would show 54,074 attendees supporting Till. Look a little closer at the judges, and you might find that it would be 54,077.


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