We're deep into stoppage time and Manchester United is leading 1-0. Chelsea is down, frustrated and chasing tails. As if to compound the misery, United, with merely seconds remaining in the game, decide to take the ball towards the nearest corner and surround it with red shirts. Chief playmakers Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs take over from here and, with the occasional input of others, proceed to keep hold of the ball in the corner for the next two minutes, as Chelsea counterparts harass, hack and spit venom. United refuse to entertain the idea of scoring another goal or even taking a shot. They're leading, they're talented enough to retain the ball between themselves and three hypothetical points are heading their way.
The colour of one's shirt will determine how they interpret the following scenario. If you applaud and respect the way Giggs, Scholes and co. cleverly run down the clock for a certain victory, you no doubt wear the red of Manchester United. If, however, you are disgusted at the sight of such negativity being exhibited in the 'beautiful game,' you wear blue, you support Chelsea and you've just been beaten. Chelsea fans bemoaning the damp squib of a finale would no doubt be 'ole'-ing with the rest had it been their team ahead and in control of the leather in the dying embers. There is nothing illegal or underhand about running down the clock and securing victory by holding the ball in the corner, yet it feels oh-so-wrong when you're on the receiving end of it.
The mixed martial arts concept of 'lay and pray' is akin to this kind of steal-some-time, steal-some-points mentality in football. The 'art' entails a fighter, more often than not a strong wrestler, pinning down his opponent and then remaining in guard or in any other semi-harmless hang-out for the duration of the bout, ignoring opportunities to advance and improve position or, God forbid, end the bout in conclusive fashion. If the referee allows them to, they'll snuggle all night. The idea is to limit the potential for danger and rubber-stamp an inevitable victory, albeit only by decision and, in most cases, backed by a chorus of boos. Seemingly deaf to the howls of derision, lay-and-prayers instead brush themselves down after three rounds and fifteen minutes of 'combat', accept their 30-27 points sweep across the board, and trudge despondently towards the exit door. Oh, somebody booed? Who cares? They won, right?
You've probably guessed it by now, but being considered a fighter who indulges in the odd bit of lay-and-pray is nothing to be proud of in mixed martial arts. But why? These wrestlers are often only riding out victory the same way footballers do at the conclusion of a game. For as long as wrestling remains a key component of the multi-faceted sport of mixed martial arts, these athletes should surely be allowed to exhibit their strengths over vastly inferior ground fighters. Also, isn't one of the principles of battle to be the guy on top dishing out the punishment, while also reducing the damage that comes back the other way? Sure, aesthetics go out the window with even the greatest lay-and-pray merchants, but nobody can argue the fact that those guys are peskily effective and often exit the Octagon without so much as a blemish on their face, the rosy cheeks of embarrassment offering the only noticeable change in complexion.
OK, so devil's advocate out the way, it's now time to confess. The opening football analogy was perhaps a clear giveaway, but I'm both British and a self-confessed hater of lay-and-pray tactics in mixed martial arts. In the words of Howard Beale, 'I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore.' I'm not the only one, either. Nottingham welterweight Dan 'The Outlaw' Hardy has been a longtime advocate of a mythical campaign to drown lay-and-pray snugglers at birth.
Writing in his weekly Nottingham Evening Post column, Hardy, angered by team-mate Andre Winner's recent loss to Nik Lentz, said:
"In the UFC, you should go for finishes. You should work for fifteen minutes to knock your opponent out, submit him, or improve your position to give yourself the best chance of doing either. But there are guys out there who just want to use wrestling to hold a stalemate for fifteen minutes, without ever risking going for ground-and-pounds or attempting submissions."
As far as lay-and-pray poster-boys go, at least in recent times, lightweight Lentz is as good an example as anyone. Having wrestled throughout high-school, Lentz was awarded a scholarship to the University of Minnesota in 2003. Since turning pro in 2005, he has wrestled alongside Brock Lesnar and Sean Sherk, two of the sport's very finest. Six of his last seven fights have gone the distance, yet he's remained impressively unbeaten in his last twelve. Three weeks ago he stifled striker Winner over three rounds, utilising both his superior wrestling base and his fear of striking with the hard-hitting Englishman. By taking the fight into his domain, American Lentz won the decision but few fans in the process. Winner suffered his first defeat in the UFC, and knew exactly why. He wasn't beaten in a fight per se, but he'd been bested within the rules of a mixed martial arts contest.
The mild-mannered Winner handled the frustration in a way countryman Paul 'Semtex' Daley was unable to in May. Suffocated by wrestling demon Josh Koscheck for three rounds in Montreal, Canada, Daley lost a decision, a title shot and his mind in one fell swoop. Koscheck had physically and verbally teased Daley for three rounds and refused the vaunted striker a nanosecond chance to land a punch throughout. The only strike Daley threw with any intent that night arrived seconds after the final bell, when he sucker-punched a victorious Koscheck and vetoed his own UFC career.
So maybe it's a British thing, right? If we can't avoid the takedowns and subsequent control, what right do we have to a complaint or hearing? Winner was unable to prevent Lentz from executing his takedowns and unable to get back up. The same goes for Daley against Koscheck. We have more examples, too. Paul Kelly was frustrated by Jacob Volkmann at the start of August and lost a decision, while Nick Osipczak has got the hump with two wrestlers in succession, Rick Story and Greg Soto, despite having looked a million dollars when outwrestling Matthew Riddle last November. Hardy, too, was stuffed on the biggest night of his life, when welterweight king Georges St-Pierre spent 25-minutes working out how to finish him, all the while giving him little room to breathe, let alone move.
The Brits aren't being squashed, disgraced or smashed out of sight, but they are being beaten. The scorecards don't lie. We want to stand and bang, and the spoilsports won't let us. Does that make 'them' cowardly or clever?
Middleweight contender Nate Marquardt knows which camp he sits in.
"I think that's (Hardy's moan) just coming from someone who isn't a good wrestler," says Marquardt, who faces Rousimar Palhares this Wednesday (September 15) at UFC Fight Night 22.
"I think wrestling is a big part of MMA and you shouldn't complain about it. You should learn it and learn how to defend against it.
"I was unable to defend the takedowns from my last fight (against super-duper-active wrestler Chael Sonnen) and that's why I lost the fight. So now I'm going to be better prepared to defend the takedown, no matter who I'm fighting. I've worked hard on my wrestling over the years, and I continue to work hard on my wrestling."
Many British fighters have heeded that advice and are now working hard to ensure they are no longer viewed as the welcome mat on which American wrestlers can wipe their grubby feet. In preparation for this week's bout with Cole Miller, Sunderland's Ross Pearson has spent a week training with UFC lightweight champion Frankie Edgar and his Rutgers wrestling squad, while Hardy himself has enjoyed plenty of time Stateside being thrown around by the best America has to offer. With no collegiate wrestling system in place this side of the pond, patience will remain our biggest and perhaps only tool against wrestlers in mixed martial arts. It won't be an overnight turnaround, that's for sure.
As for the rights and wrongs of the lay-and-pray debate, I'd side with Hardy and put it something like this. While both acts are within the rules of the sport, holding the football in the corner to run down the clock, and holding an opponent to the floor for the same purpose, hardly endear the respective sports to their audience. We can all see the motives behind the acts but, especially when on the losing end, it doesn't feel or look good. Moreover, I've yet to see a football team attempt to keep a ball in the corner for an entire 90-minute match, as it's usually only considered a go-to ploy in the final minutes of play. You can't win by keeping the ball in a corner. At some point, shots must be attempted and goals scored.
I have, however, seen numerous mixed martial artists spend an entire fifteen or twenty-five minute fight with that same mindset, oblivious to the possibility of goalscoring or stoppage-scoring opportunities. If that's your sole intention from the outset, then the act becomes less of an insurance policy and more of a get-out clause from the real task at hand -- you know, the fight.
Then again, I'm British. My favourite wrestler was The Undertaker. Wait. What do you mean, 'it's fake?'