Fitting everyone into tournaments

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I want to talk about tournaments for a bit. Specifically, tournaments and segregation. The ideal of any martial art is that skill will win out over natural advantage. At the hobbyist level of martial arts competition this ideal is reflected in open tournaments, where everyone fights everyone. As long as there is a large disparity of skill, and an average disparity in size, there will be a tendency for skill to dominate. On average, tournament wins over time will be divided between the skillful and the naturally blessed. This has been reflected in my experience.

When we start to deal above the hobbyist level, into amateur and professional sports, the assumption is that all participants will be skillful, but with different levels of natural ability and experience. The truth of any skill is that the big gains are made in the initial learning and polishing; the skill gap between experts is a narrower gap than the skill gap between less than experts. Which is to say if I gather a room of top fencers, they will have roughly the same skills as each other, compared to gathering a room full of random fencers.

Because of this homogeneity of skill, skill is no longer a major deciding factor in outcomes of bouts. Which is why it is at amateur and professional levels we start to see a split into gendered tournaments. And at the higher levels, we see even finer gradations. In some sports there are weight classes. In other sports there are seedings in categories. This is a way of trying to make things fair.

The problem is that the most fundamental division is between gender, and this is incorrect. It makes a great number of assumptions that fit only the majority of people, and let outliers slip through the cracks. Mostly, it’s a lazy way of sorting. It’s primitive at it’s base, and momentum has let it continue on with tacked-on logic to justify it. It never reflected the reality of the human condition, but instead the broad strokes desired by the ignorant.

Size is the predominant qualifier of difference between one human and the next for sport performance, and when I say size I mean lean body mass. More specifically what I mean is the quantity of usable muscle in the body. I’m being lazy myself here, because there are other factors like strength of muscle attachment, muscle density and cross-section to length ratio, and a host of other things to consider. I believe they are not as large of quantifiers of performance as gross lean mass, though. I’ll refer to this inaccurately as LBM (Lean Body Mass) going forward.

Looking at LBM alone, the gender distinction starts to make less sense. If I take one pound of “male” muscle and one pound of “female” muscle, there are both going to contract with the same strength. This does not mean that a 150lb man and woman have the same strength. A 150lb man, if we assume they are fit but not necessarily athletic, runs about 16% bodyfat, which yields us a LBM of 126lbs. A similar woman will have a LBM of 114lbs.

In terms of UFC male weight class divisions, both would compete at Lightweight (ignoring for the moment weight cutting.) Stripped of fat, the man would fight instead in the fly or bantamweight category(2-3 weight classes down) and the woman in the strawweight category, 4 weight classes down.

Which is why having a 150lb man fight a 150lb woman, both of equal skill, is not a fair fight. If I felt like doing the math I could figure out how much heavier a woman would have to be to fight a man, but why? We have access to roughly accurate (or very accurate for professional level money) methods of measuring someone’s LBM (which do take into effect the dominant sex hormone affecting body composition at the time) so it’s entirely possible to sort combatants by LBM and have gender be irrelevant in the size equation.

If we can do away with the gender aspect and keep weight classes as a relevant sort mechanism of fairness, we are left with another gender-related aspect that needs to be dealt with. Socialization in my experience has quite a bit to do with the performance abilities of an athlete, and thus their tournament results. People who grew up encouraged to be athletic will have an advantage in athleticism. People who grew up with an ability to win in rough and tumble childhood encounters will have an advantage in any combat sport. People who where discouraged from sport participation, or never had exposure to roughhousing, will have disadvantages. This tends to prefer men for combat sports over women, but again this ignores outliers and making gendered distinctions here is just lazy.

Seeding as a sort mechanism works if we pay attention to tournament results. The Japanese sport of Sumo wrestling presents a wonderful model of how this can be done. This is why Valkyrie WMAA used it as basis for their tournament series. Other sports offer similar seeding mechanisms and they all have value worth exploring. Seeding done this way can be used to recognize the inherent advantages one person may have over another in a competition setting, and allow for equality of mindset in categories. This should have the result of also making gendered distinctions around socialization irrelevant for the purpose of tournament seeding and pairing.

I believe correct seeding is a must for all swordplay tournaments, and I think there is value in looking at weight classes based on LBM going forward in the heavier contact rulesets, especially if grappling or striking start to become regular features of exchanges under such rulesets.

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