Solutions To The MMA Judging Dilemna

UFC 123
Let’s get one thing perfectly clear right out of the gate: Lyoto Machida was not robbed and there is no legitimate reason for a rematch with Quinton “Rampage” Jackson to be put together.

With that out of the way, the results of the UFC 123 main event did illustrate the pitfalls of the 10-point must system in exceptionally close rounds, and on a wider scale, the continual question marks that surround scoring and judging in mixed martial arts. To be fair, the main event wasn’t the only fight on the card that left fans and analysts searching for answers.

The initial contest of the night resulted in a curious collection of scores, as one judge saw Tyson Griffin take all three rounds of his meeting with Nik Lentz. Unfortunately for Griffin – and already weary MMA fans worldwide – the two remaining judges scored in favor of Lentz, handing “The Carny” a split decision victory that leaves Griffin with a third consecutive loss.

Though the fight was largely uneventful from all the live coverage I’ve read in the last couple days, the simple fact that three people watching the exact same fight can offer such diverse takes on the action is troubling. Even more troubling is that similar scenarios have played out with alarming regularity in recent events.

Nick Osipczak found himself in a similar position as Griffin following his fight with Duane Ludwig at UFC 122, and Diego Sanchez was awarded a 30-26 score from one judge in his bout with Paulo Thiago, despite the fact that everyone else who watched the fight – including the two other judges – universally agree that Thiago handily won the opening frame. The list goes on and on, and brings us to Saturday night’s finale.

Awarding Jackson the opening two rounds based on aggression and Octagon control falls well within the scoring criteria, but feels like a bit of a stretch. Essentially, Jackson won the fight, at least in part, because of the counter-striking strategy employed by his opponent.

Is there really any way to say who is dictating the pace and controlling the action in the cage when Machida is involved? Does the Brazilian force his opponents to hunt him down, potentially offering up striking opportunities in the process, or is Machida being walked down as he circles around the cage in a backwards fashion? Arguments for both can be made, and since neither holds true as a definitive answer, awarding one man a round based on aggression and Octagon control is a hard sell, especially when that round decides the outcome of a fight.

Equally responsible for the outcome of the UFC 123 main event is the archaic 10-point must system that is still used to score fights, despite having been shown time-and-again to have room for error like we saw here.

Judges are too hesitant to score rounds as a draw, choosing instead to split hairs based on subjective criteria like aggression and Octagon control rather than call a round even and move on. There is also a reluctance to score rounds 10-8 unless there is unquestionable dominance from one of the fighter.

From Saturday night’s final bout, the final two rounds were scored 10-9, round one going to Jackson and round three to Machida. While those scores are correct, they are also not entirely representative of the action that took place in those two five minute frames.

Machida far exceeded the output of Jackson in the final round, putting him on his back, achieving a dominant position and nearly securing an armbar in the process. Nothing close to that happened in Jackson’s 10-9 round, yet the two rounds were scored the same, allowing Jackson to emerge victorious despite being on the wrong end of the more explosive offense in the fight.

In a fight where Jackson entered to the Pride music, the scoring system used in the organization where “Rampage” made his name would have handed the former light heavyweight champion a loss.

Utilizing the Pride structure wouldn’t solve all the problems plaguing the judging of the sport today though. For the positive elements the “pick a winner” style system offers, there are still opportunities for judges to simply get it wrong or worse. Anyone who watched Pride has witnessed more than a few fights that resulted in questionable verdicts being handed down.

The truth is that there isn’t an immediate solution available; just as the NFL can’t instantaneously change the way defenders deliver hits to unsuspecting offensive players, resolving the issues of judging and scoring MMA contests is a long-term task, not an overnight fix.

On the scoring front, two potential revisions to the current structure that have merit are the half-point system and increasing from 10-point to 20-point must scoring. Both essentially serve the same purpose, giving judges a little extra wiggle room in their interpretation of the action. Close rounds can become either 10-9.5 or 20-19, while more dominant frames can earn either a 10-7.5 or 20-17 score.

Jackson’s opening round win would become a 10-9.5 or 20-19 based on aggression, while Machida earns the final round 10-9 or 20-18 because he clearly did more in that five minute stretch than Jackson mustered in his favorable round.

Another idea that has been offered is increasing the number of judges scoring the bouts from three to five. While two more sets of eyes could help clarify the action in the cage and balance out bad scorecards, they could also just add to the curious scoring that is already taking place; there are no guarantees that two more judges are going to see things any differently than the one or two questionable verdicts already being handed in.

Plus, if we had a vast quantity of credible and competent judges available, wouldn’t we have already tapped them to replace Cecil Peoples on a permanent basis? The truth of the matter is that there just aren’t enough good judges out there to choose from right now, which should be priority #1 in the quest to correct some of these issues.

After that, re-evaluating the weight of different scoring criteria is essential. Effective striking and grappling cannot be worth the same value aggression and Octagon control; the first two are clearly measurable, while the latter pair are more subjective decision that change based on how you perceive the action, and those shouldn’t be the deciding factors in a fight.

Though the overall process is a lengthy one, the process of finding a resolution to the issues facing the sport right now needs to get started immediately.

While it is all well and good to tell fighters not to leave their fates in the hands of the judges, they should not have to be legitimately worried that fifteen minutes of effort will go to waste. Finishing fights is the aim of every fighter, but when that doesn’t happen, they shouldn’t be reduced to crossing their fingers and praying that the judges get it right.

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