The many problems with MMA judging

One of the most debated and controversial aspects of mixed martial arts is judging. Scorecards can be as confusing for fans as it is for experienced fighters. The unfortunate reality is that judging is not a perfect science.

First, let’s talk about how a fight is judged.

The "10-Point Must System" is in effect for all fights. Three judges score each round and "must" award the winner ten points, the loser nine points or fewer. If the round is even, both fighters receive ten points.

Judges are required to determine the winner of a bout that goes to its full time limit based upon the following criteria: clean strikes, effective grappling, Octagon control and effective aggressiveness. For more on this, click here:

If you clicked the link and reviewed the judging criteria, you can see that it’s a lot for judges to take in. This also means it’s a lot for judges to remember and interpret and some of the criteria is confusing. This point system gets criticized a lot but it’s rare that I hear a good alternative to the current system. No matter the judging system in place, there will always be problems. The key is limiting those problems as much as possible. We must give credit to the athletic commissions for making positive changes in the scoring system but the system and the quality of judging still needs improvement.

The UFC’s most recent judging controversy: Jones vs Gustafsson in Toronto.

Let’s discuss this tricky scoring system. A recent change to the unified rules involved the removal of “effective defense”. Here is an explanation of what that means:

1. The committee believes that offensive actions should be the only criteria used to score UFC matches. Offensive fighters are fighters which carry the fight and push the action, and make the fight happen.

2. Defense is its own reward. A fighter who chooses to avoid using defensive actions will invariably suffer the consequences. For example, if a fighter decides that they do not want to block or avoid a strike, protect themselves from a submission, or avoid a throw or takedown then they will suffer the results of those offensive actions being used against them. The only role defensive action plays is to keep a fighter in the fight longer so that they can attempt to score using offensive actions.

3. Having two fighters avoid offensive actions and rely solely on defense goes against the basic primary consideration of any combative sport: To score using offense.

"Octagon control" or "cage control" is described as:

1. The fighter who is dictating the pace, place and position of the fight.

2. A striker who fends off a grappler’s takedown attempt to remain standing and effectively strike is Octagon control.

3. A grappler who can takedown an effective standing striker to ground fight is Octagon control.

4. The fighter on the ground who creates submission, mount or clean striking opportunities.

Now this is a bit confusing because it kind of contradicts the idea of “cage control” which is “dictating the pace, place and position of the fight.” If you sprawl and avoid a takedown which is a defensive maneuver, you keep the fight standing. Is the defensive action unworthy of merit or is it good use of "cage control"? These are some of the things that need more clarification and explanation in the judging criteria.

Nick Diaz’s unanimous-decision loss to Carlos Condit at UFC 143 questioned the importance of "effective aggressiveness".

There are other logistical problems that we must address as well. Angles on the Octagon can make it difficult for the judges to see all of the action. If a fighter has your back to you it can be hard to see if “clean strikes” are being landed. Even seeing all the grappling exchanges can be challenging for a referee on the wrong side of the cage. Monitors in all states and countries holding MMA bouts would help greatly in situations where judges can’t see the action in front of them. Being cageside myself calling the action, 80% of the time I defer to the monitors to help me get the best angles of the action in the Octagon.

I would also like to see the judges use some kind of a noise-canceling headphones of some sort to drown out the cheers of the crowd. I truly believe that coaching from the corners and cheers from the crowd can affect the way a fight is judged. Many times crowds will "ooh and ahh" whether a strike lands cleanly or not. It is also hard to ignore the instructions and cheers from coaches who are cageside. We can’t ignore the fact that what we see and hear greatly influences the way we perceive things.

This leads me to my next problem with judging. The limitations of our senses and brain power makes perfect judging impossible. Let’s face it: we see bad judging/refereeing in all the top sports all over the world. The reality is that we don’t really see what we sense. We only see what we think we sense. What we see and then remember is just an interpretation. Let’s get a little scientific. A schema is a cognitive framework or concept that helps organize and interpret information. Schemas allow us to take shortcuts in interpreting the vast amount of information that we take in. However, these mental frameworks also cause us to exclude pertinent information to instead focus only on things that confirm our pre-existing beliefs and ideas. Maybe I come from a wrestling background and view a suplex as more important than a knockdown. Perhaps my background is muay thai and a clean elbow strike will be seen as the most devastating technique of the round. Maybe my BJJ background has me score dominant rounds for fighters who are able to pass guard. All these schemas make it difficult to truly judge with unbiased eyes.

Perhaps no fighter has been more afflicted by controversial judging than Frankie Edgar.

Based on what I’ve seen in the UFC lately, judges need more clarification and education on the sport. Not too long ago, a well known judge went on record saying “Leg kicks don’t finish fights.” Say what? First of all, that’s simply not true and to ignore an "effective and clean strike" like a leg kick is just crazy. Edson Barboza and Jose Aldo are excellent examples of fighters that have used leg kicks in devastating fashion to win a fight (or three). The biggest problem however is the lack of understanding of the ground game. It is rare that we see a fighter win a round off of his back even when is the fighter on his back is attacking and is close to finishing submissions and the fighter on top has done nothing.

Some people have suggested using a half-point system to score rounds stating that not all 10-9 rounds are equal. I think this may only lead to more questions and problems. Do we go to quarter-points as well? Judges simply need to be more aware of what a dominant round means for a fighter both in terms of striking and grappling. Many times I’ll see a fighter spend a whole round completely outclassing a fighter positionally and almost finishing the fight with a submission and the round will very often be scored a 10-9.

Another huge problem with judging is that we haven’t really assigned values to specific techniques that are executed cleanly in the UFC. What value is a takedown versus a clean cross to the jaw? Is a knockdown valued the same as a near submission? Is a person going backward but landing punches not as effective versus a person going forward and eating punches? Is a high-amplitude takedown better than a foot sweep? These questions can be difficult to answer especially when seeing them performed at full speed in the context of a back-and-forth mixed martial arts contest. These are issues that should be discussed at length among judges.

I think we also need to hold the judges accountable for their actions. I doubt judges are paid very well, but money is always a pretty good motivator for job performance. How great would it be to have the judges reviewed by a panel of fellow judges, referees and fighters? This way we can reward good judging and penalize poor judging monetarily. After all, the fighters certainly pay for it financially in a big way if they are on the wrong end of a decision. I would also like to see quarterly reviews by an independent panel of judges, referees and fighters. This would help encourage judges to work hard to educate themselves and improve at their job. Fight footage and breakdown from fighters, judges and referees would really help explain things and help give good perspective on rounds won or lost.

Given the current judging parameters, scoring is not an easy job and we still have many issues that must be resolved to make the UFC the best that it can be. It’s in our best interest to have a system that allows the judges to do their job well, make the sport exciting for the fans, and make it as fair as possible for the fighters.