Tipping the Scales – The Future of MMA Judging

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This past weekend at UFC Fight Night 73 we all witnessed arguably one of the worst judge’s decisions in MMA history when Michael Johnson somehow failed to get his hand raised against Beneil Dariush. There was no requirement to be a ‘hardcore’ MMA fan or to have anything other than a minimal understanding of the rules or criteria for judging to realize who the victor should have been. Being generous you could have given the final round of the three round encounter to Dariush, but the first two rounds were all Johnson and should have been scored as such.

This brings to life again the seemingly age-old dilemma of judging in MMA and again throws a spotlight on the people responsible for making the decision when the fighters cannot finish the fight within the regulated time.

The adage, “never leave it in the hands of the judges”, certainly rings true when encouraging fighters to finish the fights and be entertaining in doing so. However, it is hard to hide behind this any longer as an excuse for questionable, outright incorrect decisions. This is certainly the case when the fighters themselves should be confident enough that they have easily done enough to fall back on the officials to give them a career propelling victory, it is something that needs to be addressed.

Tipping the Scales – The Future of MMA Judging

Now it is not appropriate here to single out individual judges as the sole culprits of the inherent systemic problem within MMA.

There are obviously better judges out there than others, as there are better fighters than others, and lets not detract from the difficult job that they have to do on a round by round basis. However, to focus on the problem requires a few solutions, ones that could be implemented with minimal disruption to the running of the big shows.

Judge training could certainly be stepped up but you cannot go as far as having them professional under an organisations banner as this would cause an instant conflict of interest and raise even more questions when a bad decision is administered. Accountability is also a possibility, with judges rated on their performance and offered fights accordingly. However, the very nature of judging is one of personal opinion, individual interpretation, and it is hard to manage that, especially when comparisons need to be made.

Points System

The unified rules, adopted in most MMA organisations, are based upon judging the fight based on effective striking, grappling aggression and octagon control. All of which are subject to the opinion of the judge’s interpretation of events and then attributed to a ’10 point must’ scoring system that is used widely in boxing. This system attributes 10 points to the winner of the round with the opponent scoring 9 or less with scores of 8, 7 or below attributed to rounds when one fighter has been exceptionally dominant. At the completion of the fight when these are tallied up with a score for each fighter and ultimately a unanimous, split, majority or draw as a decision.

It is a system that has been applied to allow for fighters to be rewarded for dominance, but what about a simpler system being introduced whereby a fighter is simply given the round victory (or a draw awarded). I do not think this will stop the fighters trying to dominate the round in any way, as the more domination is imposed the more chance that there will be a finish, which should be the aim of all fighters or they might be in the wrong sport. It would remove the ability of the referees to deduct a point from a fight. But if the rules are changed so that infringements are brought to the judges attention during the round and formed as part of their criteria for decision-making then they could still be punished. This change would simplify the way judges view the fight and the decision process reduced to simply who won the round rather than what point we should award to the loser.

Information after each round

This could be coupled with the next suggested change, the announcing of the round winner after each round. If the above is applied or the ’10 point must’ system retained, either way, there are clear benefits to announcing each round winner in the minute between rounds. This could quite easily be implemented to allow both the corners and the audience in the arena or at home to know the round result as soon as possible.

The scorecards of each judge are collected after each round in the current system, which could be relayed to the referee or announcer to convey the information. This would allow the fighters and their corner team to know their exact position within the fight rather than the constant guessing game that we currently have. It would confirm if a fighter has won the first two rounds for example, letting his opponent know that he has to finish the fight in order to gain the victory. It would also remove some elements of the controversy out of some decisions, as while the fighters might not agree with the current round scoring, at least they would be aware of it and know what they need to do to win the bout.

There is little doubt, erroneously or not, that Michael Johnson would have gone into the last round on Saturday night believing he was clearly two rounds to the good and as long as he was not dominated in the last or finished, then he would have continued the climb up the rankings ladder.

If he would have known the scoring at the start of the third round, however, it would have been a different and arguably more exciting, final round. It would also take little suspense away from the final decision if it has been a close fight where the fighters have taken a round each as you would still have to wait at the end for the decision on the final round.

External Stimulus

This would put a slight time constraint on the judges and officials as they would need to turn around each round decision quickly to get the result announced to the fighters and audience. However, an idea to remove the pressure slightly and to certainly reduce external influence could be to have the judges removed from cage-side.

In the larger MMA promotions at least, the numerous high-definition camera angles, slow motions etc. available could be used by the judges to make the decision on each round either completely away from the arena or certainly in a different location within it. People, judges included, are influenced by the presences around them, the local environment and most importantly emotions, even if it is on a sub-conscious level.

How many times does Fighter A hit with a well-directed jab to little or no crowd reaction, only for Fighter B, who happens to hail from the city or state that the fight is taking place in, to swing wildly and graze his opponent to rapturous cheers. Surely this can occasionally affect a judges scoring to some degree, particularly if they have taken their eyes off the action momentarily, have a poor view or have simply blinked.

How many times do fights that go to decision seemingly favour the hometown fighter? It happens so often it is almost just accepted, even by fighters to the point that they are almost fighting ‘away’ as you would in other sports, rather than a neutral octagon. Could we have the judges sitting in a room within the arena, noise reducing headphones on if required, in front of a bank of televisions and deciding on the outcome of each round from there? Yes, it would take away from the judges using their own eyes to make calls, relying on television feeds, potentially not getting the angle they want or subject to the editor’s digression, but other positives can be applied.

What if in a momentary break for a low blow, they could use slow motion to view a takedown attempt from minutes earlier and decide if it was completed or not as it happened so quickly? Likewise to see if an overhand right hand did actually connect or the crowd just reacted to the motion of the fighter in anticipation for the connection that did not materialise?

The Numbers Game

If they are still cage-side there could always be an additional judge, one that scores the fight but only comes into play when one of the existing three judge’s scorecard is so wildly different form the other two, almost like scratching one-off the list. For example, there have been occasions when the scoring has produced a split decision to everyone’s amazement. When Fighter A has won the fight 30-27 in two of the judges eyes, but one judge has deemed it 29-28 to Fighter B, to the general bemusement of all concerned.

Maybe if the additional judge has also scored the bout 30-27 then their score would scratch away the erroneous one and make it a unanimous decision, almost like putting some form of ‘fail-safe’ in the mix if one judge is seemingly having an ‘off day’, which we all have from time to time. It would have to be announced as the additional judge stepping in, but it could work, especially if this judge has access to television replays etc. almost like they are overviewing the entire fight. This idea would certainly keep the other judges engaged, not that you want to encourage complete unity, but just remove the sometimes ‘wild’ scoring that one judge can produce.

Challenging Work

One thing is for certain judging is a challenging job to do in the often high paced sport that we love. Help rather than persecution is definitely what is required and as MMA has evolved dramatically into the multi-dollar sport that it is today, so must one of its most fundamental aspects. So many other sports have assisted officiating with new technology and practices, stricter regulation and increased professionalism and it might be time to take a look at judging in MMA again and see if there can be areas of improvement.

Fighters train for months leading up to a fight, the actual contest itself could be for a title or certainly a stepping stone in the right direction, which makes blatantly incorrect decisions all the more difficult to swallow, certainly for those directly involved, but also for the fans.