What can be done with MMA scoring?

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

With the problems with the 10-point must system as it's currently used, there are a lot of strengths and weaknesses to a number of different alternatives.

In the three weeks since UFC 167, things went from irrational to pretty rational when it comes to talking about the judging, and if anything, the recent controversy opened a lot of eyes to the fact that judges themselves are handicapped to a degree by the system in place.

The funny part of all of this is as much as the Georges St-Pierre vs. Johny Hendricks title match fueled the talk, is that it was another fight on that show, Robbie Lawler vs. Rory MacDonald, that was almost the perfect example of what is wrong with the ten-point must system.

In that fight, virtually nothing happened in the first round. It was as close to a 10-10 round as you can get, but given that judges in 97 percent of the cases are going to call a round 10-9, that's what happened.  As it turned out, Lawler got the benefit of the coin-toss round on two cards. The second round was clearly MacDonald's, but Lawler won the third with far more of a margin, including scoring a knockdown and doing most of the key damage in the fight.

Lawler got the split decision, which meant that if one judge had gone the other way, and with the way round one happened, that was a distinct possibility, MacDonald would have gotten a win. Some knocked the call of Glenn Trowbridge (ironically the only judge to vote for Hendricks in the main event), because how could he possibly give the fight to MacDonald given all the damage Lawler did in the third round. But again, that line of thinking shows a complete lack of understanding of the scoring system.

Had MacDonald won, fans who don't understand the system would complain about a robbery, and incompetent judging. Now, in that case, it didn't happen, even though with a 50-50 first round, there was a 50 percent chance of either fighter getting a fair and just decision in a fight that Lawler very clearly won.

Given what went down on Nov. 16, there was a very good chance that two of the big three fights on the show could have ended with a bad system leading to the guy who won the fight overall losing both times.

Since then, a number of ideas have come into place, all of which have some good and some bad. But given the nature of a commission-regulated sport where change comes slowly, the ten point must system, implemented exactly the way it is, is likely to be a fact of life for a long time to come.

So the future will be very much like the past, which is, consistent outrage regarding judging, sometimes with foundation, and most of the time without.

Before going on, there is no system and no judges training that will eliminate judging controversies. No scoring system prevents bad judging, and no points system doesn't have flaws.

In addition, there are a lot of very close fights that under any system could go either way.

One of the issues is with the sport itself. With so many different types of offense, judging what is more effective is always going to be up for debate. Another is that there are a lot of close rounds. With St-Pierre vs. Hendricks, there was a pretty strong consensus on who won four of the five rounds, and in the end, the fight came down to the first round, which could have gone either way. In evaluating that fight and Lawler vs. MacDonald, if you're looking at who you thought won, you can look at the fight as a whole. But if you're going to second guess judging, in both cases, if you look at anything but round one of each fight, you're not understanding the scoring system.

But, close rounds that could go either way exist, sometimes with frequency. In the Jon Jones vs. Alexander Gustafsson fight, which also let to outrage and robbery calls, Jones clearly won two rounds and Gustafsson won one. The other three rounds were close enough to have gone either way. In that sense, either fighter could have won with this scoring system, and the result would have been fair. But, no matter who won, roughly half the people would have cried robbery (a post-show poll I did had it 44 percent for Jones, 43 percent for Gustafsson and 13 percent had it a draw), given most polls after the fight had it close.

Another issue that skews things after the fight is that those who are the maddest complain the loudest. In close fights, the initial reaction is almost always vehement that the wrong person won. In reality, actual polls a few days later of the public often show a very different reaction, since those who agree with the decision are less likely to make a commotion.

There are going to be a number of championship and high-profile fights with close rounds, or close overall.  And no system is going to make close fights more decisive. Over the course of time, when it comes to super close fights, fans are going to end up seeing who won different from the judges roughly half the time if they know the sport, and about the same if they don't. And there are robberies. The human element guarantees there always will be.

The latest controversy was Saturday's (well, Friday in North America) fight with Mark Hunt vs. Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva. This was more the judging than the system. In that case, one could make an argument for rounds three and five for Hunt and round four for Silva being 10-8 rounds. All three judges, and almost everyone, were in agreement on Silva taking rounds one and four, Hunt taking three and five. I thought Silva won round two solidly since Hunt was clearly in trouble from low kicks at the end of the round.

But in this fight, two judges gave Hunt a 10-8 fifth for a draw. The argument to me is that Silva's round four was closer to a finish than Hunt's round five. Hunt was all but saved by the round ending. Silva may have been saved by the referee in round five, but it wasn't quite as clear. The funny thing is the 10-8 scores ended up making it a great story, in a fight where fans really didn't want either man to lose due to their performance. In this case, the judges application of the system made for the best final story. But was it a fair application of the system?

The goal of a scoring system should be twofold. The scoring system should judge who won the fight overall in the fairest of contexts as often as possible. Judges should be as competent as possible. And robberies should be as low a percentage a possible. Some of those issues are limitations of scoring. Others have to do with the selection of judges. Some like to look at ignoring the former issue and thinking the problem is the latter. In reality, it'll do little good to ignore either issue.

The best judges are limited with the current system. In St-Pierre vs. Hendricks and Lawler vs. MacDonald, fights where one guy probably won the fight overall (Hendricks) and one guy clearly won the fight overall (Lawler), and where two judges in one case and one in the other, had a scorecard that read differently. The issues were system related, not judge selection or competency related.

The fact that people are going to get mad no matter the system at times is not an excuse for closing our minds and just leaving the current system in place, which is kind of what happened when the Association of Boxing Commissions pretty much ditched further discussion of the half-point system.

Here is the situation involving different scoring systems and ideas, starting with what is in place and other ideas that at least should be considered.

Ten point must system as is used today:
STRENGTHS - It's relatively simple, and fans, fighters and camps are used to it. It also does get the right winner most of the time. There are fights that make you shake your head, but there was not even one bad round score of any judge in GSP vs. Hendricks, Jones vs. Gustafsson or MacDonald vs. Lawler. But either fighter could have won.
WEAKNESSES - All rounds are not created equal. One could do everything short of maim a guy for two rounds, fight even for the other three, have clearly won a fight, and very justifiably under the scoring system have lost the decision. If it all came down the equal blows, and granted, nothing is ever equal, a guy could have a 20-18 edge in strikes, which is close enough to lose a round, then follow with a 30-5 edge, and there is a good chance the fight would be equal going into the third round.
HOW TO MAKE IT BETTER - Ten-point must can increase its efficiency, but it would require every single judge and every single commission to understand and implement these changes. The best application of ten point must is to score the majority of rounds 10-8, not 10-9. A normal winning round is a 10-8. A close round is a 10-9. A dead-heat round should be able to be judged 10-10, but commissions are so negative on that score that judges feel if they do it, then they'll never be asked back. A round which one guy who where he significantly damages the opponent, would be a 10-7, which should be awarded far more liberally than the current 10-8s. With this system, MacDonald vs. Lawler goes from a coin flip fight that could go either way, to most likely a win for Lawler, and at worse a draw.  The problem here is that every single judge in the country was taught a different way, and changing that mentality without changing the system will be almost impossible.

Half-point system:
EXPLANATION OF CHANGE: This would be to change the scoring system. A close round win becomes a 10-9.5 round. A normal round win is a 10-9, as it is now. A 10-8.5 round is when someone wins decisively, but not quite strong enough for what would be considered a 10-8 round today. A 10-8 round remains the same.
STRENGTHS - Since there isn't the years of having it drummed into people's heads, there won't be the impossibility of change to make the system more effective than in changing the ten-point-must, since the majority of rounds would still be 10-9. It was tried out for a year in California at the amateur level and most judges, the people who would understand the best, favored it. Some did so strongly. The key with this system, is all winning rounds are no longer equal, since they shouldn't be. A strongly won round is of more value than a close round or a coin-flip round.  In Lawler vs. MacDonald, Lawler's round three meant no more in scoring than the even round one, which is ridiculous. The person the judge believes won the fight overall will also be the person winning on their scorecard a higher percentage of the time than the current system.
WEAKNESSES - It seems silly to use half points when any strength of using this system can be done by tweaking the existing system. Some argue under high pressure, numbers will be added up wrong (remember the Demetrious Johnson vs. Ian McCall fiasco in Australia and that was with a simpler system?). Others will note that the system was used in the U.K. in boxing and was considered a failure and too confusing for the public. But that was also implemented over ten or 12 rounds and not three or five. Also, judging should not be dumbed down for the public in exchange for yielding the wrong winner more often. In California when used, 11 percent of judges cards ended up with a different fighter winning with this system than in ten-point must, which is significant. But only three percent of fights ended up with a different winner. Ultimately it was viewed that this percentage wasn't enough to warrant a change. However, a key argument against the system, that it would lead to more draws, which nobody wants, statistically ended up not happening at all. But the big weakness, as I saw when it was used in kickboxing, is the judging may end up not that much different. What happened was the old 10-9 round became a 10-9.5. It started taking a knockdown to many judges to get a 10-9. So it made no difference. If that's the mentality, than any change is a waste of time.
HOW TO MAKE IT BETTER - When implemented correctly, it's superior to what is in place. Lawler vs. MacDonald is the perfect example.  In that fight, there was a 50 percent chance under the ten point must that MacDonald could have won, which is the wrong decision. With this system, while not foolproof, the odds of Lawler winning are higher, and the odds of Hendricks winning would also be higher. Still, neither result would be guaranteed.

Pride system:
EXPLANATION OF CHANGE - The name "Pride system," for when judges simply pick the winner when the fight is over, becomes an issue right there. Part of the problem is there were more bad decisions in Pride using this system than in UFC during the same time frame using a more flawed system. But that's because Pride should never have been confused with sport.  Pride was a spectacle, essentially a pro wrestling promotion made real, with all the issues of marketing, matchmaking and officiating designed to make and preserve stars far more strongly than anything that would be allowed in a regulated U.S. environment. That said, the first few years of UFC after judging was implemented in 1996, used this method. And it worked better than the current system.
STRENGTHS - The strongest point in favor is that this system guarantees that the person the judge believes won the fight will be the person that wins on their card. It's a 100 percent certainty instead of maybe a 90 percent certainty.
WEAKNESSES - There is the feeling, people being human and all, that this system favors what happens later in the fight. There is already the feeling that if one fighter dominates the first minute of the round and another dominates the last minute exactly the same, and the middle is even, that the person who dominated the last minute will win the round most of the time. With this system, that only tends to exaggerate that issue. Round-by-round scoring was put into effect so make sure the first and last round, in theory, had equal value. In addition, even if it is a better system, points have been used in judging combat sports for a long time, to quantify results after the fact. Eliminating scoring based on points in a commission-regulated environment would be almost impossible.
HOW TO MAKE IT BETTER - There is really no way to make this system better. There's just a reality that this system has almost no chance to pass, even if there is an argument it's the best way to judge.

Combination:
EXPLANATION - This is the name for an idea that Andy Foster, the Executive Office of the California State Athletic Commission, wrote about recently. His idea was to continue the system that is in place, but at the end of the fight, the judge has the option to give the nod to the fighter he has losing on his score sheet.
STRENGTHS - This would allow a judge, if they felt their score rendered the wrong winner, to pick who they really believed won. In theory, there would be no excuse with this system for a judge make a decision for a person they don't believe overall won the fight, and still keeps the point total that could be used as a guide. The idea is a judge, at the end of the fight, would be less adept to favor the final part of the fight over the earlier part because of having to score each round. But it allows them to compensate for the fact all rounds aren't equal, and gives them a chance to overrule if they feel strongly their scores don't reflect who should win.
WEAKNESSES - This would open up a lot of controversy. Fans and corners will still play the counting rounds game, and any time a judge overrules his own card, they'll be subject to criticism by anyone in a close fight who goes the other way. In that sense, I would only expect a judge to overrule his points in the most extreme of conditions, so in the big picture, a half-point of a "Pride" system in implementation may end up being more effective. But having the right to do so is better than not having that right.
HOW TO MAKE IT BETTER - Again, the system as presented is better than the one in place, and would be easier to ratify than one with no points involved at all. Still, this would have a very difficult time passing. Judging with half points, or judging with the normal round score being 10-8 would improve this system and also require less overruling of a judges score. In that sense, this may be the best solution. But because this requires the most changes, it would be the hardest to get through.

Criteria points:
EXPLANATION - There is nothing exact on this now. The idea is there would be a set up scoring system for moves. Takedowns, knockdowns, back position, passing guard, head kicks, body kicks, near submissions would all but subject to point scoring, similar to wrestling or sports Jiu Jitsu.
STRENGTHS - The criteria of what is worth what would be less vague. Fighters, fans and their corners will know the score at all points of a fight.
WEAKNESSES - First of all, putting a scoring system in place that encompasses offensive moves from so many different sports would be difficult. You have to do something that doesn't favor a discipline, which would be very tricky. Also, the sport itself would change very significantly. Fighters would be constantly looking for point scoring moves as opposed to taking risks or finishing a fight. That already happens now, but with a definitive scoring system, it would be stronger, as shown in sports like wrestling, Jiu Jitsu and judo where concentrating on scoring moves now comes ahead of concentrating on finishing moves. If someone is stronger at finishing from side control than mount, when they get to side control, they'll be looking at getting the points for moving to mount if it's a point scoring position change. Some fighters are strong at finishing from guard, but in a points game, instead of finishing, they'll be looking primarily at moving to score more points. For a wrestler, if points are scored for takedowns, they may take someone down, let them up, rinse and repeat, like happens all the time in amateur wrestling. They may be stronger at finishing, or doing damage, if they took the guy down and worked for a finish, but camps and fighters will learn to train for the game. It will become more a points game than a fight, and probably lose a lot in crowd appeal.
HOW TO MAKE IT BETTER - Instead of points for takedowns, guard passing, or strikes, only have points for near finishes, whether they be having someone in real trouble with strikes, or submissions. That way you don't tailor a strategy toward scoring moves, but a strategy toward finishing. The issue then becomes who decides what is real trouble.

Open scoring:
EXPLANATION - No matter what criteria is used, at the end of the round, the scores are made public.
STRENGTHS - Fighting is the only sport where the participants really don't know what the score is when they are competing. If a fighter and their corner knows, they can more effectively strategize and adjust to win instead of assume and perhaps be way off. For fans, if they know going into the final round that it will absolutely decide it, it will make the fight more exciting.
WEAKNESSES - If it's a fight with one or two close rounds, but one fighter knows he's up two rounds to none, the strategy may be to run out the clock. Still, most sports have those same issues and it doesn't seem to harm them.  And if you look at football or basketball, and say as a spectator when watching no score is kept or known, and when time runs out, judges will decide based on their memories of which team they think did better, you could say it would heighten the excitement of the ruling. But, if you think about it, it's preposterous. Yet, combat sports actually play under those preposterous rules. If a favored fighter loses a close round, fans may get mad as the fight goes on instead of only at the finish. Perhaps that could influence judges.
HOW TO MAKE IT BETTER - One can argue that they could only inform the corners of the score and not the public to avoid negativity as the fight goes on, but still allow the fighters to make adjustments and know what is necessary for a win. But again, does fans knowing the score, and perhaps knowing blown calls as they happen as opposed to after the game is over, make all other sports less or more exciting?  So the idea that keeping fans in the dark for the dramatic announcement at the end, or risking spectators ire for bad calls while the game is still going on, is somehow worse more often than better seems a tough argument to make.

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