Any time there is a close fight in a high-profile championship situation, the next few hours are predictable.
Robbery. Fix. Incompetent judges.
Saturday night was no different, although the voices of reason came out pretty quickly afterwards. For the most part, it seems most people recognized none of the above came close to fitting the situation with Jon Jones retaining his light heavyweight title on a 49-46, 48-47 and 48-47 decision over Alexander Gustafsson in the now-greatest light heavyweight championship fight in UFC history.
Coming after the C.J. Ross fiasco last week in the Floyd Mayweather title defense -- not to mention some legitimately questionable scoring on that show's undercard -- the fight Jones and Gustafsson had was only bound to further the flames about judging. But in this fight, judging was not a problem. Even the current ten-point must system really wasn't a problem. The nature of the fight, and two rounds being so difficult to call, was the issue.
I thought it was pretty clear that Gustafsson won the first round, and Jones won rounds four and five. Rounds two and three were very close and could have gone either way. Any scorecard that ranged from 49-46 to Jones to 48-47 for Gustafsson was valid. Nobody clearly dominated the other in the fight overall or clearly won three rounds. Whoever won going to be lucky, but not undeserving.
As someone who has judged in the past, and unofficially has in real time judged nearly every UFC fight in the last decade plus, criticism of judges is at times valid. Scorecards can make you scratch your head. On rare occasions, they can be outrageous. But more often than not, it's overblown. With every close fight, the people with their tinfoil hats and conspiracy theories come out of the woodwork when, in actuality, they are just fights that could go either way.
So this as good a time to address a few things about judging, all of which Saturday's fight exemplified.
"It should have been a split decision" – Anyone who makes this comment should immediately be ignored on judging for the rest of their natural lives. Judges have no idea what the other judges are scoring or thinking. They are all independent. You can say that in a three-round fight it should have been 29-28, but even in the closest of fights, all three judges can be in agreement of who won and there is nothing wrong with the judging.
"Gustafsson didn't win by enough to take the championship" – No such thing exists. From the age of ten I heard the adage that you have to convincingly beat the champion to take his title, or that there is a champion's edge in a close fight. Undeniably, stars have the benefit, as do hometown favorites, because of crowd reaction since judges aren't in a soundproof booth. But they shouldn't. And by rules and regulations, they don't.
Once the fight starts, there is no champion. There are two people fighting for the championship. There is no such thing in MMA or boxing scoring where the tie goes to the runner. If two of the three judges on Saturday gave Gustafsson rounds two and three, and conceivably that could have happened, he'd be the champion, whether you thought he did enough to convincingly unseat Jones or not.
The only margin in winning is taking three rounds in a fight where there are no 10-8 scores. A judge can't redo his card. If two judges had scored Gustafsson winning three rounds, but both felt Jones' two rounds that he won were far stronger, and each felt Jones overall won the fight, Gustafsson would be champion. There should be no consideration as to who the champion is when scoring any individual rounds.
"It was close, the judge that had it 49-46 was crazy" – It was close. Chris Lee wasn't crazy, certainly not in this fight. It's rare, but you can have a razor close fight and end up 50-45. Razor-close fights ending 30-27 are not rare. You can have a near slaughter in the end and it end up 48-47. The score can reflect the closeness of the fight, but it's a round-by-round system. Plenty of 29-28 fights are not close fights at all.
Fightmetric in its post-fight analysis gave both of those rounds 10-10. The problem is that judges are strongly discouraged from handing out 10-10 rounds. In this case, on two of the three cards, the two close rounds evened each other out, though often that isn't the situation. But if Lee did believe two and three were close, and gave round two to Jones, there is supposed to be no such thing as evening it up. If I gave Jones round two and it's razor-close, and round three was also razor-close, there is a psychological tendency to even things up and be fair.
But that would be wrong. Each round is scored individually and what happened in prior rounds shouldn't play into it. Each round, in theory, is a blank slate.
If there was any controversy at UFC 165, it should have been Brian Beauchamp's 29-28 score for Roland Delorme over Alex Caceres. All three rounds were obvious, Delorme in the first and Caceres in two and three. It was an exciting fight, but it wasn't a close fight. The 29-28 score for Caceres sounds closer than 49-46 does. That's another example of looking at final scores and then arguing the fight was closer without taking the nature of how fights are scored into account.
The key thing, and this happens fairly often, particularly in three-round fights, is that the fighter who wins on a judge's card may not be the fighter who people believe won the overall bout. If there is a fight where the first two rounds were like rounds two and three of Jones-Gustafsson, and a third round was a one-sided domination, the judge who gave the same fighter the two close rounds can't go back and change their card to reflect who they thought really won the fight.
When I tell people, since this happens once every few shows, that I thought one guy won the fight but my score said somebody else, far too many people can't grasp the concept. I suppose you could give the guy who destroyed the other in round three a 10-7 to make up for it, but real-life scoring doesn't work like that, and you wouldn't last long in the judging world if you operated towards such compensation. And if the dominant round is the first or second, you can't "make up" a third round score to reflect who you think really won if your scores are going to say something else.
A perfect example of this was last weekend. I was watching the Lucas Matthysse vs. .Danny Garcia boxing match with the Mexican pro wrestling legend, Charles "Konnan" Ashenoff, a former amateur boxer and lifelong aficionado of that sport. He's the type of guy who when the fight is on falls into a state of hypnosis in watching it. He's watched boxing since childhood and has never scored a fight, yet has discussed badly scored fights with me in boxing and MMA for decades.
We were both scoring, in real time, and posting scores, as judges would do. When the fight was over, he said that Garcia won handily. Yet his scorecard was even. And when the actual scores came out, it wound up a split decision in a fight which, overall, nearly everyone thought Garcia won. When it was over, he remarked to me how many close rounds there are in boxing matches, and how eye-opening it was to actually score like a judge.
As for what happens next with Jones vs. Gustafsson, if both are healthy and ready to go, there should be a rematch. The vast majority of fans would rather see Jones against Gustafsson II than any fight other than a potential bout with Anderson Silva or Cain Velasquez. Daniel Cormier can afford a win at 205 first. Glover Teixeira can wait.
There are two types of title matches. There are the ones that happen because it's time for the champion to fight, and you pick the best guy available on that date. Anthony Pettis vs. Josh Thomson falls into that category. There's nothing wrong with the fight. It was the best fight available for the lightweight belt on that day. But not many people are dying to see it, nor was there a strong clamor beforehand prompting the UFC to make bring the fight together.
Jones vs. Teixeira falls into that category, just as Jones vs. Gustafsson did on Friday.
Then there are the fights people badly want to see, like Chris Weidman vs. Anderson Silva II or GSP vs. Nick Diaz. Jones vs. Gustafsson on Sunday is closer to this category. Historically, the UFC rarely -- if ever -- misses when it comes to the fight people want to see the most, particularly in this case, when a rematch is perfectly justified..
JON JONES - For all the talk of Jones' physical gifts, and they are certainly there, Jones' stature as the greatest light heavyweight fighter in UFC history needs to add another trait. Toughness under fire.
Jones (19-1) could have lost any of his last three fights. The armbar from Vitor Belfort should have finished him in the first round right then and there, but he survived and won. Given the adrenaline rush of a fight, most fighters would not have quit with the dislocated toe he suffered against Chael Sonnen in the first round. But had he not finished Sonnen immediately, that fight would have been called between rounds and he would have lost his title.
With Gustafsson, he was in a war with a guy at the top of his game. The fight was nearly stopped by the doctor after the fourth round. And with the benefit of hindsight, had Jones not turned it on late in round four -- a round he was handily losing -- the end result of the fight would have been different.
And he still needed to win round five, which he did.
This fight was the greatest thing for Jones for a number of reasons. There were a variety of reasons fans don't really like him. In the end, regardless of whatever they perceive of his personality, people are going to respect the guy who constantly survives adversity and sets records in the process.
The second thing is, unless Jones chooses to fool himself, he knows he easily could have lost this fight. It's a lesson because it should tell him that if he gives anything short of his best in training, he absolutely can be beat. For someone who had really only been in trouble for a split second in his entire career, it's good to learn that lesson in a fight that you win. Most aren't that fortunate.
For that reason, I almost feel sorry for who he faces next.
The third is, every great champion to reach his potential legacy needs that great rival. It looked like Jones was so far ahead of the pack that such a rival wasn't even born yet. Now he's got him.
ALEXANDER GUSTAFSSON – Gustafsson (15-2) may have lost the battle, but he came out of the fight as a new superstar. He also should be tougher his next time out. There should be a gain of confidence, knowing that he came within one minute in the fourth round of being champion. Plus, his improvement overall as a fighter from his last few bouts, particularly when it came to the wrestling, was incredible. At 26, if he can continue to improve at that rate, with his size and footwork, he's going to be one of the sport's biggest stars for years to come.
RENAN BARAO – A 33-1 record in this sport is hardly something you see very often. Barao was expected to beat Eddie Wineland, and did so by closing the deal in spectacular fashion with a spin kick to the side of the head.
In some form, the bantamweight title controversy is going to be settled early next year. Either Dominick Cruz recovers well enough to fight Barao, or Barao's interim title will become the accepted version.
Dana White had talked about early next year as a deadline for Cruz, but circumstances in play are probably going to give him until as long as April.
If Cruz is out of the picture, the top two contenders become Urijah Faber (29-6) and Michael McDonald (16-2), who fight on Dec. 14 in Sacramento, Calif., on FOX. If the winner isn't injured, the earliest that would set up a title fight with Barao is mid-March. But Barao beat both men convincingly in previous matches, so Cruz is likely to get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the timetable.
The only other alternatives for Barao would be an earlier fight against the winner of the Oct. 9 fight with Raphael Assuncao (20-4) against T.J. Dillashaw (8-1), or go with Takeya Mizugaki (18-7-2). But Cruz, or the Faber-McDonald winner, are clearly preferable.
EDDIE WINELAND – Wineland (20-9-1) was furious at the stoppage, and had won the first round on all three judges cards before losing early in the second.
Wineland has been around so long near the top that it's almost a surprise he's only 29, since he first won the WEC bantamweight title in 2006. The loss being by stoppage isn't going to help him, with so many contenders hovering around. Wineland is going to need a good win streak to get another shot.
KHABIB NURMAGOMEDOV – It's often said that the UFC's lightweight division has the most talent depth of any weight class in the sport. Yet this past week, when TJ Grant pulled out of his title fight with Anthony Pettis, it became clear that there was a lack of contenders.
Josh Thomson, who was in Nurmagomedov's corner for his decision win over Pat Healy Saturday night, got the title shot at Pettis based on an impressive performance in a knockout win over Nate Diaz in his first UFC fight since 2004. Thomson's previous fight was a close loss to Gilbert Melendez
What has happened in the lightweight division is that everyone has been knocking each other off. Nurmagomedov, now 21-0 with five straight UFC wins, looks to be close to (or now in) the position to be put in a top contenders fight. There are a long list of potential opponents, including Benson Henderson, Gilbert Melendez and Rafael dos Anjos.
Nurmagomedov also got a strong endorsement from Dana White when it was over, particularly citing his running Stampede slam, reminiscent of the Matt Hughes vs. Frank Trigg fight that White has always talked about as being one of his all-time favorites.
"This kid goes for it," said White at the press conference after the fight. "He went against a bigger, stronger, dude. He was getting hit with some big shots, Even against a bigger, stronger guy, he was hurting him."