College professor attempts to revamp mixed martial arts fight scoring with introduction of points-based system

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sp

A former sportswriter and Bakersfield professor who became an MMA fan a decade ago, was immediately turned off by them using the ten-point must system that led to so many problems in boxing. He figured, as a new sport, it would work itself out. Years later, with nothing changed, he tried to come up with a solution.

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine from college came by and talked about something every MMA fan hears about after almost every show. It's something I've heard, literally, since childhood, long before there was a such thing as MMA, except you could substitute boxing for the conversation.

It had to do with judging, judges, scoring, ten point-must, and four letter words. You'll have to imagine the actual conversation, but it's pretty easy to know the content. Over the years, my friend would bring it up to me several more times. I'd continually dismiss the notion of it and never think about it again.

My friend said how the system has to go. I said it was here to stay. Of course it has its problems, which are much deeper than bad judging, which also exists in some cases. The current system has inherent flaws, the biggest being the inability to differentiate between close rounds and decisive rounds.

As someone who scores every single UFC fight as it happens, like a judge when the round is over, with no erasing and changing your mind after the fact allowed, there are fights every few weeks where my scores indicate somebody won who really shouldn't have won. It's the weakness of ten-point must. And I'm far more liberal than most MMA judges on 10-8 scores, which are horribly underutilized, particularly when a round ends in something just short of justifiable homicide and two of the three judges score it 10-9.

The absolute silliness of 10-9 scores for round five of the first Shogun Rua vs. Dan Henderson fight, round one of the Brock Lesnar vs. Shane Carwin fight and round three of the recent Fabio Maldonado vs. Gian Villante fight, giving the round win the same valuation as an even coin-toss round, is one problem. But even correctly used, the rubber stamping 10-9s even with 10-8s used for dominant rounds is still not going to work to tell who should have won the fight in a significant percentage of cases.

Anyway, he brought up another old friend of mine from college, a longtime sportswriter who is now a college journalism professor, who was a sports stat freak. He'd become a huge MMA fan, but quickly became disenchanted with aspects of it, particularly the frequent bad decisions and arguments over who won that ensued. He worked hard to develop a system of scoring based on giving points for a variety of different attacks, and was testing it out.

My reaction? The same as everyone else's. You can't quantify points for moves in MMA. It's about trying to win a fight, not win a scoring contest. Instead of trying to use techniques to win the fight, the mindset will switch to looking for scoring superficial points.

The flaw in that argument is MMA is already like that, but worse. People are fighting to win rounds in every fight, only they have no idea what they even need to do, because what wins a round in one judges' eye, loses it in another.

The worst thing that could happen is guys don't do much standing for a few minutes, then wait until late in the round, when it's the last thing the judges will remember, to shoot for a takedown. Those rounds happen all the time. With a point system that scores every offensive move, it will encourage more aggression. At worst, it'll result in exactly what we already have, but with less dispute over who won the round.

Recently, I got a package from an unknown address, opened it up, and there was a booklet touting a MMA points system. I took a quick glance, immediately came to the conclusion it would never work, knew for sure it would never be implemented, and put it down. Later, I scolded myself for being narrow-minded, realizing that's the same mentality that has kept the currently flawed system in place for a dozen years. So, I started reading. Remaining skeptical of the point system, I saw a breakdown of fights from 2013 under this system, the outcomes, focusing on the fights where the outcome was different from what the judges had.

Two things struck me immediately. The first is that there were more disputes than I would have thought. The second was, in those disputes, in every case, the fights I thought were really bad decisions last year were scored the right way under this system. And in the vast majority of disputed cases, I agreed with the winners in the booklet.

In examining the data further, it was clear that, on paper, this system was superior, perhaps significantly so, in determining who really won the fight. Then I saw the author was the same Danny Edwards, the former sportswriter for years at the Fresno Bee who is now teaching at Bakersfield College, that I had been told about for a couple of years.

"I started watching MMA fairly regularly in 2004 and 2005," said Edwards. "Immediately, I was stunned that they were using the ten-point must system that I couldn't stand in boxing. And in MMA, there is so much going on and so many ways to score. I'd see decisions where one judge would have it 30-27 for one fighter and another judge would have it 30-27 for the other fighter. That comes off as a lack of credibility to an average sports fan who is trying to get into a sport where judges disagreed on every round. It begged that they needed a more quantifiable way to determine a fight outcome. I figured, it was a new sport, and someone would eventually figure this out.

"Years went by. I thought, `How hard can this be?'  So I just decided to start giving points for what fighters do in the cage. Then the first (Dan) Henderson-(Shogun) Rua fight, and the (Nick) Diaz-(Carlos) Condit fight happened. In both of those cases, I thought the other fighter won from just watching the fight. So I put points to things that they did in the cage. After scoring a few fights, I adjusted, added some things, and took some things out. Then, I went back and scored those fights. It came up that Rua beat Henderson, and with Diaz vs. Condit, I had Diaz winning, but just barely."

This booklet, available on the web at www.ScoreThatFight,com consisted of Edwards implementing his point system for every fight that went to the judges that aired on television or pay-per-view for the UFC, Bellator and the final Strikeforce show in 2013. 

Edwards scored 434 fights last year, of which, 45 percent went the distance. In all, just over 18 percent of the total in 2013, had different winners under his system. That's nearly one in every five fights that went the distance.

Sometimes it was due to arguably correct interpretation of the flawed ten-point must system (Georges St-Pierre's welterweight title win over Johny Hendricks), or fights with outright bad judging (Tim Boetsch awarded a win over C.B. Dollaway or Ryan Couture over K.J. Noons, Jessica Eye over Sarah Kaufman or Phil Davis over Lyoto Machida). But in most cases, they were close fights that could have gone either way.

Because the system is superior than the current one when used on fights where the fighters and corners aren't trying to work to score within the system, doesn't mean it will be superior when implemented. But it does mean people should be opened-minded enough to consider that it might be.

If it was to change how fighters fight in their quest for superficial points, it may have a motivational flaw. But again, that flaw already exists in the sport today. The system does not have the inherent scoring flaws the ten-point must system does. 

I had always figured it was about five percent of judged fights go the wrong way, not 18 percent. But that was based on accepting any close round could go either way. Robberies, like what happened to Dollaway, do exist. Yet, with the current system, you have to accept judges have a tough job in close rounds, which in MMA, constitute a lot of rounds in a lot of fights. In other words, in my mind, anything close gets a pass.

In a sport with short careers, losing close fights, besides losing out on win bonuses, often decrease ones opportunities for bigger fights. Sometimes UFC will overlook a bad judges decision in evaluating future matchmaking, but often times losers of close fights where they should have won can lose championship matches, title opportunities, have to move weight classes, or can even lose their jobs.

"These guys are professionals and somebody's getting a win taken away," said Edwards. "With a different system, they'd get their victory, their record wouldn't be damaged, they would get bigger fights, and in some cases, they would stay under contract. I'd be really worried if I was a fighter about a profession where a subjective decision could cost so much."

The basics of the point system is that every strike that lands, whether standing or on the ground, counts as a point. Jabs and strikes without much force are worth one point. Strikes that land with force are worth two points. Strikes that do real damage are worth three points. A knockdown is also worth an additional three points.

The ground game has elements of wrestling, but with the submission factor added. A takedown is worth two points. A reversal, or sweep, is worth two points. Getting up from the bottom is worth one point. Keeping an opponent grounded is worth two points every 30 seconds, similar to riding time points in college wrestling. Submission attempts, which likely should be ruled on by trained referees, similar to back exposure points in wrestling, can be anywhere from one to four points, depending on things like time span, and how close they are to finishing.

There are also ways to lose points, which also, scored by a referee, would be anywhere from one to five points. In the case of rules violations, there are no warnings, just one point lost for a first offense and more for subsequent offenses. They would be utilized for the obvious MMA fouls: knees to the head of a downed opponent, strikes to the back of the head, groin strikes, grabbing the cage, grabbing the opponents' shorts, as well as stalling or passivity.

In Henderson vs. Rua, Henderson, through his point system, won the first round 26-24, a very close round. Rua won the fifth round 72-1, among the most one-sided rounds you'll ever see that doesn't have a stoppage. All three judges gave equal value to Henderson's first round win and Rua's fifth round win when rendering the decision 48-47 for Henderson.

Can you imagine that in almost any other major sport except boxing and tennis? And even in tennis, there is quantifiable scoring and both players know exactly what the score is throughout the match. A questionable call can affect things, as happens in every sport. But when it's over, you don't have a seemingly weekly argument where half the people, and often more, think the loser really won.

Overall, Rua outscored Henderson 175-122. He also has a second system, which is utilizing the ten point must system, but with more concrete specifications. A round won by one to nine points would be a 10-9 win. If winning by ten 19 to points, it's a 10-8. Wins by 20-29 points become a 10-7 round. In the case of Rua winning a round by 71 points, that's a 10-2 round. In using round scoring, Rua scored a solid 44-39 win.

In Hendricks vs. St-Pierre, he had Hendricks winning 171-136 in total points, and 49-44 in round scoring, based on his strongly winning rounds two and four. In Jon Jones vs. Alexander Gustafsson, he had Jones winning 131-111, but all five rounds were close. He only had Gustafsson out pointing Jones in round three, leading to a 49-46 win for Jones.
He also had Michael Chandler winning the rematch over Eddie Alvarez in Bellator on Nov. 2, by a 120-99 score, and 46-43 based on rounds scoring.

"With a points system, there is no getting it right or wrong," he said. "There are just the points. There are no judges, just scorekeepers, trained in scoring fights.

It took time to come up with the system, as he wanted to balance out points for striking with points for ground work. He noted frustration where guys would dominate the stand-up most of the round, get taken down late, and lose the round, or the exact opposite, a striking edge early, followed by the other fighter dominating most of the round on the ground, and the striking sometimes winning the round.

"This system will take away the stealing rounds at the end," he noted.

This is a sport where, if it was an NBA game, a team winning 96-92 would very often be judged the loser of the game, either based on quarter scoring instead of game scoring, or human error in remembering who scored the most baskets since this sport doesn't allow its judges to have a scoreboard to look at when the round is over. And the players in the game would never know the score, and even if in their head they knew they scored more than the other team, because when the game was over, they could be surprised by the outcome.

"I wasn't planning on scoring a year's worth of fights," said Edwards. "Even in a fight where it's an obvious 30-27, if someone didn't see the fight, they would think it was one-sided. But there have been 30-27 fights that were really close fights. With this, it's like a baseball box score where you can look at it and see what really happened in the game. You can look at the rounds and the scoring and get a better idea of what really happened in the fight."

Last summer, at the UFC Fan Expo, Edwards asked UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta his thoughts about the system in place. Fertitta told him that a new system would be better than the ten-point must, but UFC was trying to get fighters with the mentality of wanting to finish fights, not outscoring opponents. Edwards felt that a system that clearly rewards activity and aggression would lead to more action and finishes.

The best idea would be to test the system out on smaller shows, perhaps amateur shows, gather enough feedback to be meaningful, likely tweak some components, experiment with others, and report back. There could be problems, but in its present sense, this system is superior in determining who won fights based on how fighters fight right now.
Edwards also feels the current system limits the growth of the sport.

"We don't have that average sports fan because they don't like vague decisions," Edwards said. "American sports fans like clear-cut outcomes. In Robbie Lawler vs. Johny Hendricks, Lawler felt he did enough to win. With the current point system, you don't even know what that means." 

"You can train scorekeepers and the results would be more objective, not subjective," he said.

"It would help MMA's credibility with the average sports fan who wants bottom line value to scores and not just subjective opinions."

Edwards isn't sure if the scoring should be revealed as the fight goes on, or just used for decisions, but does see the merit of fans and everyone knowing the score as the fight is going on, as that would make it just like almost any other sport except boxing. Even in sports like figure skating, diving and gymnastics, where the winners are based on subjective judging as opposed to quantifiable point scoring methods, the competitors, and fans, know the scores and who is winning after every round. 

"I'm not sure about showing the scores after every round or just announcing them at the end of the fight," he said, but did say he was swayed in the direction of scores being shown.

The positive of the latter is fighters know exactly where they are in a fight and what they need to do to win. It lends to a natural increase in excitement because every offensive move matters, and there are no surprises and far less arguments when it's over. Plus, fans would know absolutely when a fight is close and what the two fighters need to do, instead of everyone playing the guessing and hope game.

The idea this can't work in a sport like this is contradicted by the fact college wrestling, judo, jiu-jitsu and other sports that make up the bases of the complete fighting sport that is MMA, all have point systems .Nothing eliminates disputes over close calls and those will never go away completely, but on a percentage basis, disputes about who won are far less in those sports.

In watching the recent NCAA wrestling tournament, while there were occasional arguments over ref calls, the fact that every spectator, every corner and every competitor knew the score from start-to-finish added excitement to the matches, as opposed to taking it away, the fear of open scoring in combat sports. And when every match was over, there were no arguments over who won.

The argument that a fighter would coast after building up a big lead can be true, but such a thing happens in every sport, including those far more popular than MMA. Giving referees strong latitude to dock points for stalling or passivity in that event would go a long way toward fixing that. But in the end, being scared of that hurting the sport is silly, because the NFL has that problem, and no sport in this country is more popular than the NFL.

The only reason that isn't the case in MMA is because it wasn't the case in boxing.  In that sense, because they are governed by the same commissions, MMA has followed the path of a sport that has been plagued for decades with popularity losses among the average sports fan and credibility issues to the public, based on fans disagreeing too often with who was awarded the wins at the end of the fights.

"With this system, there is no such thing as a split decision, or a majority draw," Edwards said.

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