Fortunes changed for five at UFC Fight Night 42

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Saturday night's Diego Sanchez win over Ross Pearson was an example of a different problem than many of the past scoring issues in MMA. This one is squarely on the judges. But all scoring problems will continue unless an attempt is made to revamp the system.

One of Dana White's favorite lines for years has been, "Don't leave it in the hands of the judges."

That's all well and good, except fighters continually evolve, learn better defense, and each year, more and more fights by percentage are going to go to the distance. No advice, or even financial incentives from above, is going to change that direction of the sport.

So judging has become more, not less important. And we've got a system that is broken in so many ways that the lack of meaningful attention to this problem gets more and more frustrating.

Saturday night it hit home harder than a hammer right to the forehead as Bruce Buffer read a score of 30-27 for Diego Sanchez, followed by another of 29-28, and we had a decision that was completely unjustifiable. In most people's eyes, Ross Pearson won all three rounds of the fight. He won the first round, but a late Sanchez flurry made it close. The second was not close, nor was the third.


More Coverage: UFC Fight Night 42 Results | UFC news
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Discussing MMA judging feels like a broken record. We know what is wrong. We know there is no way to completely fix it. But there are ways to improve it. None of those ways are even given lip service. By ignoring there is a problem, or just giving advice of telling fighters not to leave it to the judges, we guarantee a continuation of a problem that gives the sport a black eye. We'll just go through watching one out of every seven or eight deserving winners in fights that go to a decision get losses and have their careers and pocketbooks hurt while nothing is done.

Then, a few times a year, there is a Sanchez vs. Pearson fight.

Saturday's fight differed from the Georges St-Pierre vs. Johny Hendricks, where the problem was the ten-point must system, its application and it being the perfect fight to show its limitations. It differed from the first Jon Jones vs. Alexander Gustafsson bout, a close fight that Jones probably deserved to win, but the emotion of Gustafsson doing so much better than expected led to an uproar when he didn't.

This one is squarely on the judges, Jeff Collins, who should never judge another fight after giving Sanchez the second round, and Chris Tellez, who can be pardoned for giving Sanchez the first, but not the third. This was one where the ten-point must system, or any system other than flipping a coin or rock, paper, scissors, would have rendered Pearson winning, with competent judging.

I've always been negative about criteria scoring, as in points for successful application of different offensive moves. And if this discussion of judging would only come up once or twice a year, I'd still accept what we have.

But at this point, what's worse than it happening again is that it's going to continue to happen, because not only are no changes are going to be made, but nobody is even experimenting with changes.

So here's a few suggestions to start with:

In the case of a decision like this, don't bring the judges back. This won't help in close fights, because there always human subjectivity in a close one. This is a unique sport. Close calls going in either direction have to be accepted as long as there are judges. I used to feel it's part of the sport and just what you have to accept, but I'm wavering strongly from that position now. But judging is a difficult process, particularly in MMA when there is such a wide variety of offensive techniques to consider. But outright bad judges tend to make a preponderance of really bad calls. We don't need them. We don't want them.

As long as we have a ten-point must system, and there is so much sentiment not to change to either judging the fight as a whole (which UFC did in its early years and while there was controversy over close calls, there was far less than now, and its the system Pride used during most of its tenure) or using half-points, then retool the system to allow for differentiation.

For MMA this system would work far better if judges were told that a standard round is 10-8.  A 10-9 is only reserved for a close round. Any significant damage in a round by one side over the other should be a 10-7 round. A fully dominant round, such as would be scored a 10-8 today, either with a near finish, or one man in control and hurting the other throughout, should be a 10-6. That at least eliminates the ten point must's major flaw, the two coin-flip close rounds and the totally dominant round fight where the obvious winner can easily be the loser.

There also should be experimenting done with a variety of new systems.

My suggestion is that at UFC shows, starting as soon as possible, a number of things should be put into place for experimental consideration.

The first is having two more judges. They would judge but their scores wouldn't count for now. But the local athletic commissions, the Association of Boxing Commissions and the UFC's Marc Ratner should get the scores and file them away. At the end of the year, examine if there would be any degree of change. For example, in this case, if the other two judges had voted for Pearson, yeah, the Collins and Tellez cards would still have been ridiculous, but at least the right guy would have won the fight. Maybe five judges aren't better than three, but if we don't experiment with it over the course of time, we may have an easy solution to at least the problem of really bad calls.

Better yet, have two or three judges at other shows who use the system outlined in category B, where far more points are used, and again, at the end of a year, examine what percentage of decisions end up different and evaluate it from there.

The third is start experimenting with criteria decisions rather than judges points. I did an article some months back explaining the work of Bakersfield College professor Danny Edwards' attempt to revamp scoring. His work, covering the entire year of 2013, can be seen at www.ScoreThatFight.com. The point system used doesn't have to be exactly what he proposed, but there is something about a scoring system where judges aren't involved at all. It becomes about different offensive moves. I was dead set against this type of system for years, but each time something like Saturday's fight happens, my feelings change more and more.

Every problem people will come up with on why that system won't work are problems already embedded into the sport. Last night's fight is emblematic of them.

Pearson used skill and footwork, defensive wrestling, and did more than enough to win every round. He fought to win on the scorecards. He didn't take risks because his game plan was working fine. He won handily. At least with a criteria system, he'd have gotten his hand raised. Today, you can fight the smart strategic fight that is effective, but doesn't finish, or fight a dumb and losing fight, get out struck, get out grappled, get in little offense, but neither guarantees the outcome.

There could be small or even major flaws in any of these systems. There is no perfect system. But unless a variety of systems are experimented with, we'll never know what works best, or maybe there's even combinations of systems that eliminate as many outright awful decisions, and at least get the close ones right more often. But even with their flaws, every suggested experimental system is better than the one we have. And it's not getting better.

How bad was the Pearson-Sanchez judging?

It wasn't the worst ever, but I have to go back to Jessica Aguilar vs. Zoila Frausto, and that was nearly four years ago, to name a fight that I'd conclusively say was more of a robbery than this.

Let's look at how Fortunes changed for five stars of the show:

BENSON HENDERSON - Henderson (21-3), clearly riled up about being criticized about winning so often via decision, to the point he went on a press conference rant about it, scored with a beautiful punch combo into a choke with split-second reaction time to finish Rustam Khabilov.

Henderson is in a unique position right now. Henderson went into the fight as the No. 2 contender for the lightweight title behind Gilbert Melendez, even though he beat Melendez in a fight that could have gone either way. Because he's lost twice to champion Anthony Pettis, he's going to have a tough time getting a title shot. If Melendez was to beat Pettis in their scheduled December title match, Henderson at this point would be the logical contender.
But it's too long to sit and wait.

The funny story about Saturday's fight is that when Henderson accepted it, he confused Khabilov with fellow Dagestani fighter Khabib Nurmagomedov (22-0). But at this stage, that's the fight that makes the most sense. For Henderson, straight wins over Josh Thomson, Khabilov and Nurmagomedov should be enough to get him a title shot no matter who is champion. If Nurmagomedov wins, that's a 23-0 record, and that should be a lock for him to get the next shot.

RUSTAM KHABILOV - Khabilov (17-2) was finished for the first time in his career by Henderson, but this may be the perfect example of a loss as a learning experience.

Khabilov had been able to use power throws to have his way with almost all opponents. It made for entertaining fights, but it's a style that wasn't going to work as well with the top tier lightweights with stronger balance and takedown defense. The energy expenditure of that style also takes it toll in longer championship and main event fights.

Khabilov was ahead of Henderson on two of the three judges scorecards after three rounds. So he proved he has the ability to hang with the top guys. He admitted that he needed more stamina, as Henderson was fresher in round four than he was. Plus, Henderson has five years experience fighting top level guys, and being in title fights. For Khabilov, this was his first fight against someone of this level.

As far as name recognition goes, he probably got more with this loss than any of his prior wins. Rafael dos Anjos (21-7), who beat Jason High on Saturday, would make for a good next foe to be a real test as he tries to shore up those weaknesses.

DIEGO SANCHEZ - Sanchez (27-7), made it very clear what he wants next, as he challenged Nate Diaz to a fight when the UFC debuts at Arena Ciudad in Mexico City on Nov. 15.

"This was my dream fight," Sanchez said about being on the first UFC event ever in Albuquerque, where he grew up. "My other dream fight was to fight in Mexico City, or anywhere in Mexico. Since 2005, they've (the UFC) been talking about Mexico. I just got a win. I'm looking to get on the card. I'd like a fight with Diaz. I'd love to give Mexico a Diego Sanchez vs. Diaz fight."

But there are serious questions regarding Sanchez. It's not that he, by all rights, should have lost three in a row, and some would argue given his close wins over Takanori Gomi and Martin Kampmann, that it should be six. There was no shame in his loss to Melendez, a top title contender who he had one of the best fights in years against. But with Pearson, the old Sanchez probably would have taken this fight. There was no question watching the speed and reflexes that at 32, and having been in notable wars with Melendez, Jake Ellenberger, Kampmann, B.J. Penn and so many others, that he's showing the repercussions. Sanchez vs. Diaz may sound good to Sanchez today, but that's a style match-up that is not pleasant to think about for Saturday night's version.

ROSS PEARSON - Pearson (17-7, 1 no contest) was robbed of his biggest name scalp on his trophy case, and his win bonus. The one positive of this is those in UFC who make the decisions, like Dana White, consider Pearson the real winner, so it won't be held against him in career opportunities.

Because of that, Pearson could make a good opponent next for Gomi on the September show in Saitama, Japan. Putting Gomi on that show is a natural. Pearson has been around for five years, and coming off winning Ultimate Fighter 9, he's better known than most lightweights who would be considered viable foes for Gomi.

JOHN DODSON - With his stoppage of John Moraga after two rounds, Dodson (17-6) is in a unique position. He can legitimately challenge either flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson or bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw.

White had already said that if Dodson won the fight, he'd be in line for the next shot at the flyweight belt, that Johnson puts up against Ali Bagautinov this coming Saturday in Vancouver, B.C. But Dodson's first UFC fight, on Dec. 3, 2011, in Las Vegas, was the TUF season 14 final at bantamweight, where he knocked out Dillashaw in just 1:54.

The flyweight title fight is almost surely coming first. Dodson lost to Johnson on Jan. 26, 2013. In that fight, Dodson knocked Johnson down four times in the first two rounds, but Johnson's conditioning edge led to him winning the last rounds to take the decision.

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