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Click Debate: Why do so few people understand MMA's judging criteria?

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

While there was outrage on social media after UFC 195, the feeling at the FOX Sports 1 post-show desk seemed to be more of confusion Saturday night.

Robbie Lawler beat Carlos Condit in the main event by split decision. That's the fact. How two of the three Nevada judges came to that conclusion was under scrutiny.

The fight was determined by the third round. Condit pretty clearly won the first and fourth; Lawler took the second and fifth. Most people had Condit winning the third and that's where the puzzlement reared its head.

"A judge is always looking for something different," Kenny Florian said on the show. "Sometimes they're impressed with flashy techniques. Sometimes it's the guy who's moving forward. Sometimes they're just looking for the big shots, the ones that are landing and have the most impact. It's really tough to get a hold of what these judges are looking for as a fighter, as a coach. The only thing you can do is just focus on your game plan and going out there and winning round by round the best that you can."

Can you imagine an NFL analyst coming onto a wrap-up show after a close game and saying no one truly knows how a team wins a football game? It's insane, isn't it?

What's crazier is that Florian is absolutely right. And he's not just an analyst. Florian was a pro fighter for eight years and perennial UFC contender. Now he's regarded as one of the sharpest minds on MMA television.

Two seats to Florian's left, UFC welterweight contender Tyron Woodley, who has a good shot at facing Lawler next, didn't provide many answers, either.

"What about the volume?" Woodley sad. "Carlos Condit landed more punches than Robbie Lawler even threw. Are they judging on damage, power shots or are they judging on actually points landed? It's hard to know what they're judging."

Whenever we get a disputed decision like this, we hear words like "volume" and "aggression" and "Octagon control" bandied about. Those are all secondary methods of scoring rounds, at best. Yet we still hear fans and fighters alike using those terms as well as phrases like "that takedown stole the round."

John McCarthy, the godfather of MMA officials and a man who helped pen the unified rules of the sport, teaches in his seminars that judging rounds is done by the following criteria, in descending order: effective striking and effective grappling, ring or cage control, and then effective aggressiveness. Only if the striking and grappling are equal do you then even consider the latter two items.

What defines effective striking? There's another misconception. Yes, it is damage. The "d" word is never written specifically in the unified rules, because at the time leaders were afraid state athletic commissions would shy away from the sport because of the raw terminology. Effective grappling is defined by significant submission attempts more than position. And if a fighter gets a takedown and does absolutely nothing with it, it's not supposed to count for anything unless it's a slam with notable amplitude.

"What is effective striking?" McCarthy said. "Well, effective striking is strikes that cause damage to the opponent in a way where they are limited in their ability to adjust to, limited in their ability to be offensive off of it and it is affecting their ability to fight effectively against their opponent. That's what a damaging strike is or effective strike. To sit there and say a fighter is not trying to damage their opponent, it's not being honest."

All of these things seem fairly straightforward. So why do so few fighters know how judges are taught to score fights? You better believe everyone in the NFL knows a touchdown is six points and a field goal is three.

The fault, to me, lies mostly with the athletic commissions. They're the ones regulating the proceedings and enforcing the rules. They're the ones installing judges and referees. They should be way more proactive about informing fighters and coaches how scoring is done.

"I'm gonna try to do a better job of that in 2016, on how these things are scored in California," California State Athletic Commission executive officer Andy Foster said. "Probably that's a failure on our part to not get that out to the public."

Part of the blame for all the misinformation lies with the promotions. The UFC has used the same words in its rules graphic for more than a decade now about effective striking, grappling, aggression and cage control. No explanation is ever made about how the former two are weighed heavier than the latter. Or what any of that even means.

"When [regulators and officials] fail to offer information transparently, people's opinions start to become fact," said referee Rob Hinds, a certified trainer of refs and judges. "And the more you hear the same opinion, the more that becomes fact. ... We've never really had anybody say, 'Here's the facts. We're going to let every commission know it. We're going to let every media outlet know it. We're going to let everybody know.' Kind of like when the NHL changes a rule -- everybody knows it."

The onus is not on the fighters to seek this information out. They have enough to worry about already, like preparing to climb into a cage and come to blows with another human being for a typically meager wage. Referees have meetings with fighters the day of the event to talk about in-fight rules. But never is a fighter informed by an official what judges are looking for. Coaches don't seem to have a good idea, either, and it seems like it would be imperative on them to find out, so they can provide better instruction to their athletes.

UFC lightweight Al Iaquinta took one of Hinds' referee and judging seminars a few years ago in New York. He called the experience invaluable and he thinks every fighter should do it to gain more knowledge about judging.

"It could only benefit a fighter," Iaquinta said. "For someone that wants to be the best in the sport, you might as well take two days out of your life and if it can help win a fight even 1 percent it's worth its weight, to me, for sure."

Iaquinta is also in favor of judges gathering together at least once a year and hammering out scoring to make sure everyone is on the same page. Because that's a problem, too. Bad judges do exist -- the ones that don't abide by the above tenets and fall into the cage control and takedown-stealing-a-round fallacies.

Those are harder to weed out, especially since there are so many state jurisdictions. But the Association of Boxing Commissions, which oversees all the state athletic commissions, is open to conversation about scoring changes.

Sean Wheelock, the chairman of the ABC's MMA rules and regulations committee, said his group will discuss formulating clearer rules separating a 10-9 round from a 10-8 round on a conference call this month. Language with more clarity would, in theory, encourage judges to hand out more 10-8 rounds. The current language is murky.

"It's so incredibly vague," Wheelock said. "There's always going to be subjectivity, but there needs to be tighter guidelines. When do I score a 10-9? When do I score a 10-8? Should we score a 10-7? It's listed there. I'm not advocating for or am I opposing, but if 10-7 is on the books, should there ever be a 10-7 scored realistically if there's not a one-point or a two-point deduction in the round? I think that's a question we need to ask."

If a rule change is approved by the rules and regulations committee, it will then go to ABC president Mike Mazzulli, who will present it at the ABC annual meeting in August. From there, the state athletic commissions would all have to adopt it.

Changes are hard to make in mixed martial arts. There are a ton of obstacles along the way. Maybe that's why it's 2016 and we're still in the dark about how judges score fights.

Even if the rules don't change and the language stays the same, something must be done about education. The sport is still young, yes. And close fights -- and Lawler vs. Condit was certainly one -- are going to happen. All the experts I spoke to for this column were split on the winner of the UFC 195 main event and none thought it was even remotely a robbery.

But it's incomprehensible that something as simple as the criteria for winning is constantly up for debate in mixed martial arts. That has to change.