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Click Debate: How will the new judging criteria affect how MMA bouts are scored?

Bellator 136 Photos E. Casey Leydon, MMA Fighting

Get ready for more 10-8 rounds in mixed martial arts. At least that is the expected effect of new judging language that will be implemented beginning this month.

The Association of Boxing Commissions and Combative Sports (ABC) approved a cleaned-up version of MMA scoring criteria at its annual conference back in August and the new criteria was adopted officially as part of the sport’s Unified Rules Jan. 1.

The goal for the change was two-fold: make the scoring language clearer and open the door for more 10-8 rounds.

Under the new criteria, judges are asked to look at three characteristics during a round — impact (or damage), dominance and duration — in order to determine if it is a 10-8. If two of those characteristics are present, a 10-8 should be considered. If all three are there, the round should be a 10-8.

Previously, rules for a 10-8 were far more subjective and that score was uncommon. Regulators have joked that in the past there needed to be a near homicide inside the cage for a judge to grant a 10-8.

“If judges are using the information correctly, we will see more 10-8 scores,” said Rob Hinds, who is on the ABC’s MMA rules and regulations committee and is an ABC certified trainer of judges and referees. “It is about giving the fighter what they’ve earned, based on the criteria. Fighters are performing at a higher level than ever and are having some amazing success. Give them what they earn. That’s it.”

Over the years, judges who work UFC and Bellator events in the bigger states have gradually become more liberal with 10-8s. In 2016 alone, there seemed to be more 10-8 rounds doled out than ever before. That will likely continue, now on all levels of the sport, according to Derek Cleary, who worked as many MMA fights as any other judge in the world last year.

“I don't think the scoring language is going to affect the way I score because many of the judges I work with in California and Nevada already score that way to begin with in regards to the 10-8s,” Cleary said. “I think the language will be very helpful for judges who may be on the fence on scoring a 10-8. The language is more clear now.”

Impact is taught to judges as “damage,” but the ABC has chosen not to codify that word in the rules for liability reasons. Impact is defined as a fighter’s actions, using striking and/or grappling, that leads to a “diminishing of their opponents’ energy, confidence, abilities and spirit.” That can also include visible evidence like swelling and lacerations.

Dominance is defined as when a fighter is on constant offense in the striking or grappling and an opponent is “forced to continually defend.” Important to note here is that just being in a dominant position — like having an opponent’s back — does not necessarily mean dominance. There has to be attacking and effective submission attempts from those positions. (More on that later.)

Duration is similar to dominance, though it means the opponent is posing no offense whatsoever. At the end of the round, when one fighter has had just about the full amount of offense and his opponent has had little to none, that is duration.

“For example, if we have a fighter that has their opponent in mount position (a dominant position) and is continually threatening with effective submissions and/or effective strikes, with little to no offensive output by the opponent, the amount of time spent in that scenario will help to weigh a 10-9 versus a 10-8 round,” Hinds said. “This was a dominating round that may not have had much damage associated with it; however, the amount of time of dominance would help lead a judge to a proper assessment.”

The other major thing the new scoring language makes clearer is the hierarchy of judging. It is firm that fights are judged based on effective striking/grappling (damage and effective submission attempts weighted heaviest) first. Only if those things are absolutely equal does a judge then gauge effective aggressiveness. And then only if both effective striking/grappling and effective aggressiveness are absolutely equal does a judge consider fighting area control.

In other words, if you’re arguing that a round should be scored a certain way due to Octagon control, you most likely need a refresher on the scoring criteria. A round being won or lost due to fighting area control is a rarity.

That is the biggest misconception about scoring, according to judge Jeff Mullen, who works many high-profile fights in Nevada and California.

“If a competitor wins a round by displaying superior striking and/or grappling, then aggression and cage control are not considered,” Mullen said.

A good example of damage and submission attempts being weighed heavier is Neil Magny’s recent unanimous decision win over Johny Hendricks at UFC 207 on Dec. 30. Mullen and Cleary both scored the first and third rounds for Magny, who was on the bottom, but did more damage and went for submission attempts from there. Hendricks did very little with his top position.

“A fighter with their opponent’s back (dominant position) that is doing nothing but holding a seat belt grip is going to weigh less than a fighter that is on bottom in full closed guard (neutral position) hurting his/her opponent with elbows and solid, fight (near) ending threatening submission attempts,” Hinds said.

Part of the issue with why fans believe cage control is a top criteria for scoring fights is the vague — and often incorrect — way that judging has been presented over the years by promotions like the UFC. Only last year did the UFC’s presentation of the scoring criteria change to say effective striking/grappling, aggression and Octagon control were scored “in that order.”

Still, a good portion of fans — and even many fighters — don’t have a grasp of how judges are assessing what is happening, and that’s a major problem in the sport.

UFC 207 photos
Judges correctly scored a victory for Neil Magny over Johny Hendricks at UFC 207.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

“There has been very little explanation of the MMA scoring system in print or during MMA broadcasts,” Mullen said. “It has not been explained to the fans that it is a prioritized system.”

Another recent example of MMA’s scoring system at work is Cody Garbrandt’s unanimous decision victory over Dominick Cruz at UFC 207. Cruz had more significant strikes than Garbrandt in every single round, per FightMetric, but no one thinks Cruz won the fight by any stretch. Garbrandt knocked him down multiple times and did more of the damage in at least three of those rounds, securing the win.

Volume of landed strikes is not considered as much as the damage done by impactful blows and cumulative damage throughout the round. If a fighter lands 100 light jabs in a round with little damage done and gets dropped once by a big overhand right, the fighter who landed the big right wins the round.

Commissions have also been lax in publicly clarifying judging. California State Athletic Commission executive officer Andy Foster is hoping to change that, especially with the advent of the new scoring criteria.

Bellator 136 Photos
CSAC executive officer Andy Foster vows to better educate people about MMA’s scoring criteria and new rules.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Bellator 170 will be in Inglewood, Calif. on Jan. 21 and Foster plans on holding a question-and-answer session about the new rules — which include the addition and subtraction of some fouls — and scoring language with fighters and coaches during fight week.

The day after, on Jan. 22, CSAC is holding referee and judge training at the Hilton near Los Angeles International Airport. Foster said there are 10 to 12 spots available for licensed fighters or trainers to attend. There will be handouts and booklets there, explaining the new rules. Foster said he’ll have more spots available in the future for fighters and coaches. (To secure a spot for Jan. 22, e-mail:

“I certainly think the commission should do a better job doing some outreach,” Foster said. “And we’re going to do more of that. … I think there’s plenty of responsibility to go around and we as a commission are going do our part to get it out there, get it known and help with the education.”

It’s a good start. With new scoring criteria being implemented, now is the perfect time to get everyone up to date on the judging process.

Much of the criticism levied at judges is from people who are still citing cage control as something that wins or loses rounds. That, and the understanding that three judges are watching the bouts from different (sometimes obscured) angles, should be acknowledged. Judges also don’t have the benefit of replays following the round or statistics (which really shouldn’t be used anyway).

There is constant talk that the 10-point must system is broken. And certainly there are drawbacks. It is a scoring system taken from boxing, after all. But until someone comes up with something better, this is what we have to work with.

The difference between winning and losing is a big deal in MMA. Not just for career trajectory, but because, with win bonuses, some fighters stand to double their pay with a victory. That is no small thing.

It’s also important for fighters, fans and coaches to understand the scoring criteria. Hopefully a more liberal interpretation of 10-8 rounds will help judges grant the correct fighter a victory.

In boxing, if there’s a knockdown in the round, it’s almost always a 10-8. That’s easy; in MMA, it’s far harder to determine with multiple factors at play.

“There’s still no objective indicator, like in boxing, of what constitutes a 10-8 round,” Foster said. “You couldn’t do that in mixed martial arts. I think it’s fair to say finding a 10-8 round in mixed martial arts rounds is more difficult than in boxing. Getting three judges to all agree on that same 10-8 round —to a lesser degree, but still to this day — is incredibly rare. But we’re getting better at it.”

At least in language now. Hopefully that carries over to practice.

(Raimondi note: This column is dedicated to Adam “Snacks” Geller, who died last week after a two-year battle with colon cancer at just 39 years old. Geller wasn’t only a beloved television stage manager for the UFC, Showtime, the Brooklyn Nets and more, he was also an ABC certified judge — and very proud of it. I’ll miss our conversations about MMA, pro wrestling, and judging, my friend. Many condolences to his wife Debra and daughter Sydney. Rest in peace, Adam.

To donate money that will be put toward funeral costs and Sydney’s college education, a GoFundMe has been set up here.)

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