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New scoring system after UFC 247? Consider the fate of half-points

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

UFC commentators, industry vets and fans want a different scoring system. Making that happen is not as easy as it sounds.

If there was anyone who was going to fix combat sports judging, it was Chuck Norris.

The action idol’s short-lived kickboxing promotion, World Combat League, featured the best method of scoring Jeff Mullen had ever used – a five-point must system where the most common tally was 5-3. Future UFC stars Stephen Thompson, Felice Herrig and Uriah Hall chopped it up on an open mat with curved ends – like a Yamma pit, sans fence – and when the action went to judges, there were few surprises.

”The scores were almost always the same, because we knew how to use [the system],” Mullen told MMA Fighting.

In MMA, things were a little less clear, or maybe just less precise. A UFC judge since 1996, Mullen was well-acquainted with the shortcomings of the 10-point must system. So when the Association of Boxing Commissions (ABC) convened a committee to evaluate a new half-point system developed by Corey Schafer, the architect of the five-point system, he took the job of chairman.

Then the executive director of the Tennessee Athletic Commission, Mullen was among five state regulatory bodies that gave half-points a try. And two years after the experiment began in 2010, he was one of the guys who pulled the figurative plug.

”It’s a better system if every fight is, you’ve got Sal D’Amato, Derek Cleary, Chris Lee and Mike Bell judging your fight,” he said. “People that are having trouble applying the 10-point must system are going to have a lot more trouble applying the half-point system.

“If you’ve got folks that have trouble driving a Volkswagen Bug, you’re not going to put them in a Porsche.”

There are several examples of alternate scoring methods in the histories of older combative sports like boxing and kickboxing. Today, several promotions and sanctioning bodies use open scoring. Overseas, ONE Championship judges decide winners based on the totality of the fight, as was done in the much-beloved PRIDE. But in the states, where the sport’s most powerful interests reside, there isn’t much traction for changing the way things are done. As of now, regulators like Mullen, who now works with the Nevada State Athletic Commission, would rather improve on what’s already there.

”I think right now the 10-point must system is the best system for MMA,” he said. “Now, I’m not saying there couldn’t be a better system, but I haven’t seen a better one. If they do come up with a better system that’s more complex, it’s going to take years for the officiating pool to catch up.”

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As complex systems go, the half-point method – dubbed MMAS, or Mixed Martial Arts Specific – isn’t that challenging. Basically, it adds two more options to the most likely scoring outcomes in a 10-point must fight: 10-10, 10-9 and 10-8 (anything greater is extremely rare in MMA and often reflects a failure to stop a non-competitive bout).

Using half-points, rounds considered extremely close – where fighters inflict equal damage and one exhibits a marginal advantage in striking or grappling – should get a 9.5 score. Rounds with a clear advantage to one fighter get a 10-9. A 10-8.5 is tallied in rounds where the winner is “quite obvious” and exhibits dominance throughout the round OR inflicts significant damage.

The system gives the most weight to damage, striking and grappling; the hierarchy of importance is 1. Results (damage), 2. Actions (striking/grappling) and 3. Efforts (cage control).

”EFFORT leads to....ACTION, which leads to.....RESULTS,” MMAS documentation instructs.

Cheesy, indeed. But the idea is to give judges more options to accurately measure and score the action of a multi-disciplinary sport like MMA. Instead of trying to shoehorn a wide range of competitive outcomes into a 10-9, there are ways to reward slight advantages that arise from a fight at multiple ranges with multiple techniques.

One of its biggest proponents, Nelson “Doc” Hamilton, a veteran referee and regular fixture at UFC events in the early 2000s, opined that bad officiating didn’t lead to controversial scores. It was a scoring system that didn’t “provide them with the tools necessary to guarantee their final scores accurately reflect the true nature of the bout that occurred.”

The problem was, that wasn’t always the case once officials actually started using MMAS. JT Steele, president of the California Amateur Mixed Martial Arts organization, oversaw a five-month pilot program for new system and found that giving judges more options didn’t always lead to better outcomes.

”I think the biggest issue is the competency of officials,” he said. “It varies tremendously. Some people have, based off the number of events that they have in their states, they have very little time cageside. You might go to a state like California, and these officials have thousands of rounds cageside, compared to somebody that might only get a few touches a year.”

In Tennessee, “a very small sample size” of fights using MMAS revealed a concerning trend. In opening rounds that were very close, judges with less experience frequently leaned on 10-9.5 scores as a “crutch,” Mullen said, and thus delivered scores that were less accurate.

Did a few extra half-points change anything? According to data presented to the ABC based on a sample size of 350 CAMMO bouts, they changed the scores in 11 percent of fights that were also scored using the 10-point must. In 4 percent of the fights, they actually determined a winner from a decision originally declared a draw.

So it wasn’t terribly significant, but it wasn’t insignificant enough to say there was no effect. And that was the value, the way Steele saw it. For all the issues bringing everyone up to speed, there were a few times when more options brought more clarity.

”It doesn’t change every bout,” he said. “It doesn’t change most bouts. But it does change bouts that are very close, and arguably, sometimes those are the ones that are most important.”

For those crowing about a robbery on display at UFC 247, that idea might sound appealing. The majority of MMA decisions pass without much fanfare, and the system generally rewards the correct winners. But controversies in big fights generate immediate calls for reform. They give the impression that the current system is broken.

Instead of waiting for the next outrage, Steele thinks regulators should be proactive and try new things. He also thinks you need to hire the right people.

”I was an advocate of not settling for a hand-me-down scoring system that doesn’t suit our sport very well,” he said. “I’d be willing to try something else, as well. I just think that sitting around and doing nothing is really unbecoming of ourselves.”

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There was no great injustice propelling the ABC meeting that torpedoed the half-point system in July 2012. Five months had passed since a UFC 143 headliner between Carlos Condit and Nick Diaz had ignited a fiery debate about the relative significance of cage control and effective striking. When the vote came down, there simply wasn’t enough support for changing the 10-point must.

The problem, as Steele saw it, was people couldn’t even agree on the finer points of the unified rules, let alone a new scoring system.

”Amateur rules, professional rules – it was hard to get traction for any type of big movement in the industry in 2011 and 2012,” he said.

Instead, regulators like Mullen focused on refining the criteria of the 10-point must for MMA. Language was changed to place greater value on damage, or in the words of a tort-phobic ABC, “impact.” Training was expanded to make officials understand the difference of a 10-9 and a 10-8 round – and not be afraid to use the latter.

Did it work? Well, judging controversies clearly haven’t gone anywhere. All three judges awarded Jon Jones the decision over Dominick Reyes at UFC 247. They were in the minority when weighed against the public. Many, including UFC commentator Joe Rogan and ex-champ Dominick Cruz, declared the system broken.

At times, regulators like Mullen and Steele are just as frustrated. But they know the real numbers of truly experienced, dedicated judges, and how difficult it is to make any big changes in a highly fractured sport.

”We have athletic commissions that have jurisdiction in each state,” Steele said. “They each do things a little differently. If we’re going to move forward with a scoring system, a lot of times it requires statutory changes in states. That’s a big task. Could it be done? Yes, but there would really need to be a movement behind it.

”Quite frankly, it would really need to be spearheaded by the UFC. That’s probably the only place where there would be enough clout and enough leverage to say, ‘We believe in this and we want it,’ and they would be able to get it. If the UFC’s not behind it, I don’t think there’s enough leverage to make it happen.”

In the end, is all that effort worth somewhere between 4 to 11 percent? That’s a question the industry-leader and others will have to answer. In the meantime, regulators are starting another experiment.

Hot on the heels of UFC 247, the Kansas Athletic Commission is set to implement open scoring in the all-female Invicta FC. Soon, the crowd will be able to see judges’ scores after every round. The commission’s chief executive, Adam Roorbach, is “mystified” why the system has never been used in the sport. He wants the sport to move forward like other big sports that have evolved to include the most accurate measures of competitive action.

And soon, he’ll have a few data points to decide whether open scoring is a Bug, or a Porsche.