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Hot Tweets: Two ideas on how to fix MMA judging

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The empty chair where Jeff Mullen should have been in between the first and second rounds of the UFC 204 fight between Leonardo Santos and Adriano Martins.
The empty chair where Jeff Mullen should have been in between the first and second rounds of the UFC 204 fight between Leonardo Santos and Adriano Martins.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Last weekend, Jon Jones got away with one by stealing a win from Dominick Reyes with the help of three judges. That naturally brought about more debate about how to fix scoring in MMA, so let’s get deep into the weeds on this topic and save this sport from the Cecil Peoples of the world.


How to fix MMA judging

Let’s start from this assumption, that I think we can say is true: No matter what we do, scoring and judging in MMA will never be perfect. MMA judging is subjective, and because the swath of opinions about fighting and what constitutes good fighting is wide, you’re never going to make everyone happy about ever decision ever rendered. So, given that understanding, how can we improve MMA scoring so that the most people are happy with the outcomes, or we get closer to “the right” decision?

A ton of ways.

First and foremost, the actual way fights are scored is idiotic, and I’m not talking about the 10-point must system. The 10-point must system is dumb, but not for the reason everyone in MMA thinks it is. The 10-point must system is dumb because it’s really a three-point system masquerading as 10 points.

Everyone believes, largely because Joe Rogan has taken this soapbox, that the 10-point must system doesn’t work for MMA because it’s a holdover from boxing and they are different sports. The fact of the matter is, a 10-point scoring system is fine, because literally every other subjective thing in human history uses some variation of it, or did at one time. There is nothing objectively wrong with scoring rounds of a fight with a numeric value and then adding it all up to see who has more. What’s wrong is the parameters used to determine who wins a round.

Whether it’s the new unified rules or the old rules, the gradations surrounding round scores are absurd, and that creates at least 50 percent of the bad decisions we see. Think of any other score-based sporting event? Do they use just three digits to discern the difference between world-class competitors who, by the nature of being world-class, are extremely close in capabilities? No.

That’s why gymnastics, skiing, skateboarding, diving, and figure skating all use fractional points to figure out who should win!

So now you’re thinking “well that’s a long-winded way to say we should use half-points,” but that’s where you’re wrong. I hate half-points, because half points are, on their face, ridiculous. The 10-point must system has 10 points in it. USE THEM! Screw having half points just use more of the 10 points. Like so:

  1. 10-10: No significant difference in damage.
  2. 10-9: A close, competitive round where the judge slightly favors one fighter over the other, based on damage.
  3. 10-8: A competitive round that nonetheless had a clear winner, based on damage.
  4. 10-7: A one-sided round. The winner completely dictated the round and provided a vast majority of the offense, or a competitive round where one fighter nearly finished the other fighter.
  5. 10-6: A completely one-sided round where one fighter nearly stops another on multiple occasions.
  6. 10-5: A round where the fight should’ve been stopped by the referee.

For all rounds, submission attempts and dominant positions (i.e. back control, full mount, side control) are to be scored as “damage,” the degree to which being left to the judge’s determination in the same way striking damage is weighed.

So essentially, we’re working within the 10-point must framework, applying the core concept of the half-point system without the lunacy of half points, and building in a more clear gradation between scores so judges are forced to be more discerning. We would also encourage more liberal use of 10-10 rounds, as the more aggressive scoring system should lead to more disparate scores and create fewer draws (which is the main impediment to 10-10 rounds. This would, I believe, be a substantial improvement on the way fights are currently scored.

But what about a more radical idea instead? Try this one on for size.

  1. Unless the first round is deemed a 10-10, the winner of the first round receives a score of 10. The fighter deemed to be the loser by the judge, receives a score of 5.
  2. The judge then scores each subsequent round in relation to how the first round was scored, scoring rounds of similar dominance with the same numeric value as the first round, and less or more dominant rounds with more or less points for the losing fighter.

So if Judge Jed deems that Fighter A won the first round, he’ll score the round 10-5 for Fighter A. Then if Judge Jed deemed Fighter B won Round 2 with a substantially similar level of dominance, Judge Jed will score Round 2 10-5 for Fighter B. If Judge Jed determines that Fighter B won Round 2 by a larger margin than Fighter A won Round 1, then he will score the round 10-4 (or lower) in favor of Fighter B. And so on and so forth until the fight is over.

I’ve long been of the belief that this is the most natural way to score fights and would lead to the best representation of who people believe won the fight. Think about it, people naturally judge things based on other, similar things basically every day. Even MMA judges probably subconsciously do some of that already. So why not just steer into the skid and use our natural tendencies to lead to the most naturally accurate scoring method? Go back and rewatch some controversial MMA fights of the past, I bet the proper outcome would’ve been achieved if they used this method.

Outside of these two overhauls of the scoring system, there are a number of other ways to positively improve MMA judging, so let’s talk about some of them too.


Live scoring

This is a great idea and one Invicta is already intending to experiment with! Not having open scoring is the very definition of stubborn idiocy. The only argument that ever gets bandied about against it is “well a fighter will coast if they know they’re up by two rounds!” Okay, so? By that very same logic, the other fighter will goes balls out trying win, thus forcing the coasting fighters hand and possibly doing more to in fact keep fights out of the hands of the judges.

That being said, open scoring will in no way fix MMA judging. Just because everyone will know the score, it won’t mean judges won’t still score things in the same broken fashion. It’ll just make robberies more palatable because we’ll see them coming.


Having former fighters be judges

This is another idea that is often thrown out as a salve for poor judging, but this one is less effective than people might believe. For one, former fighters can be judges. Anyone can be. There is literally nothing stopping all the UFC Hall of Famers from getting licensed and starting to judge. They choose not to.

But even if they did decide to move to judging in droves, the outcome may not be as glorious as many imagine. Think about in many other sports how the best coaches are rarely former players. The same logic applies here. Perhaps they were players, but being a player also stagnates your thinking in certain ways that would likely be detrimental to judging.

I have a great deal of love for Chuck Liddell’s career and accomplishments, but I have little confidence in his ability to judge a fight accurately. And that isn’t just a knock on Chuck. On Saturday, Dominick Cruz was convinced Ilir Latifi should’ve won the decision against Derrick Lewis, which is lunacy. Fighters have their own preset prejudices about what constitutes winning and losing a fight, and they usually fall in line with how that fighter fought themselves. It makes sense, after all, they spent a lifetime doing things one way and to great success.

And none of that even mentions former fighters judging other fighters, who they have a personal or professional relationship with, or some kind of lingering prejudices for or against based on fight team affiliation, etc.

Ultimately, the answer isn’t to get more fighters into judging roles; it’s to get more competent people into those roles and have real accountability for doing poorly.


Increasing the number of rounds

Even outside of judging, this should be done. All fights should be five 5-minute rounds because that’s what adults should fight. This isn’t Butterbean-level boxing, so having 15-minute fights is absurd and at the BARE MINIMUM, if the UFC won’t do this, then all fights between ranked competitors should be five 5s, because those are all ostensibly possible title challengers. And if you make all fights 5-rounders, you’ll have less poor decisions because there’s more opportunity for fighters to finish bouts or establish clear dominance.

To wrap up our discussion on fixing MMA judging, here are a few other suggestions that would help improve this thing we’ve now been complaining about for well over a decade:

  1. All fights should be scored by five judges. Three is an arbitrary number lifted from boxing. Having five judges will decrease the likelihood of incorrect outcomes while still still being a manageable number.
  2. Judges don’t sit cageside to watch the fights. Another vestige of the bygone era when sitting cageside was the best seat in the house. Trust me, I’ve sat cageside on a number of occasions, and while it’s a thrilling experience, it’s probably the worst seat in the house for objective round scoring. Sitting judges in a room with monitors and multiple viewing angles is the optimal way to have them score a bout.
  3. Commissions need to have actual accountability for poor judging. It’s okay to screw up occasionally. Happens to everyone. But if you continually suck and egregiously so, you need to face consequences. Unless you’re me. Please don’t fire me, MMAFighting.

Worst decisions in MMA history

The one that always jumps out the most to me is Frankie Edgar’s upset of B.J. Penn in their first bout. Penn clearly won three rounds and arguably four, and him losing the title to Edgar irrevocably changed MMA history. If Penn wins, he defends next against Maynard (an easy match up), then probably against Anthony Pettis in a WEC-UFC title merger. Slightly post-prime Penn versus nearing-his-peak Pettis is an all-timer kind of fight we were robbed of. Karma came back around on Edgar for that though as Benson Henderson got two BS decisions over him.

Outside of that one, Robert Whittaker’s win in the second fight against Yoel Romero remains pretty egregious, considering there were two rounds where Romero damn near killed the champion. Jon Jones’ win over Dominick Reyes is going to age like bread. But the worst decision of all time is unquestionably the fabled Mike Easton vs. Chase Beebe bantamweight title fight at Ultimate Warrior Challenge, where Easton won a split decision despite Beebe CLEARLY winning four rounds. Hell, Beebe had Easton’s back for much of the fight. It was one of those decisions where it was so unbelievable, it would have made more sense if the judges mixed up the two fighters on the cards. Seriously, if 10,000 people in the world have seen that fight then 9,998 of them all think Beebe clearly won. It’s the gold standard of awful judging.


Rafael Lovato Jr.

In case you missed the news, Rafael Lovato Jr. has officially vacated the Bellator middleweight title due to his medical issues. It’s a sad story and the probable end to what had thus far been a fairly remarkable career.

Lovato made the jump to MMA after one of the more successful grappling careers in history, winning four world championships and medaling 12 times overall. Then, despite starting MMA at 31, his recorded similar success in the cage, winning the LFA middleweight title in only his third professional fight, then beating Gegard Mousasi to win the Bellator middleweight title in his tenth professional fight. That’s in and of itself would’ve been an incredible career, but it looked like Lovato was only just getting started. Now it seems 10-0 could be as far as he will ever go.

Ask anyone who has worked with or spoken to Lovato Jr., and they’ll all agree he’s a great guy. On top of that though, Lovato was also just a fun and interesting person, the kind of guy who spent his life learning how to grapple and is maybe a little weird because of it, but in a captivating way. And his style was the same! Lovato was an elite grappler who had enough striking to be dangerous, but enough holes to look vulnerable against anyone. It was the kind of fascinating combination that would’ve made arguing about his fights endlessly enjoyable. I had looked forward to fruitlessly arguing about Lovato’s chances against the best in the UFC for years to come, and now it seems the biggest “what if” surrounding his career will be far more tragic. We’re all worse off for it.

Good luck, Rafael, and we all hope you can find a way to get past this thing and return to the cage some day.


Thanks for reading this week, and thank you for everyone who sent in Tweets! Do you have any burning questions about at least tangentially related to combat sports? Then you’re in luck, because you can send your Hot Tweets to me, @JedKMeshew and I will answer them! Doesn’t matter if they’re topical or insane. Get weird with it. Let’s have fun.