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Robbery Review: Alexander Volkanovski vs. Max Holloway at UFC 251

Few things infuriate MMA fans more than a fight being scored incorrectly, though the term “robbery” tends to be thrown around carelessly and is often steeped in bias. With Robbery Review, we’ll take a look back at controversial fights and determine whether the judges were rightly criticized for their decision – or if pundits need to examine their own knee-jerk reactions.

As much as there was to like about UFC 251, the promotion’s first “Fight Island” show in Abu Dhabi, there was plenty to be critical of, particularly when it came to the evening’s trio of title fights. The main event left some fans thirsting for more action. A vacant bantamweight title fight was probably stopped a tad too late. And perhaps most controversially, there was the split call in the featherweight championship rematch between Alexander Volkanovski and Max Holloway.

There were questionable scores throughout the night, but never were they more scrutinized than when Volkanovski’s hand was raised a second time against Holloway. The former champion put on a much stronger performance than in their first fight, so didn’t the Hawaii native return to his own island with gold wrapped around his waist?

UFC President Dana White openly criticized the judging, and several fighters shared that sentiment, including Volkanovski’s countryman, Tyson Pedro:

Anytime a popular fighter like Holloway puts in a spirited effort like that and loses a close decision, there’s going to be some second-guessing and calls of “robbery.” With the fight still fresh, let’s dig into the supposed scene of the crime.

What was the official result?

Alexander Volkanovski def. Max Holloway via split decision.

How did the fight go?

Let’s not over-analyze the first two rounds, which belonged to Holloway. That said, there are a few key differences from the first fight to point out.

Right off the bat, you can see that Holloway did a much better job of spacing so as to stay just at the edge of Volkanovski’s lethal leg kicks. The champion punished Holloway with them in their first fight, and you can tell they were a point of emphasis for “Blessed” heading into this encounter. Volkanovski still had success going low, but Holloway was less inclined to switch stances here, instead fighting through whatever discomfort he felt so that he could stay in his more effective orthodox stance.

Even if you feel the first two rounds were close, Holloway clearly put his stamp on them in the final seconds of each frame. At the end of round one, he backed up Volkanovski with a wicked spinning kick to the body that set up a head kick that dropped Volkanovski to his knees for a second. At the end of round two, he landed an even more emphatic uppercut that rocked Volkanovski and had him visibly frustrated as he walked back to his corner.

Now we get to the fateful round three. In an inversion of their first fight, it was Volkanovski who began to work from behind, showing the tenacity of a champion. The leg kicks paid off, and you could see how red Holloway’s lead leg was. However, Holloway’s confidence was through the roof by that point in the fight, and he matched Volkanovski blow for blow. They let their hands go, and Volkanovski landed several solid punches, including a left hook that was definitely felt on a couple of occasions. Holloway answered with counter punches and strong kicks to the body.

Even with increased urgency, Volkanovski didn’t deviate from his game plan in the championship rounds. That inside leg kick was money. On the Holloway side, he effectively walked Volkanovski down, connecting with straight punches. Volkanovski scored the first takedown of the fight in round four, but it didn’t lead to any significant offense (this would happen again in round five). Regardless, he picked up a lot of steam heading into the final round.

Holloway’s pace was so steady, and he found a home for his jab throughout the fight. His takedown defense was also on point, though he was caught by sharp hooks off of the breaks. Neither man was able to noticeably gain an advantage late as they both picked up on each other’s timing and scored with clean shots. Fantastic effort by both men in the final five minutes, and you get the sense they could have gone another 25 if they had to (and maybe should someday).

What did the judges say?

Mark Collett scored it 48-47 Volkanovski.

David Lethaby scored it 48-47 Holloway.

Clemens Werner scored it 48-47 Volkanovski

Interestingly, despite the third round appearing to be the subject of most consternation, it was actually round five that proved to be the decider. All three judges gave rounds one and two to Holloway and rounds three and four to Volkanovski. Collet and Werner gave round five and the fight to Volkanovski.

According to MMA Decisions, Collet and Lethaby have worked several UFC events and also judged for Cage Warriors and Poland’s Konfrontacja Sztuk Walki (KSW) promotion. Collett actually started judging for the UFC back in 2011, while Lethaby began in 2018 and now has 10 UFC events on his resume. Werner was judging a UFC event for the fourth time.

What did the numbers say?

(Statistics per UFC Stats)

In this case, the numbers tell a confusing story. Just counting striking stats, Volkanovski ended up way ahead in both total (139-111) and significant strikes (137-102). He also did not lose a round in the significant strike category, with round one a tie (19-19) and round two actually slightly in his favor (22-21).

However (and this is a huge however), it has to be pointed out that Holloway’s staggering shots at the end of rounds one and two were not scored as knockdowns, so these stats don’t accurately convey how Holloway asserted himself in the early going.

Rounds three, four, and five were all heavily in Volkanovski’s favor just based on significant strikes, as he won them 25-15, 34-24, and 37-23, respectively. That last number is surprising given that one judge scored round three for Holloway. Volkanovski also secured three takedowns in the championship rounds, but as mentioned above, they led to only brief moments of control and shouldn’t have affected the scoring.

Volkanovski landed the vast majority of head (64-44) and leg (67-31) strikes, while Holloway’s impressive body work was reflected in a 27-6 advantage.

What did the media say?

Looking at the 27 media member scores tallied by MMA Decisions, Holloway earned twice as many nods as Volkanovski, with 18 scoring it for the challenger and nine for the champion.

No outlet submitted a score outside of 48-47.

What did the people say?

As of this writing, Holloway has a healthy amount of support on MMA Decisions, with 52.3 percent scoring Saturday’s fight in his favor 48-47. In second place is 48-47 Volkanovski at 30.8 percent.

In third, 8.4 percent gave four rounds to Holloway, while there was little consideration given to a draw (3.2 percent).

Unsurprisingly, the third round proved to be the toughest to score, with 50.7 percent in favor of Holloway and 44.2 percent in favor of Volkanovski.

Voters on the Verdict MMA app saw this as a victory for Holloway, due to the app’s emphasis on definitively winning rounds.

That scoring system takes the cumulative total of every submitted fan score (filtering out aberrant scores like random 10-7s if they comprise less than one percent of the total) in every round and divides by the amount of submitted scores to determine the winner of each round and also in totality.

Holloway won by 123 points, largely in part to voters almost unanimously giving him rounds one and two. He had a slight edge in round three as well, and Volkanovski’s strong fourth and fifth rounds were not enough to make up for the deficit. Holloway essentially had the fight won after the opening two rounds, barring a total collapse.

In MMA Fighting’s own poll that asked fans to pick a winner, an overwhelming 81.2 percent believe Holloway did enough to avenge his loss.

How did I score it?

Max Holloway won this fight. At least that was my first impression.

Those signature shots he landed in the first two rounds should matter more. They just should. Even given Volkanovski’s outstanding output in the three rounds that followed, there was no point where it felt like Holloway wasn’t right in the pocket trading with him and landing his own shots. Holloway’s head kick and uppercut were the most telling moments of the fight, and they should have been scored as such.

I had the first three rounds for Holloway, though I’d be lying if I said I felt confident about giving either man the third round. It was a real toss-up in the moment.

Was it a robbery?

In a broad sense, it kind of was.

The failings of the 10-9 must system were laid bare at UFC 251, with the scores of each round looking the same, even though anyone with a set of eyes could tell you that the Holloway rounds were the most convincing. Convincing enough to overcome the statistical striking deficit in rounds three, four, and five? That’s another question.

Holloway had the two best strikes of the night – there’s no arguing that. But with the benefit of a re-watch, one can see that Volkanovski connected with plenty of hard punches himself, especially in the later stages of the contest. In no way was he just throwing “pitter-patter” shots, and though he couldn’t return the favor by visibly stunning Holloway, there were definitely moments where the challenger was given pause.

I also think that Holloway’s early success shaped the narrative going into the third round, as well as the fact that he was doing so much better than he did at UFC 245. Volkanovski’s own efforts shouldn’t be overlooked, and it’s not his fault that the current scoring system results in a dearth of 10-8s. He fought a winning fight given the criteria.

Don’t hate the player, hate the game, as they say.

The final verdict

Not a robbery. But man, the 10-point must system sucks.


Was Alexander Volkanovski’s win over Max Holloway a robbery?

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