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Robbery Review Roundup: A look at the closest calls of 2020

Dominick Reyes and Jon Jones at UFC 247 on Feb. 8, 2020, in Houston
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

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.

We introduced Robbery Review to the site this year and we had a few doozies to examine to start things off. Israel Adesanya’s staring contest against Yoel Romero had fans fuming and questioning whether “The Last Stylebender” did enough to retain his title, UFC on ESPN 8 gave us a trio of controversial calls that required further scrutiny, and Alexander Volkanovski scored another decision win against Max Holloway, though it was much closer the second time around.

Still, it was the fight featured in the very first edition of Robbery Review that I consider to be the most noteworthy as far as close calls go for 2020 because of the magnitude of the bout, the volatile reaction on social media, and the long term impact the verdict had on the fighters and their division.

So let’s talk about Jon Jones vs. Dominick Reyes one more time and then turn things over to the Verdict MMA team for their take on what was the most controversial decision of 2020.

Jon Jones vs. Dominick Reyes (UFC 247, Feb. 8)

Jon Jones was no longer invincible.

At least that was one popular theory heading into his first—and as it turned out, lone—title defense of 2020. Sure, “Bones” was still unbeaten, but for the first time since his earliest UFC days there were questions about his dominance. His outside-of-the-cage issues (a disorderly conduct charge in July 2019, a DWI and firearm-related charges in March 2020) along with a pair of lackluster title defenses were easy fodder for critics to jump on.

Jones won a lopsided decision over Anthony Smith at UFC 235, but was so rarely in danger during the bout that the lack of a finish was disappointing. In his next defense against Thiago Santos at UFC 239, Jones came one judge’s card away from losing his belt as he eked out a split decision in a striking duel with “Marreta.”

Dominick Reyes was up next and expectations were moderate. On most betting sites Reyes was around a 3-to-1 or 4-to-1 underdog, similar to Santos, and his run to a title shot had its ups and downs. After needing a little over seven minutes combined to decimate his first three UFC opponents, Reyes looked outstanding in a decision win over veteran Ovince Saint Preux and then considerably less outstanding taking a razor-thin split decision against recent title challenger Volkan Oezdemir. A first-round drubbing of former middleweight champion Chris Weidman looked great on his resume, good enough to vault Reyes into a fight with Jones, but wasn’t exactly an indicator of whether he’d be able to upset one of the greatest fighters of all-time.

On paper, Reyes had the tools to be a threat. A former NFL hopeful, “The Devastator” was not going to be at an athleticism deficit against the gifted Jones, and he was blessed with the kind of quick-strike knockout power that an underdog needs to dethrone kings. He was as advertised on fight night too, looking loose and confident in the opening rounds against Jones.

The elusiveness and diversity of tactics that Jones had displayed in his best championship performances were nowhere to be seen (an issue that had come up in the Smith and Santos fights as well) and from the outside looking in it felt like Reyes was controlling the action. Was Reyes actually winning the fight or just doing better than expected?

Watching live, I had Reyes winning the first three rounds on my own scorecard and that didn’t change when I re-watched the fight for the inaugural Robbery Review. In looking to establish basic criteria and expound on my own biases, here’s what I wrote at the time:

It’s important I disclose that my standards for what constitutes a robbery are high as I consider the term to be greatly overused and often disrespectful of the efforts of the winning fighter. I should also add that during the course of Saturday’s main event, I found myself consciously working to counteract the “challenger is doing better than expected” bias so as not to give Reyes more credit than his performance dictated.

So even paying extra attention to what Jones was doing, I still leaned towards Reyes. The judges disagreed, awarding the fight to Jones with scores of 48-47, 48-47, and 49-46.

I deemed the bout a robbery especially after incorporating the official UFC stats (Reyes won round one by six significant strikes, round two by 11, and round three by seven), which while an inexact indicator of striking effectiveness, they certainly helped Reyes’ case in this instance. None of that is to say that Reyes blew Jones out of the water, but if decisions are supposed to be based on who won more rounds, then Reyes was the better man on that night. Jones just didn’t do enough to retain, in my eyes.

The ensuing discussion surrounding the fight was so massive, that it overshadowed what may have been the actual robbery of the year, Lauren Murphy’s win over Andrea Lee that happened on the UFC 247 prelims. According to MMA Decisions, not a single media member scored the fight for Murphy and over 90 percent of user-submitted scores were in favor of Lee. The decision ranked No. 1 on the site’s list of last year’s most disputed decisions, which was based on the average percentage of media and fans that agreed with the judges. Jones-Reyes didn’t even make the top-10, only garnering an honorable mention.

What matters more to me though is that the ripples of Reyes’ loss are still being felt. Jones remained champion, close call or not. He showed little interest in rematches with Reyes or Santos, instead becoming embroiled in a public feud with the UFC over fighter compensation that would eventually end in him vacating the light heavyweight championship and announce his intentions to chase the heavyweight title. The light heavyweight title wouldn’t be contested again until September.

Instead of entering his next fight with the belt around his waist, Reyes was thrown into a vacant title bout against Jan Blachowicz and he ended up becoming the latest victim of Blachowicz’s trademark Polish power. Just like that, Reyes went from would-be champion to being on the first losing streak of his career. Jones’ absence also opened the door for UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya to step in for a superfight with Blachowicz expected to take place this coming March, with UFC President Dana White hoping that a grudge match between Jones and Adesanya is still in the cards.

It’s fair to say none of this happens if Reyes gets the judges’ call at UFC 247. He didn’t, and look where we are now. That’s why this remains the most important disputed decision of 2020.

Based on how much the fights could actually be deemed robberies and the impact they had on each competitors’ immediate prospects, here’s how I rank the eight fights that I reviewed in 2020:

  1. Jones vs. Reyes
  2. Anthony Pettis vs. Donald Cerrone 2 (UFC 249, May 9)
  3. Claudia Gadelha vs. Angela Hill (UFC on ESPN 8, May 16)
  4. Dan Ige vs. Edson Barboza (UFC on ESPN 8, May 16)
  5. Alexander Volkanovski vs. Max Holloway 2 (UFC 251, July 11)
  6. Song Yadong vs. Marlon Vera (UFC on ESPN 8, May 16)
  7. Israel Adesanya vs. Yoel Romero (UFC 248, March 7)
  8. Frankie Edgar vs. Pedro Munhoz (UFC on ESPN 15, Aug. 22)

But let’s be honest, what do I know? There are people who actually crunch the hard numbers on these things in search of the truth, so that’s why I turned to the Verdict MMA squad to get their opinion on what the biggest robbery of 2020 was and the answer surprised me.

“The most controversial decision of 2020 was the rematch between Alexander Volkanovski and Max Holloway at UFC 251,” Verdict MMA lead data scientist David Chung told MMA Fighting via e-mail. “Verdict MMA’s Global Scorecard displays the averages of all of the scores placed on the platform. This goes back to Aristotle’s “wisdom of the crowd,” which theorizes that the collective opinion of a group of individuals is more accurate than that of a single expert. The average scores display how close or how dominant a round has been by breaking the numbers down into decimal points. Verdict takes a more granular approach to scoring in MMA.”

“As per the data, rounds one and two were scored clearly for Holloway,” Chung continued. “The fight began to get close starting with the third round. Holloway marginally won the third round on the Global Scorecard with a difference of 0.04. Volkanovski went on to win rounds four and five, which were as competitive as the data displays.”

The Verdict MMA system puts more weight on dominant rounds, which is why Holloway scored big in rounds one and two. He had Volkanovski visibly staggered at the end of both of those rounds (though it should be noted that the official stats do not have Holloway scoring a knockdown in the fight).

“There’s a clear difference between the dominance of Holloway’s first two rounds compared to Volkanovski’s third round, so why should these scores weigh the same?” Chung said. “They do on the official scores but don’t on the Global Scorecard.”

Round three was exceedingly close and there appears to be little argument that Volkanovski battled back to edge out the championship rounds. While Volkanovski’s first win over Holloway was more convincing (he won two 48-47 scores and one judge even gave him a 50-45), the second was as close as it gets with Volkanovski winning with a pair of 48-47 scores to Holloway’s lone 48-47.

That said, I didn’t see the bout as a robbery. Here’s what I wrote in my review:

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.

I also added, “the 10-point must system sucks.” But don’t take my word for it, here’s Verdict MMA with the final say on the matter.

“Holloway defeated Volkanovski on Verdict’s Global Scorecard by a total difference of 1.23,” Chung said. “When you look at our scorecards, you’ll see a lot of fights that have a final score difference that are under 0.5. Those are close fights. A difference of 1.23 is quite significant and is the reason why we’ve listed the rematch between Alexander Volkanovski and Max Holloway as the most controversial decision of 2020.”

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