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Robbery Review: Sean O’Malley vs. Petr Yan at UFC 280

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.

Where Sean O’Malley goes, controversy is sure to follow, and he was the talk of the town after his first trip to Abu Dhabi.

O’Malley scored the biggest win of his career at UFC 280 this past Saturday, edging out a split decision against former bantamweight champion Petr Yan, a controversial call that fits right in with the rest of O’Malley’s one-of-a-kind UFC run. Remember just a few months ago when his fight with Pedro Munhoz came to a premature end due to an accidental eye poke? Or when he suffered a weird leg injury before getting TKO’d by Maron Vera? Or when he probably would have lost to Andre Soukhamthath because he couldn’t stand up, but Soukhamthath chose to go to the ground with him? And who could forget Snoop Dogg yelling “O’Malley! O’Malley! O’Malley!” on the Contender Series?

The O’Malley ride has been a wild one, is what we’re saying, one that looks to continue as “Sugar” is now perfectly lined up to fight Aljamain Sterling for a UFC title. Based on reactions to his win over Yan though, the reception to such a booking could be chilly.

Here’s what some of the fighters had to say about the judging.

Guess we should take this one to the Robbery Review lab, eh?

What was the official result?

Sean O’Malley def. Petr Yan via split decision.

How did the fight go?

Both fighters came out throwing speedy kicks, with Yan throwing the first bomb, a left hand that just missed, which gave O’Malley an opening to pop him with a left hand down the middle. Yan clipped O’Malley with a body kick and continued to press forward as “Sugar” circled the outside of the octagon. A right hand landed clean for O’Malley. You could see that the reach of O’Malley was giving Yan problems as the former UFC champion whiffed on a few haymakers and was caught with quick counters. Yan wasn’t having much success with head strikes, but his kicking game was on point and he continually targeted O’Malley’s lead leg.

At the midway point of Round 1 we see our first takedown attempt from Yan. He pushed O’Malley to the cage, but O’Malley fought it off. Another straight left landed for O’Malley and Yan missed on a counter left hook. Getting closer though. O’Malley scored with a couple of jabs before Yan cut him off with a heavy left over the top. Yan let his left hand go before ducking in for another takedown, this time changing levels and executing a crowd-pleasing slam. O’Malley was active off of his back, defending well, though Yan slipped in a few short punches before O’Malley made it back to his feet. O’Malley started to toss out combos, but it looked like most of the punches bounced off of Yan’s arms. O’Malley ended the round with a takedown attempt that Yan escaped.

Yan opened Round 2 with a gorgeous low kick to body kick combination. O’Malley went back to his straight combos, landing a left that clearly stunned Yan. Yan took a knee, briefly, then made O’Malley pay for his aggression with a wicked left hand bomb. Had O’Malley not hooked an arm around Yan’s head, he might have been knocked down. Instead, Yan seized the opportunity to get a takedown. Hammerfists by Yan from top position. O’Malley had to work twice as hard to get the fight back to the feet that time. Knees to the body from Yan as he entered pit bull mode. Trip by Yan with half a round to go and he was styling a little there. O’Malley tried a trip of his own and ate a right hand counter for it. Yan was in O’Malley’s face this round and while O’Malley stayed busy, I’m curious which of his straight punches were counted as significant strikes because Yan seemed to parry a few of them. On the other side, Yan was racking up head strikes. O’Malley scored with a right hand during a Yan flurry, though Yan was content to batter him with body kicks. Yan dumped O’Malley for his third takedown of the round and he kept him on the mat for the last minute.

It was an incredibly close fight going into Round 3 and neither man fought like they were up comfortably on the cards. O’Malley opened with rapid jabs, only to be backed up by a snapping Yan right. A switch kick by Yan was blocked, but it looked cool as hell. That O’Malley jab was a reliable weapon the whole fight. Yan got deep on a takedown, but O’Malley showed incredible balance to stay up, then he blasted Yan with a knee up the middle that cut him open followed by a left hand. O’Malley started tagging Yan, but Yan fired right back with double-barrelled hooks. Another right hook cracked O’Malley as he tried to get back on offense.

Yan went to his wrestling in the final two minutes. He took O’Malley down, but O’Malley again stood up before any real damage was done. The same can’t be said for the next sequence, which saw Yan land another huge right hand counter, followed by a left across the jaw. The round ended with O’Malley walking into a takedown and absorbing a hammerfist on the mat.

What did the judges say?

Ben Cartlidge scored it 29-28 O’Malley.

David Lethaby scored it 29-28 O’Malley.

Vito Paolillo scored it 29-28 Yan.

This one came down to the first round as all three judges agreed that Yan won Round 2 and that O’Malley won Round 3. Cartlidge and Lethaby both gave Round 1 to O’Malley.

What did the numbers say?

(Statistics per UFC Stats)

My advice for those advocating for a robbery? Don’t go to the stats, because they’re not favorable to Yan.

O’Malley had a whopping 84-58 advantage in significant strikes, but more importantly he had the edge in two of the three rounds. O’Malley won Round 1 23-19 and Round 3 40-15 (not a typo), while Yan won Round 2 24-21.

The gap is even wider for O’Malley if you isolate head strikes, typically considered the most damaging strikes, as he beat Yan there 63-24. Yan won both the body strike (13-6) and leg strike (21-15) battle. It’s essential to note that the stats don’t reflect the impact of the strikes as a jab (of which O’Malley threw many) counts the same as a haymaker (of which Yan landed a several) on paper.

Neither fighter was credited with a knockdown, which is somewhat surprising given how they staggered one another in Round 2. But Yan went to a knee for barely half a second, while O’Malley only went down after Yan took him down.

Speaking of which, Yan scored six successful takedowns, with at least one in each round. He also logged 5:44 of control time, though that shouldn’t factor into the decision all that much (more on this later) as he only landed six total ground strikes.

What did the media say?

On the other hand, if you want evidence of a robbery, look no further than the media scores on MMA Decisions: 26 of 26 in favor of Yan, with seven going as far as to award all three rounds to the former champion.

That said, I would implore people to check out the Twitter comments from these scorers, a handful of whom wrote that the fight was close and could have gone either way.

There’s still an overwhelming amount of support for a Yan win, but let’s acknowledge that the tally there doesn’t tell the whole story.

What did the people say?

(Data derived from MMA Decisions and Verdict MMA)

Fans scoring the bout on MMA Decisions are solidly in Yan’s corner, with almost 75 percent voting for either 29-28 Yan (44 percent) or 30-27 Yan (30 percent). In third, 20 percent voted 29-28 O’Malley.

Regarding the swing rounds, 66 percent scored Round 1 for Yan, while 53 percent scored Round 3 for O’Malley.

Voters on the Verdict MMA app scored the fight for Yan by a sizable margin.

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.

Overall, Yan won the fight by 139 points, with a difference of 100 points or higher being indicative of a robbery in my estimation. However, it should be noted that the final margin is somewhat deceiving given that Round 2 — a clear Yan round — was unanimously scored 10-9 by Verdict users, giving Yan 100 points right there. The margins of Rounds 1 and 3 were narrow, with Yan winning the first by 29 points and the last by just nine points.

In MMA Fighting’s online poll, which asked only who won the fight, Yan came out ahead with 68.2 percent of the vote.

How did I score it?

On first viewing, I had it 29-28 for Yan, but was also adamant that it was not a robbery.

Given the names involved, the magnitude of the fight, and the vocal uproar in protest of the decision from multiple angles, this demanded a Robbery Review, and I’m glad I did it. Because I’m even more confident that an O’Malley win is justifiable now.

I actually had difficulty finding an argument for Yan winning Round 1 because O’Malley so clearly landed the best punches of that period. We can’t discount Yan’s outstanding kicks to the leg and body, but I almost always weigh head strikes more heavily so on my card that’s an O’Malley frame. Yan’s slam, as cool as it looked, had little influence on potentially finishing the fight.

That leads me to my second point. We have to shoot down the myth that takedowns, top control, and octagon control were major factors in this fight. You can blame the commentary team for this one as they insisted on spouting the archaic and inaccurate notion that Yan was edging out the rounds with timely takedowns. Takedowns and control are secondary criteria that are only taken into consideration when we can’t differentiate who won based on striking damage. I don’t care who you think won, but any educated viewer should have been able to decide each round strictly based on the striking, not any other factor.

Besides, if one views the striking is so close that they feel the need to go to secondary criteria, then isn’t the fight by definition not a robbery?

So with Round 1 for O’Malley in my books and Round 2 for Yan in everybody’s books that leaves Round 3, which was a toss-up. Yan legitimately landed a few counter punches that I am shocked did not floor O’Malley. Young man’s chin at work. However, I could say the same about O’Malley’s knee, which immediately opened up a cut that must have left a strong impression on the judges, not to mention the points he racked up with solid jabs that were more than pitter-patter.

Personally, I leaned towards Yan because he landed more potentially fight-ending shots in Round 3, but I had my doubts watching live and still do after multiple replays of the final round. I’ll stick with 29-28 Yan.

Was it a robbery?

It’s hard for critics to accept that judging is subjective, but outside of sticking to the criteria as much as possible, there will always be room for interpretation. Again, that last round saw both fighters land strikes that could have ended the fight. Neither did. So how do you even begin to call one fighter’s offense more effective than the others?

One other thing that bugs me is that maybe a large chunk of viewers just aren’t scoring jabs anymore? Certainly, power punches should outweigh jabs any day (see: Marlon Vera vs. Rob Font), but I noticed a similar reaction to the Daniel Rodriguez-Li Jingliang fight at UFC 279, which saw Rodriguez effectively jab Li for three rounds and evade some wild swings to win a highly disputed decision. Jabs matter, people, even in MMA.

And I hate to harp on the commentary team, but there is no doubt in my mind that their regrettable emphasis on takedowns that led to zero significant damage (except in Round 2, which Yan won on the feet anyway) influenced a lot of people scoring the fight at home. At the end of the fight, the otherwise impeccable Jon Anik pointed to the on-screen stats and said, “Control time, also a major factor…” No, it isn’t! Not in a fight where two guys put on an amazingly skilled standup showing. I’m all for mixing the martial arts, but the commentary team has to know that striking and damage are intended to be a far more substantial part of that mix according to the scoring criteria.

Admitting my own biases, it’s possible that I was swayed by O’Malley doing better than expected taking such a big leap up in competition. I was mindful of this going into the a rewatch of the fight, which was easy given that I now knew the winner, but it is a factor that has influenced how many of us have viewed close, dramatic fights in the past.

As for O’Malley not being his usual cocky and confident self in his post-fight interview when asked about his thoughts on the fight, I’m glad he wasn’t. The fight was super close! Also, I wouldn’t put too much weight into his self-assessment given that he just got punched in the head a bunch of times by Yan.

Look, I accept that Yan likely won this fight and that this is going to be a topic of discussion for the remainder of O’Malley’s career. But I hope, blindly, that the discussion revolves around how the fighters put on a thrilling and competitive back-and-forth bout as opposed to any supposed travesty of judging.

The final verdict

Not a robbery.


Was Sean O’Malley’s win over Petr Yan a robbery?

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