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Robbery Review: Valentina Shevchenko vs. Taila Santos at UFC 275

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

Valentina Shevchenko is definitely going to remember lucky No. 7.

Luck has rarely factored into Shevchenko’s historic run as flyweight champion, but to record her seventh straight successful title defense she had to sweat it out on the scorecards after challenger Taila Santos nearly grappled her way to a stunning upset in the UFC 275 co-main event this past Saturday. In the end, Shevchenko squeaked out a decision victory, which didn’t sit well with some in the MMA community.

Former two-division champion Henry Cejudo was particularly baffled by a 49-46 score in Shevchenko’s favor and flyweight contender Casey O’Neill went as far as to say that the judge who issued that score should be fired.

Several other fighters disagreed with Shevchenko earning a split nod:

At the UFC 275 post-fight press conference, Shevchenko praised Santos, calling the challenging fight “exactly what I wanted.” She was also confident that the judges would score the fight in her favor.

“I worked until the last second of the fight to get my victory, to get my hands raised up,” Shevchenko said. “When it’s judges you never know but if you work out everything you have and leave your heart and soul in the fight, you will be proud of yourself no matter what.

“Nothing surprised me. I really didn’t have any position, even when she was on my back, I didn’t feel in trouble. Like oh my God, this is tight and you have to work on your character. No, there was not. More than that, she kind of was inactive. Even me being in that position, I was striking and I feel the power of the strikes and I felt how she reacted because it was hurting her. This is what counts the most in mixed martial arts. Damage.”

Unlike a lot of fighters and fans (and some members of the media), Shevchenko at least understands the most basic principle of the scoring criteria. The question is was it applied correctly in this instance or should we be talking about Santos having pulled off one of the greatest upsets in MMA history right now?

Let’s go to the lab.

What was the official result?

Valentina Shevchenko def. Taila Santos via split decision.

How did the fight go?

The first three rounds are the source of the scoring controversy, particularly Round 2, which I considered to be the swing round watching live. So let’s focus primarily on the opening 15 minutes.

Shevchenko started off by throwing a few strikes from distance, which drew Santos in range for a clean counter right hook. That definitely got Santos’ attention and she seemed to settle down as opposed to forcing the action. Shevchenko avoided a Santos charge, using a bodylock to take the challenger to the fence. She held her there for over a minute before going for a throw that Santos blocked, which led to Santos winning a scramble and immediately taking Shevchenko’s back with about 1:40 to work. Santos attacked with a choke, but Shevchenko’s defense was on point.

The challenger switched to placing a hand over Shevchenko’s mouth and nose to restrict her breathing and this let her attack the neck with her free arm. Still, Shevchenko stayed out of danger. She also started to throw punches over her shoulder that bothered Santos even if they didn’t look to be doing any substantial damage. Santos had a body triangle locked in and really wanted the choke, but Shevchenko defended until the first-round buzzer sounded.

Santos was patient again coming out for Round 2, avoiding some flashy strike attempts from Shevchenko, outside of getting clipped by a straight left. Shevchenko missed on a right and Santos took the opportunity to clinch and duck down for a single leg. Santos worked to score a slick trip with plenty of time to work, settling into Shevchenko’s guard. This is not a neutral position for Shevchenko as she threw strikes from the bottom while keeping her legs busy. Santos struggled to create any kind of separation. There was a brief gogoplata attempt from Shevchenko that went nowhere, but was certainly fun to think about. Santos didn’t have much luck sneaking in any impactful strikes around Shevchenko’s defense. Referee Jason Herzog decided to stand them up with about 90 seconds left in Round 2.

Moments later they went back to the ground courtesy of a Shevchenko head-and-arm throw, but Santos showed her incredible skill and agility, exploding off of the mat and regaining top position in Shevchenko’s guard. Neither fighter does much as another round comes to a close.

Two odd moments stand out in the third, one that had no effect on the fight and one that completely changed its complexion. First, Santos came out without her mouthpiece, an amusing mistake that was quickly rectified; second, at the halfway point of the round, Santos lunged in to grapple and the right side of her head smashed into Shevchenko’s. That accidental clash proved costly later, but it did lead to a strong bodylock takedown for Santos. She took the back again and aggressively attacked Shevchenko’s defense, arguably getting closer to a choke than she did in Round 1. We head to the fourth with the score very much in question.

By the start of Round 4, the swelling on Santos’ head from the clash looked like it was causing her to have trouble seeing out of her right eye. It’s worth noting that Shevchenko was picking Santos apart in the standup in Round 3 and that carried over into the championship rounds. Santos took a low shot that led to a pause in the action, but unfortunately for her not before a high kick connected. Round 4 took place primarily on the feet with Shevchenko scoring with straight punches and body kicks, but Santos actually hung in there fighting with one eye. She even got a takedown and some light ground-and-pound to end the round.

Round 5 was vintage Shevchenko. She escaped an early backtake by Santos, got the fight back to the feet where she was winning throughout the fight, and then finally scored a takedown that actually led to prolonged top control. The champion rode out the fight from there.

What did the judges say?

Howard Hughes scored it 48-47 Shevchenko.

David Lethaby scored it 48-47 Santos.

Clemens Werner scored it 49-46 Shevchenko.

All three judges agreed that Shevchenko won the championship rounds and that Santos won Round 3, but the first two rounds were disputed. Hughes and Lethaby gave Santos Round 1, while Hughes and Werner gave Shevchenko Round 2. Werner scored only the third round for Santos.

What did the numbers say?

(Statistics per UFC Stats)

I don’t imagine the statistics will change anyone’s minds compared to their own initial eye tests.

Shevchenko had the total advantage in significant strikes 77-55, winning every round in that category (10-5, 7-4, 17-7, 29-28, 14-11). On the flip side, Santos had considerably more control time at 8:49 to Shevchenko’s 4:15. During their time on the ground, Santos was credited with just six total strikes to Shevchenko’s five. Santos also had three submission attempts, two in Round 1.

The takedown category is actually even at three apiece, though keep in mind that there is no statistic for winning scrambles, which Santos did on at least two occasions. Santos does have two reversals on the official stat sheet, but that doesn’t count her stuffing Shevchenko in Round 1 and turning that into a dominant position.

Keep in mind, stats are wonky and in a fight with this much nuance, they’re not something that should be relied on if you’re scoring at home. More on this later.

What did the media say?

The media is strongly in agreement with the official score according to MMA Decisions, with three outlets even scoring it the same as Werner, 49-46. Sixteen others had it 48-47 Shevchenko, while eight had it for Santos.

What did the people say?

(Data derived from MMA Decisions and Verdict MMA)

Fans on MMA Decisions are split down the middle, with 48-47 Santos currently leading the pack at 42.6 percent and 48-47 Shevchenko right there at 42.4 percent. Shevchenko actually has a slight edge if you add in the 49-46 votes, which come in at 8.9 percent.

Rounds 1, 3, 4, and 5 were without controversy, with their respective winners (Santos 1 and 3, Shevchenko 4 and 5) earning at least 80 percent of the vote. That controversial second round goes to Santos at 59.9 percent.

Voters on the Verdict MMA app actually had a pretty good read on the fight as Shevchenko ended up winning by a narrow 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.

Yes, Santos took the first three rounds, but Shevchenko’s superiority in Rounds 4 and 5 actually gave her a 22-point win. So depending how you look at it, Verdict voters were in agreement with the judges but also kind of not?

In MMA Fighting’s poll, which asked only for the winner and not for scores, Shevchenko had the edge at 58.9 percent.

How did I score it?

I had it 48-47 Shevchenko on first viewing and am actually swayed more towards 49-46 Shevchenko after review.

That said, arguments for Santos in Round 1 are valid. She advanced to (and for a substantial amount of time held) back control, the most dominant position you can have on the ground. I just wish she’d done more with it. It was awesome seeing her make the champ work to defend her choke attempts, but attempts — as uncomfortable as they may be for the fighter on the receiving end — do not equal damage. Had she mixed in more ground-and-pound there would be much less of a debate.

On the other hand, should Shevchenko’s over-the-shoulder punches really count as damage? I did in the moment and they looked even better the second time around, but here’s a statistical note that is worth mentioning: Shevchenko was credited with zero significant ground strikes in Round 1. Then again, so was Santos. And Shevchenko easily had the best strike of the round with the counter right hook she landed in the opening minute. See how difficult it is to score that one?

Round 2 is less of a headache for me as Santos just did nothing on the ground. If anything, Shevchenko landed some nasty shots from bottom position after being tripped and Santos never did anything to make up for the scoring deficit other than sitting in Shevchenko’s guard. That can’t win you a round. Herzog and two of the judges agree with me at least.

After that it’s Round 3 for Santos and the championship rounds to Shevchenko. So I’m good with 48-47 Shevchenko, with the first really being more of a toss-up than you might realize.

Was it a robbery?

Even if you scored Round 1 for Santos, it’s a stretch to give her more than two rounds. And that’s not to take away from her performance because even if you had it 49-46 for Shevchenko, it is a close 49-46.

My theory as to why Santos is being given too much credit for controlling and not actually dominating the fight is that she’s the latest to benefit from observers rallying behind a challenger who wasn’t expected to have much of a chance to defeat the champion. Severe MMA’s Graeme McDonnell recently dubbed this “expectancy bias” and it’s something we’ve seen in the past with UFC title fights. Thiago Santos’ effort against Jon Jones would be one example, a bout that felt like a robbery because “Marreta” tested Jones and essentially did so with one leg, but the fight was justifiably scored in Jones’ favor.

Skewed expectations aren’t the only reason why one might score the fight for Santos as she was genuinely impressive throughout this contest, especially when you consider how poorly her eye injury was handled. But keeping in mind that damage is the No. 1 criteria, what little Shevchenko did in Round 2 (and possibly Round 1) was enough to sway the judges and that’s fine if we’re adhering to the criteria. Santos’ control doesn’t factor into the scoring because she didn’t do enough with it.

From the criteria:

Top and bottom position fighters are assessed more on the impactful/effective result of their actions, more so than their position.

Santos did a great job of securing positions, but somehow Shevchenko was the one who manufactured damaging offense from them. Go figure.

Clemens Werner did nothing wrong.

The final verdict

Not a robbery.


Was Valentina Shevchenko’s win over Taila Santos a robbery?

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