In the co-main event last evening at UFC on FOX 3, welterweight contenders Josh Koscheck and Johny Hendricks fought in a closely-contested affair that marked the first time two NCAA Division I national champions fought in the UFC.
Hendricks was ultimately declared the winner, but only by split decision. Judges Jeff Blatnick and Cardo Urso scored the bout 29-28 for Hendricks. The dissenting judge who scored it 29-28 for Koscheck? Former UFC middleweight and welterweight contender and now retired fighter Ricardo Almeida.
It'd be a stretch to call scoring the fight for Koscheck irresponsible or evidence of poor judging, although there's not much of a quantitative defense for Koscheck. Still, judging is a qualitative endeavor and one hampered by vantage point, biases both ingrained or innocuous and the limits of one's ability to draw defensible conclusions about athletic performance. By the very nature of how judging is administered, a difference of opinion in close contests among those qualified to score MMA at the highest professional levels is inevitable. A score for Koscheck isn't bad even if it isn't ultimately the most defensible position to take.
Still, how could it be the only judge with professional MMA and UFC experience make the choice most qualified observes do not agree with and one not supported by quantitative data? Is it just a difference of opinion?
To answer that question, let's rewind all the way back to June of 2011. The event is UFC 131: Dos Santos vs. Carwin and the bout is a preliminary card featherweight fight between Darren Elkins and Michihiro Omigawa.
Over three rounds, Elkins an Omigawa battled in a close contest that was made all the more difficult to judge by the general lack of any major action. Points were scored, but it took a nuanced eye to notice all of the subtle ways points were being scored.
By the time the fight ended, virtually all online observers and media (as well as a healthy portion of those in attendance) scored the fight 29-28 for Omigawa. UFC President Dana White did, too. The judges, however, didn't see it that way. Judges Jason Darrah, Dave Hagen and Bill Mahood awarded the bout to Elkins, scoring it 29-28, 30-27 and 29-28, respectively.
A bad score or at least one that seems indefensible is not uncommon in MMA, but this fight was different. Why? All three judges had professional MMA experience. Mahood, in particular, was a UFC veteran.
To be clear, scoring last night's fight for Koscheck is not the same as scoring Elkins vs. Omigawa for Elkins. But the point is this: we don't know yet if former fighters - even those who achieved at the highest level - will necessarily be great MMA judges. Fighting and judging only share a small segment of overlapping skills. Understanding fighting enough to compete at the UFC level does not necessarily mean one automatically has the requisite judgment to evaluate the performance of other fighters according to the guidelines (and values that underwrite those guidelines) of the Unified Rules of MMA.
On balance, maybe former fighters will be better judges than what we are typically accustomed to living with. They've got a special and important experience. They certainly cannot be worse than boxing judges who've been grandfathered into judging MMA contests.
Then again, maybe not. Maybe we don't yet really know if it's actually true. Not yet, anyway. What we do know is that it's too early to say definitively former fighters necessarily make great judges. Intuitively, it makes sense and who would rather have Tony Weeks score a MMA fight than Almeida? Not many. Yet, would I take Jeff Blatnick (admittedly, he's got supreme amateur wrestling credentials) over just about any other judge, even those with fighting experience? Yeah, I probably would.
In Almeida's defense, a case for Koscheck could conceivably be cobbled together. Besides, split decision dissents aren't the worst thing in the world since the right guy won and all of Almeida's other decisions seem right on the money.
All I'm suggesting is that we hold off on declaring something true just because it's intuitively appealing. Our intuitions have to be backed up by experience. On those grounds, the jury is very much still out.