New Rules, Part One: Methods To Improve The Judging System In MMA

Jad SemaanSenior Analyst IMay 22, 2009

The scoring system in North American MMA is a highly contentious topic that has been discussed numerous times by various writers across the board.

There are a host of issues to be considered, but I'm sure most fans can agree that the current format has several flaws and is not as satisfactory as it could be.

Over the course of two-part series I will be offering four simple propositions on how matters can be improved, while accommodating the fact that no judging system will ever be perfect or agreed upon by everybody.

Of course, MMA in the North-West hemisphere is regulated by state and province athletic commissions and a promotion must abide by their regulations if it wishes to hold an event in a state-sanctioned venue.

Most states have now adopted the Unified Rules for Mixed Martial Arts in order to create a sense of equity. In Japan the situation is different since the sport is not regulated by any governing bodies and each promotion lays down its own rules and scoring system which usually differ from those employed stateside.  

Though these ideas here could also be implemented in Japan, the current judging criteria and rules that I will be examining come primarily from the Nevada State Athletic Commission, the most prominent combat-sport regulatory body in North America.

Thus I will be using the UFC as my main example and will leave an analysis of the judging in Japan to a later date.

My goal here is to stimulate realistic discussion about the topic at hand and to search for practical solutions to the problems that currently plague the scoring of MMA fights.

Thus instead of merely highlighting certain flaws I have tried to come up with various ways to rectify the situation. While judging is my primary concern, I have also made provisions for improving the quality of refereeing to be featured in part two of this series.

Proposition:  Use Five or Seven Judges to Score a Fight

The problem of split decisions in extremely close fights has prompted various pundits to criticize the specific way that fights are scored in terms of the criteria that are involved.

While the topic of pertinent criteria for the judging of a match will be discussed later, one idea that I have not run across during my research is the instigation of extra judges during each contest.

MMA has adopted the ten-point must system of boxing with several modifications, but one element that has remained is the use of three judges ringside to score each bout.

These judges are not employed by any specific promotion but rather by the aforementioned athletic commissions, and to add more of them would be a bit expensive from a financial viewpoint.

There is already a shortage of well-qualified MMA judges on hand, but I think the advantages of using five or seven judges to score a match instead of three well outweighs the costs.

Dispersing several judges around the ring or cage provides them with a better viewpoint of the proceedings which can result in higher-quality scoring since a subtle technique is less likely to be missed with multiple judges watching.

The most obvious advantage of using more than three judges is when decisions are scored, especially split decisions which are the bane of every fighter's existence.

With five judges, one needs the favorable opinion of at least three to take a decision victory, and this number increases to four if seven judges are used.

This measure may very well reduce the incidence of split decisions, because the more perspectives there are the lesser the chance there is of one or two judges swaying the decision of a fight with a lousy score to the detriment of somebody’s career.

With five or seven judges we would see overall scores of 4-1, 5-2, and even 6-1 and thus be closer at arriving at a unanimous winner since the opinion of one judge will not be the difference-maker such as in a 3-judge split decision.

Though matches may still be scored on a round-by-round basis, it will be more difficult for somebody to complain that they got screwed by one or two particularly incompetent scorekeepers.

In addition to the further education of judges on the intricacies of MMA, a phenomenon which is taking place at the behest of referee "Big" John McCarthy through his course on judging and refereeing termed COMMAND (Certification of Officials for Mixed Martial Arts Development), adding judges to ringside from a technical point of view can only have a positive effect since skewered outcomes will be harder to come by with more judges needed to create an unsatisfactory decision.

Split decision scores such as three judges to two or four to three will still occur, but some pressure will be taken off of individual judges since they won't have as big a weight on them to pick the "correct" winner, though of course mistakes will always be made and controversial decisions will still occur, due to the subjective nature of the matter.

Then again, when one looks at polls which ask who fans think won a particular fight, results are often close to 50-50 and in this case the addition of judges will not fully eliminate the problem of scoring evenly-matched contests.

But the reason why we have three judges is to decrease incidences of bias and favoritism that would occur if only one judge was employed, and ideally I would like to see as many judges utilized as can be feasible both economically and logistically.

Such an emphasis is placed not only on winning but also on entertaining the crowd such that a single loss can have a huge detriment to one's career as every fighter strives not to lose their place within the organization and while trying to earn a decent living.

Nobody likes to see a fighter screwed over by an unjust decision and though this will always be inevitable to some extent, theoretically there are certain ways to minimize such instances and I believe adding extra judges can be an effective method that perhaps ought to be at least tried.

It is difficult enough to climb the ladder towards a title shot let alone compete professionally on a full-time basis and when a combatant is "robbed" unjustly then the credibility of the sport and the judges are put into question, and we certainly do not want to see any sort of corruption within the system either.

Thus the addition of judges can create the equitable atmosphere that is necessary to provide a just scoring system and though it may amount to only being a minor improvement, it can make all the difference in the world for a select few fighters who had that one extra judge on their side in a fight that they desperately needed to win and perhaps would have lost in a three-judge format.

Proposition:  Weigh the Judging Criteria According to a Standardized Quantitative System

The criteria used to score a match obviously have great importance when it comes to creating a judging system which can be both universal and just. The goal here is to make the criteria as objective and transparent as possible so that fans and competitors alike will know why a fight was scored in a particular manner.

Of course, MMA employs mostly boxing judges who traditionally tend to favor the striking aspect and are not as well-versed in the ground game as the judges that you would find at a jiu-jitsu tournament, naturally enough.

While this deficiency has certainly improved within the last few years as the ground game is getting scored better, the sport of MMA is an entirely different animal than boxing and I think most fans would agree that the ten-point must system is needs some sort of overhaul in order to satisfactorily represent the nuances of an MMA battle.

Here I wish to discuss the qualitative and quantitative aspects of scoring a fight which every judge will need to take into account when scoring a winner. But I want to make it clear that I do not wish to argue here in favor of one specific criterion over another; I will save that for another time since it is an extremely subjective topic that is difficult to reach a consensus on. 

My proposition is intended to work within the existing framework used for scoring fights and thus I will assume that the criteria used in North American promotions are at least adequate though perhaps not entirely perfect in their arrangement, mostly due to the fact that fights are not scored as a whole which of course would be ideal for a combat engagement.

I will say this though: I believe that the attempt to finish the fight is the most important criterion and it is not sufficiently represented under the current stipulations. 

After all, rendering your opponent incapable of continuing the match, whether by knocking him out or making him submit, is basically the main goal of a fight and it should probably be a criterion that is scored separately from the others, if not as the most crucial one. But I digress.

The official criteria that the Nevada State Athletic Commission uses to rate each fighter's performance round-by-round are clean striking, effective grappling, octagon control, and effective aggressiveness.

For reference, the full scoring guidelines can be found here.

The criteria used for striking and grappling are pretty straightforward, such as landing clean, efficient strikes (accuracy) and heavy, effective strikes (power and damage).

For grappling, clean takedowns and reversals are scored evenly, and threatening with submission attempts is suppose to score points, contrary to the evidence that we have seen in some decisions.

Octagon control is basically self-explanatory, while aggressiveness is rated as the least significant factor. 

Aggressiveness is defined as moving forward and scoring but is clearly not synonymous with the attempt to finish the match since one can be aggressive, reckless and relatively inefficient while fighting for a decision victory (think Clay Guida) whereas another man can get several near-submissions and is clearly trying to end the bout with every move (think Matt Wiman).

The problem here is evaluating the criteria. The NSAC  rules stipulate that a sliding scale will be used to rate the criteria, and striking is weighed more heavily if 90% of a fight takes place on the feet (naturally enough) while grappling is weighed as greater if the majority of the fight takes place on the mat, though effective ground and pound is still counted when applicable.

I'm not quite sure how the judges make use of this "sliding scale," but my idea here is to give the winner of each criterion a score of 10 in every round. So whoever has the most effective striking gets ten points, whoever has better octagon control gets ten points, and so on for the four main criteria used in the evaluation.

Now, the most important criteria are striking and grappling, followed by octagon control, and then finally aggressiveness, according to the state athletic commissions. To weigh these criteria properly it is best to multiply point totals: x3 for the no.1 criterion, x2 for the no. 2 criterion and x1 for the no.3 criterion.

So whoever gets the better of grappling and striking gets thirty points for each, then twenty points for better octagon control and keep only ten points for aggressiveness, the least important criteria under current rules.

That way, by stating which fighter did better in each criterion during a round, one can come to a weighted point total which takes into to account the most important factors necessary to score an MMA match properly.

For a sample round, let’s say fighter A has superior striking and octagon control, so he gets fifty points: thirty from striking, the no.1 criterion, and twenty from octagon control, the second most important criterion.

His opponent, fighter B, would get forty points: thirty for better grappling, also the no.1 criterion, and ten for his effective aggressiveness, the third most significant factor.

So the competitor A would win the round, fifty points to forty. Of course, there is still an element of subjectivity and arbitration as one is still using the same qualitative criteria to determine who has superior striking and grappling, but at least quantifying point totals in this manner leads to greater clarification as to why a particular fighter took a certain round.

Two caveats are necessary though: if a negligent amount of grappling or striking occurs, for example, little to no takedown attempts or clinches, then octagon control and grappling should not be used to score a round and only striking and aggressiveness should count on the feet.

If the same thing occurs on the ground, like if there is little to no striking from the top or bottom position, then striking should not count as a criterion in that round and only the other three should be taken into account. 

This is in fact similar to the current rules, where I mentioned above that if 90% of a fight takes place on the feet then striking is weighed more heavily than grappling (the reverse is also true), and I don’t see anything wrong with this procedure.

Of course, striking on the ground can be just as effective as grappling and should rightly be scored if it is effective and efficient enough to make a sizable difference in the outcome of the round.

My proposition attempts to eliminate theoretical cases where fighters would try to abuse the system, such as by stuffing a weak takedown attempt, getting fifty points from effective grappling and octagon control, and thus winning the round, despite getting out-struck by a more aggressive fighter (this is a hypothetical example, because in the above situation the striker would win all of the criteria, but I’m just trying to make a point).

This system also attempts to eradicate lay and pray, whereby rabbit punches do not equal superior striking on the ground and the bottom fighter can still win via threatening submission attempts and near-finishes for superior grappling; by reversals and sweeps for octagon control; and through scoring points for aggressiveness in trying to improve position and attacking the opponent.

There is one last point that I would like to make about the situation. The fighter on bottom should be able to win a match, as several contests in PRIDE FC showed. Indeed, in the NSAC rules the guard is counted as a neutral position, though one could not tell this through simple observation since the man on top is so often favored.

The problem under the current judging rules (if they were flawlessly adhered to) is that if a fighter scores a takedown and lands in the top guard position, but little else happens, then the top man takes the round.

Interestingly enough, the reverse is also true so if a fighter pulls guard, which counts as a takedown, and nothing significant happens in the round, then the bottom man takes it on the scorecard.

So this is a note to all you Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu competitors and other grapplers: make sure you are the one who scores the takedown if you want the judges to be on your side!

What I have outlined above is just a basic sketch of a scoring system that is probably in need of some refinement, but my point is that using an objective scheme whereby fans can determine precisely how a judge scored a round in favor of a certain fighter would go a long way towards removing ambiguity and prejudice when it comes down to defining the winner of a fight. 

Stay tuned for part two next time where I reveal further ways to rectify the judging situation in MMA.


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