Methods to Improve MMA Judging: Part Two

Jad SemaanSenior Analyst IJune 26, 2009

After a slew of razor-thin decisions at the past few UFC events (read: Franklin-Silva, Fisher-Uno, Davis-Hardy, Sanchez-Guida, Hughes-Serra, Blackburn-Garcia, Guillard-Tibau), I feel that now is an appropriate time to release the second article in my series which focuses on different ways that the judging system in MMA can be rectified.

Like its predecessor, which can be found here or under my profile if one missed it, this article highlights two unique proposals.

The first aims to facilitate the quality of the scoring format, while the second contains a provision for improving the excellence of refereeing, which is arguably just as important since the number of stoppages usually outweighs the quantity of decisions on each card.

I have chosen the ideas represented in this series based on perceived efficiency, applicability, ease of employment, and originality.

There are a lot of changes that could be made to the judging system, but in these articles I have tried to provide adequate justification for a select handful of what I think are the most practical and enduring solutions to the problem at hand.

What we need now, most of all, is to brainstorm on how the judging can be improved. Then we need to work towards achieving this goal so that in the future, MMA can have a fair and equitable scoring system for the benefit of everyone involved.

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Lastly, as I stated in part one, these proposals are mainly geared towards the North American theatre and the state athletic commissions which control MMA here. The Japanese organizations employ their own distinct rules, sets, and customs.

I have already talked too much, so here are the designs that I had in mind.

Proposition:  Implement Five Rounds of Four Minutes Each

The International Fight League may no longer exist, but it taught us a valuable lesson: an MMA fight can be contested using four-minute rounds without any hitches.

There are numerous advantages towards using four-minute rounds, instead of the customary five-minute format, which I believe certainly outweigh any potential drawbacks.

While some fans may prefer to see only three rounds in total like in the IFL, I think that five rounds of four minutes each would be more suitable and would make scoring much simpler. For title fights, seven rounds of four minutes apiece would suffice.

Dana White himself has spoken of a desire to see seven rounds in championship matches. And fifteen minutes is often not satisfactory enough for standard main events or No. 1 contender bouts.

With four-minute rounds, one can have a 45-second rest period which should be adequate enough for fighters to recover.

Combatants would not tire as easily since each round is 20 percent shorter. Longer rounds are naturally more grueling and with extra breaks involved, a fighter would be less worn out. This would be true, even after twenty minutes of action compared with fifteen as it is right now.

Therefore, under this format we would not see competitors fatigue as fast and thus peak performance levels could be maintained for the duration of the entire match.

Ground fighters would not suffer because we saw an adequate proportion of submissions in the IFL, even though each round was a minute shorter than the usual regulations.

However, referees should not be afraid to restart the fighters if they intentionally stall for a prolonged period of time no matter what rule-set is used, so four-minute rounds should not affect the technical aspects of single combat.

An odd number of total rounds are obviously necessary for judging purposes, especially since there are a lower number of total rounds compared to boxing.

Using five rounds instead of three would not limit the number of matches shown on the broadcast, since just as many fights would end via stoppage as is happening now. The UFC usually finishes with 15-30 minutes left in the pay-per-view broadcast anyway, so time should not be an issue. A couple of undercard fights that ended early could still be shown.

Decisions would result in five more minutes of action, which means that judges are then better able to see the full range of abilities on display and come-from-behind victories are even more possible.

The chances of a stoppage would also increase and with a longer match one man can start to slowly pull away thus rendering scoring the later rounds a touch simpler.

Sometimes a fifteen minute fight is still inconclusive, and fans have proposed that 10-10 rounds be scored more often, though of course this will lead to problematic draws if there are only three rounds.

With five rounds, 10-10 scores become more feasible since there is less of a probability of there being a draw, based on how the rounds are split (i.e. three rounds to one fighter and a draw round or four rounds to one man with a draw round, etc.).

Thus I think this solution offers the best of both worlds as we can still have 10-10 rounds without shoveling every close match into the draw column.

Then again, the ideal situation would see the use of a single twenty minute round, but that idea would not currently fly with the athletic commissions, as the instigation of rounds was historically necessary for the legitimization of the sport.

For a seven round title fight of four minutes each, only three more minutes of fighting would be added compared to the current five-by-five system, so fatigue should not be an issue here either.

And that proposition is certainly much more viable than using seven rounds of five minutes each, since thirty-five minutes is far too long for an individual bout. 

Plus, in the interests of aesthetic symmetry, five rounds coincides well with using five judges for regular fights, while seven judges could be reserved for all-important title fights.  

The UFC is trimming down its roster and nobody wants to see a fighter cut because of a poor decision and yet we still have plenty of instances of poor scoring and something certainly has to be done to resolve the situation.

Like I insinuated above, a single round would be ideal since it's easier to score a fight in its entirety, which is how combat engagements were meant to be evaluated.

Thus here I would like to mention a secondary proposition, controversial though it may be, whereby the judges score an overall winner for the match independently of who they have winning on a round-by-round basis.

If this overall winner differs from the winner as determined by the current round format, then the overall winner ought to be the official pick of the judge for who won the fight.  

However, in the interest of equality, all the judges would have to pick the same overall winner in order for that man to win the decision, otherwise there is no need for round-by-round scoring.

As an example I will use the contest between Rich Franklin and Yushin Okami at UFC 72. Franklin “won” the first two uneventful rounds with a slightly superior display of striking; Okami dominated the third round on the ground and was very close to submitting Franklin.

While some fans clamored for the third round to be scored 10-8 for Okami, this merely would have ended up in a draw: not good for a No.1 contender fight.

Under the round system, Franklin won, but under my proposition above, if the judges re-evaluate the fight as a whole and come up with a different winner, then Okami would have been handed the decision.

Of course, the idea of scoring a match in its entirety is nothing new and has been utilized in Japan for years.

But what I am proposing is a dual-format where the current system is still used, but can be overridden if each judge determines an overall winner that differs from who they have originally listed as the victor in the more traditional format.

At the very least, it's reasonable to think that the 10-point must system goes hand-in-hand with the number of rounds used and what portions of the fight are scored. My idea here is an attempt to derive the best from both worlds by using overall scoring, while maintaining a round format where each round is the same length.

Hopefully in the future we can find and implement a solution to this judging dilemma.

Back to the main point here, the IFL certainly did not fail because of the rule-set that it employed, and it delivered some awesome matches within its four-minute format.

With the addition of two extra rounds and four more in title fights, I think we can arrive at an ideal way to judge fights. A system that can appeal to combatants of every stylistic background, as well as fans who are either casual or more hardcore in their following of the sport.  

I don't think my main proposition here is too far-fetched. Hopefully we witness something of the sort in the near future, but of course the main problem here, as with all my other propositions, is convincing the state athletic commissions and the bigger promotions that it is a workable idea or at least worth trying.

Proposition:  Put Two Referees Inside the Cage/Ring

The NHL started using two referees and two linesmen several years ago and the organization has benefitted tremendously. Obviously with more eyes watching, the chances of missing something subtle are reduced and better calls are made on the ice.

Quite frankly I think that soccer should be using two main referees also, since it's difficult for one man to catch everything that happens.

In regard to MMA, I think putting a second referee in the ring or cage could have several benefits that outweigh the negatives.

For one, size would not be an issue, as there is plenty of room within a standard cage or ring for four humans. One man could be designated as the head referee, while the second works as his assistant.

The assistant referee would work in much the same way as his counterpart in soccer or hockey, though of course he does not have to worry about calling offsides.

He would provide another viewpoint to the match, help the main referee call a stoppage to the contest, determine if a fighter has submitted, observe any fouls that take place, and help enforce the rules.

One reason why poor stoppages occur is because the referee is unable to see how injured a certain fighter really is; and thus either stops the bout either too late or too prematurely. This is owed to an error in judgment based on his viewpoint and how fast the action is happening.

A second referee would provide especially useful in cases where a fighter gets rocked or dropped as he can then either stop the fight himself, if he is in a good position to do so, or motion to the head referee to intervene. Thus the frequency of bad stoppages could be reduced if this method is applied.

The head referee has the final call however. The point here is that the assistant referee has the power to call an ending to the fight if the head referee misses something important (like an eye poke), but if they both see the end of the fight clearly then it is up to the head referee to pass final judgment.

In this manner, the services of a second referee are employed to the fullest extent, without having the sort of disputes that would interrupt a match.

Thus the overall role of the assistant referee is to help the head referee make the right call. The assistant referee's added perspective allows every dimension of the fight to be taken into account, without the bias or prejudice that can occur when a single referee runs the show.

The quality of refereeing in MMA will continue to get better in the future, naturally enough, as licensing criteria becomes more stringent and greater knowledge and experience about the sport amasses.

With two referees cooperating together, the odds of making a dreadful mistake which costs a fighter dearly is greatly reduced, and perhaps is a concept at least worth pondering.

Of course, if this proposal is implemented there would probably be an initial trial and error period to work out the details, as is the case when many new rules in professional sports are adopted.

Conversely, such a configuration could be attempted on a provisional basis and if it's deemed more effective than a one-referee system, it could then be employed permanently.

After all, it's the thought that counts.


I think it's safe to say that the quality of judging and refereeing can only go up. MMA is in its infancy stage and it's still in the process of becoming sanctioned throughout North America and indeed many other parts around the world.

It's also prudent to recognize that the issues addressed here in part arose due to the fact that the UFC adopted the 10-point must system in an attempt to get sanctions. Remember, the state athletic commissions are the ones who hold the real ability to change the system, and of course they employ boxing judges to score MMA which lies at the root of the problem.

Perhaps in the future we will see former fighters become judges and referees. Maybe one day, we will witness those experienced in the grappling department tally bouts, in order to balance the background of the scorekeepers, such as Matt Hume when he was a judge in PRIDE Fighting Championships.

Every sport has its own issues with referees/judges (gymnastics, anyone?). As humans, we are naturally prone to error,  but there is clearly room for improvement here and the first step is to engineer ideas which can then be perfected and realized so that the best possible outcome can be attained.

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