UFC President Dana White is frequently apoplectic due to what he perceives to be bad judging in MMA. He is not alone. Many a furious fan has had cause to invoke pestilence upon the head of judges when fights ended controversially. However, I think it is unfair to excoriate the judges, as they are themselves hamstrung by amorphous judging criteria seemingly designed to create controversy. The brunt of blame must first fall on the rules themselves.
According to the applicable judging criteria, judges must score bouts on a 10-point Must system, and are required to "evaluate mixed martial arts techniques, such as effective striking, effective grappling, control of the ring/fighting area, effective aggressiveness and defense." Not only are these imprecise and subjective criteria, but the Rules themselves are ambiguous, complex and wide open to subjectivity, interpretation and bias.
In place of these, I'd like to suggest a more tightly-defined and objective approach for scoring fights. There is little controversy over fights that are finished within the distance by KO, TKO or submission (apart from refereeing decisions, which are a discussion for another day). So I will focus only on scoring fights that go the distance.
The perfect scoring system for MMA fights must fulfil two criteria:
1. It must be objective. This means that it must preclude (as much as is humanly possible) bias, opinion, emotion and judgment. These are the bugbears that cause controversial judging. The most objective method would involve discrete events that can be numerically counted. For example, in judging the attractiveness of a woman's figure, it is more objective to score her on something measurable like her waist/hip ratio, than on whether you think she has a 'nice figure'.
2. It must encourage the right behavior in fighters. In every combat sport, the behavior of fighters is influenced by the rules. They do more of what is rewarded, and less of what is penalised. For example, Savate kickboxers throw many more kicks than punches, because kicks score more than punches, and not kicking can get you penalised. This also of course explains why Jujutsuka are poor kickers (kicks aren't allowed in Ju-jitsu competitions), Karateka are poor at submissions, and Boxers have no takedown defense. So what IS the right behavior we want to see, i.e. what do we want to reward in MMA fighters? I would say two things:
a) Skill diversity. The ideal MMA fighter is well-rounded. This means he is skilled at striking, takedowns and submissions (in both attack and defense).
b) Effective finishing. The ideal martial artist can finish an opponent (i.e. render them incapacitated, unconscious or dead) in a short time, and using only a few (or ideally just one) techniques.
With the requirements framed this way, the answer to the judging question becomes simple and virtually writes itself:
1) Eliminate subjective and irrelevant criteria like Aggression, Octagon control, etc. These make assumptions about what the ideal fighter should look like, and invite subjectivity and judgment into the judging process. Many fighters are more effective in defense (George Foreman's aggression didn't merely played into Ali's tactical fight plan), and physical or Octagon control is not only subjective but irrelevant to the ideal objective of effectively finishing your opponent. If I retreat, am I being controlled, or am I baiting my opponent?
2) Reward and score only three things:
a) Effective Striking: A strike (punch, kick, elbow, knee, etc) that lands solidly on the head, body or legs and does damage should score a point. This meets the above criteria, because it is objective (i.e. can be counted), and encourages fighters to execute hard, effective strikes (and to defend against same) with the potential to finish their opponent. Feeble strikes should not be scored.
b) Effective takedowns: Any take down that causes an opponent to lose control of his center of gravity, and that damages him by causing impact with the floor, or causes him to expend energy regaining control of himself should score a point. This meets the two criteria because they are objective (can be easily counted) contribute to effective finishing, and they hurt the opponent via a sudden impact and causing him to expend energy. Rewarding these also means fighters will learn effective takedowns, and how to defend against them.
c) Effective submission attempts: Any submission attempt (choke, strangle or joint lock) that does not result in a submission, but damages the opponent by forcing him to expend energy to escape it should be awarded a point. Again, this meets all the required criteria: they can be objectively counted, encourage fighters to learn submissions (and submissions defense) and reward attempts to finish. Submission attempts that do not get locked in and do not force the opponent to escape, will not be scored.
Every fight would have three judges, who would simply tally up the number of effective srikes, takedowns and submission attempts. This could perhaps be done using simple custom apps on an iPad (press the blue button when Fighter A scores, the Red button when Fighter B scores, and tally at the end of each round). The fighter with the most points wins. This approach is simple, objective and clear. However, two discussion points are raised by this proposal.
The first is that of relative weights. Why should takedowns and strikes score the same (one point each)? And for example, shouldn't a spinning kick to the head score more than a short rabbit punch to the body? The answer is No, for two reasons.
First, If you give a strike a higher score than takedowns or submissions for example, MMA bouts will become kickboxing matches. If you score takedowns more, they will become Judo matches. If you score submissions more, they will become Ju-Jitsu matches. Score them equally, and fighters will pay equal attention to each skill. Secondly, trying to decide which strikes should score more that others is a slippery slope to counterproductive complexity and bias. Let's keep it simple.
The second point is whether the 10-point Must system should be retained under this proposal. Frankly, I'm indifferent. If the rules allow 10-9, 10-8, 10-7 and even 10-6 rounds, then the outcome should be the same whether you simply tally each fighter's points for the whole fight, or award rounds based on the differential in the scoring.
For example, say in a 3 round fight, the points for the three rounds (Fighter A vs. Fighter B) are: 85-75, 90-82, and 60-100. If we simply tally up the points, Fighter B would win with a total fight tally of 235-257. Alternatively, if we follow the current system and allocate 10 points based on the scoring differential, we should end up with: 10-9,10-9,6-10. This means Fighter B will also again win with a 26-28 score.
This simplified system would bring objectivity to judging, and be auditable (meaning bad decisions can be easily reversed). Yes, there would still be some differences of opinion on what is or isn't an effective strike, takedown or submission attempt. However, having three judges should smooth out such differences, which should anyway be few enough not to affect the overall outcome of most fights.
Perhaps this system's greatest benefit though, will be that lay and pray tactics, stalling, humping and blind aggression will disappear for good, because such boring and unmartial conduct will find itself completely unrewarded.