Andy Foster is the Executive Officer of the California State Athletic Commission (CSAC) and recently released an open letter to the world of mixed martial arts (MMA) in the hope of sparking dialogue on the touchy subject of judging.
After reading his suggestions, which revolve around three core points: an emphasis on scoring "damage," a definitive 10-8 round and the simple phrase of, "Who won the fight?"
I was able to speak with Foster last week about things that came to my mind when discussing a new scoring system.
While Foster did not specify any results that may or may not have directly influenced him to sit down and write the letter, quite possibly the most hotly-debated decision in MMA history occurred last month at UFC 167 when Georges St-Pierre squeaked by Johny Hendricks via split decision.
I asked Foster about what the Nevada State Athletic Commission (NSAC) Executive Director Keith Kizer had to say about "not seeing any controversy" in regards to "GSP" vs. "Big Rigg."
"Keith picked qualified people to score the fight and they scored the fight using the system they were given. Reasonable people could disagree on round one, but the rounds Hendricks won were at a larger margin than the rounds St. Pierre won. The scoring system used to come up with that decision should be reviewed."
So what about those qualified people he speaks of? Are the judges currently employed by the state commissions sufficient?
"I think many, but not all, of the current group used to score MMA are doing a good job. I think they are doing the best they can with the system they are given. I do think it’s beneficial for judges to train or have trained in both striking and grappling arts to know what the different holds and strikes feel like. This first-hand knowledge helps a judge to know how to gauge damage."
Well, why are these same judges who sometimes make these inexcusable decisions still chosen?
"I think that many times experience and familiarity contribute to continued assignments. For example, if a judge does a good job for a Commission and has had many large fights to his/her credit, why not continue using what is working? I think we have some judges that have judged a long time that do a good job. If the judge is not doing a good job, then they should not be assigned. In the case you mentioned earlier, these judges were qualified. They used the scoring system that everyone uses. The 'inexcusable' decisions could happen anywhere in the country and while a educated and trained judge is very important, a good judge can be limited by the scoring system."
How should the judges be assessed to see if they are doing a good enough job?
I asked about their rate of pay and whether that figure should vary due to performance. Whether he thought rewarding good judging and penalizing poor judging monetarily would have any effect. I also brought up the idea of a panel of judges, media, whoever to analyze and review the performance of judges.
"For MMA, I think the website MMAdecisions.com does a good job of that. I look at it often. In boxing, Greg Sirb creates a list of stats on the judges which can be very helpful. I think top level MMA judges are paid well. Not as well as in boxing, which has sanctioning bodies which make recommendations of increased pay, but MMA judges are paid adequately. If someone is judging MMA primarily for money, perhaps that judge should look into a different sport."
Following UFC 167, an irate Dana White spoke openly about Nevada and the issues plaguing the state’s future in MMA. I asked Foster if he thinks Nevada is a "very scary place," or if the current judging crisis applies worldwide.
"I think that the judging problem could happen anywhere and has. With qualified officials, the 10-9 system works most of the time. However, there are times when one fighter could win three rounds very closely and the opposing fighter two rounds via large margins, and the scorecards give the fight to the wrong person. This is the system we are using. In those cases, I would prefer the Commission judges just to tell me who they thought won. I think that even under a system like that, the numerical score would very rarely deviate from the "who won the fight" verdict. We do not want a system where our judges do not even agree with their scores being representative of who won the actual fight.
Currently, we have a "who won the round" system. That is evident by the fact that less than 3% of total rounds are scored 10-8. I keep bringing up the 10-8 because in a three-round fight, those two points can be decisive. If judges are not awarding them, then perhaps a definition change is in order of what constitutes a 10-8 round. However, the underlying question of awarding a 10-8 round still would exist in that are the other judges going to award 10-8 also. In boxing, a knockdown almost always signifies a 10-8 round (not every time but almost always). In MMA a 10-8 round is very subjective as is evident by the very few 10-8 rounds scored. It is extremely rare that by all three judges scoring the bout agree that 10-8 is the score across the board. In boxing, 10-8 rounds are agreed upon almost always. In MMA 10-8 rounds are agreed upon almost never. This is a problem. This one point, the difference between 10-9 and 10-8's is having adverse consequences on MMA athletes and we in the ABC should study this again.
I am not criticizing any Commission or any State. I want that to be clear. I think we need to look at the scoring system. We in the ABC have looked at it many times, but we need to keep looking at it. Boxing and MMA are not the same sport. We literally have careers of athletes in our hands, and we must do something to make sure their livelihood and dreams are properly protected as best we can."
What about making a judge’s job at ringside even easier by implementing television monitors and action/noise canceling headphones that do not allow emotion to dictate their decision?
"I think TV monitors, directly in front of the judge like in the UFC is a good thing. Look, we want the correct score for the fighter that actually won. Sitting at home watching on TV is a much easier method of scoring than sitting at one side of the cage and only seeing from that vantage point. It can be easy to criticize a judge from the couch, but it is somewhat more difficult when you actually sit in the seat. Any tool that will help facilitate the correct result is something I support."
So would assigning point values to specific techniques help?
"No, there are too many."
There is another aspect to the present scoring system that is equally as vague as a 10-8 round, that being a 10-10 frame. Rarely seen, but is a score that is available to the judges. Where does Foster see this fitting into the revised system?
"10-10 rounds are scored much less often than a 10-8 round. There are times when a fight is even. Very rarely, but it does exist. The problem is the same with the 10-8 dilemma. Are the other two judges going to score it 10-10. I doubt it. In three rounds that is a problem. Probably a better idea is to pick a winner, but it is not fair if the round was truly even. The 10-9 must system should not 'box' a judge into a corner. Also worth noting is the 10-10 round in MMA is similar to boxing. Unlike the knockdown indicator in boxing used to take a point and create a 10-8 round (most of the time), no such indication exists for a 10-10 round in boxing or MMA. This lack of objectivity is easier to absorb in boxing due to the higher number of rounds. In a three or five round fight, every point counts.
I certainly am not claiming to have all the answers to fixing scoring, but I like to look at the numbers. Numbers help to paint a picture and show a problem. When I look at the scoring statistics compared to boxing, we have a scoring problem. I am not sure how to fix it, but we all have ideas. This is why the Association of Boxing Commission’s judging committee needs to meet and begin dialogue and collectively we can discuss this again. We met two years ago and did some revisions, but we should continue to meet until we get this right."
I went on to ask Foster about how the response has been since the release of the letter. Many people have spoken about rectifying the problem before, but little has been done to invoke change.
What happens next?
"I have talked with Jeff Mullen multiple times over the last two weeks. He will be calling a meeting of the Committee in the next week or so. We need to improve the scoring system. I want to get these fighters the correct score. I think that all the regulators want that. Sometimes we disagree on how to get to that goal and that is okay. Nothing happens without talking, and it is my sincere hope that we can make something happen."
MMA is not going away, and neither is the way MMA is scored.
But if those in control of the sport can join forces to rectify what is blatantly causing more harm than good, we all will be better off. The promoters, athletic commissions, fans, and most importantly, the man or woman "who won the fight."