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UFC Sydney, The Morning After: Split Decisions are the Butterfly Effect of MMA

What you may have missed from last night

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Sydney-Rawlings vs Clark Christopher Hyde-USA TODAY Sports

UFC Fight Night 121 last night broke records- more specifically, it broke the record for the longest UFC event in history. I was only obligated to be present for the main card, but even then it felt interminable. The most notable event on the main card were the three split decisions in a row. Jake Matthews edged out Bojan Velickovic, Jessica Rose-Clark scraped by Bec Rawlings, and Belal Muhammad got the W over Tim Means. Each fight had identical scorecards: two 29-28s for the winner and a 28-29 for the loser.

Fights have more or less binary outcomes in MMA. You win, or you lose. But split decisions often feel so... arbitrary. In each fight last night, the loser was one judge, changing their mind on one round, away from victory. In each case, they had done enough that another judge saw that same round their way! There is considerable margin for judge error over the course of a five-minute round, especially one where each fighter lands meaningful offense. I would have had a very difficult time separating which rounds Belal Muhammad won from the round Tim Means won. They both landed hard strikes, Muhammad piling up jabs while Means connected with kicks. The Bojan Velickovic-Jake Matthews fight was equally competitive for different reasons, the fighters trading time in dominant positions in a tense, technical battle. Perhaps the judges got it right. We’ve all known cases where the vast majority of people think they got it wrong. They have a difficult job. In fights like Muhammad-Means, or Matthews-Velickovic, “winner” and “loser” are artificial constructs. Both fighters did very well in a competitive fight; there was little to choose between them. It is for the sake of sport we must assign a winner and loser to the contest.

Yet, the consequences for a subjective decision by a single judge over a single round has huge real-world consequences for the fighter’s lives and careers. Firstly, there is the matter of win bonuses. Fighters can get double the pay for “winning”- or miss out on that amount for “losing”. That’s a huge variability. Imagine not knowing whether to plan on earning, say, 24,000 or 48,000 in your only fight in a year. (Firstly, you have to imagine that is your only income for the year as a professional athlete! Out of that sum, you have to pay your coaches, manager and gym fees. Oh, yeah, you also get $5,000 in a whopping sponsorship check from Reebok, the only apparel sponsor you are allowed to wear during fight week.) This was Jake Matthews’ scenario, and he lucked out: He won, meaning he gets to pay his bills and hopefully have a little bit in the bank for the tax man. Bec Rawlings, who with less UFC bouts, earns even less per fight than Matthews, wasn’t so lucky. Tim Means, who is refinancing his house and has spent 15 grand or so suing the supplement company that got him suspended last year, also wasn’t so lucky. Getting 50% less money, or a 100% raise, depending on how you view it, can really change your practical living situation, as anyone who has paid their own bills can attest.

Fighters can miss out on future opportunities, too, such as ranked opponents, headlining spots, and title shots; more commonly, however, their UFC contract hangs in the balance. That may be the case for Bec Rawlings, now on three straight losses, or Bojan Velickovic, who has lost three of his last four, two by split decision. Jake Matthews was on his hands and knees in thanks after the decision was read; on a two-fight skid before the bout, he knew his UFC future was on the line. Because the Ultimate Fighting Championship is a monopsony (not quite a full-fledged monopoly because they can’t recklessly raise prices for consumers, but DO have lopsided control over workers in their industry), wages for fighters plying their trade elsewhere are artificially depressed. Losing a contract with the mixed martial arts behemoth means less pay, less notoriety, less of a viable career at all. The current anti-trust lawsuit against the UFC by former fighters addresses that issue directly, as Jon Fitch explained to me below:

Hear Jon Fitch discuss these issues, including the ongoing anti-trust lawsuit against the UFC, at the 36-minute mark, where he is talking about his bout with Demian Maia

Muhammad is one that is worth discussing, too. He called out Colby Covington after the bout; it doesn’t seem like Covington’s most likely opponent, but it is always possible. Either way, he gets to advance up the rankings, possibly facing a top fifteen opponent in his next outing. If he does by some chance face Covington, that’s likely a headlining opportunity.

Entire careers have been changed by winning or losing split decisions. Eddie Alvarez beating Anthony Pettis on a cold Boston night in January of 2016 meant he and Pettis took two sharply diverging paths: Alvarez somehow wrangled a title shot on the back of that win and promptly knocked out Rafael Dos Anjos to win the belt, setting up a superfight with one Conor McGregor for the lightweight crown. Alvarez was a much different matchup for the Irishman than RDA would have been, and McGregor had his historic night in Madison Square Garden. The L on Pettis’ record, meanwhile, meant that he dropped to featherweight after his next bout, and somehow stumbled into an interim title shot in that division- the bout that caused the UFC to strip McGregor of featherweight gold in a convoluted series of events. Most recently, Pettis lost another highly competitive fight to Dustin Poirier (by finish, not by split decision, thankfully). McGregor’s story, seemingly unrelated to that cold January night in Boston, could have been completely different had one judge seen one round of that fight differently. His historic second title win, his huge boxing match with Mayweather- these might never have come to fruition.

MMA is a sport that is entirely chaos in the cage. Fights are won or lost by split second reactions or millimeters of blood flow during choke attempts. The hazy science of knockouts means that a blow a fighter normally handles without issue can put him or her unconscious if it catches them just right. Fighting is already a very tough sport with short careers and a lot of head trauma and physical injury. It shouldn’t be made tougher and more chaotic by the decisions made outside of the cage, over which fighters have no control. There are a couple common-sense changes that can help ameliorate this chaos.

Firstly, softening the consequences of a judge’s decision: win bonuses should be a thing of the past. They are a predatory feature of contracts that prey on a fighter’s optimism and belief in themselves. The UFC only has to pay out the maximum figure for half the fighters, cutting down on their wage bill (Best estimates indicate the UFC keeps 85% of the revenue).

Secondly, making the judges’ decisions better: There should be more than three judges. I don’t remember in what comment section I saw this suggestion, but it made instant and immediate sense. Humans are better at estimates in the aggregate; if one person guesses the number of pennies in a jar, it can be wildly wrong; if a hundred people guess, the real answer likely lies close to the average of their guesses. Estimating who won a fight is similar. There is less opportunity for one person’s bad decision if, for instance, nine educated people are making the call instead of three.

A third, broader change, one that is actually on the horizon, is the Muhammad Ali Expansion Act, which could increase financial transparency from the UFC and give fighters more say over their careers. Congress recently had a hearing on this, and Representative Markwayne Mullin went in on UFC executive Marc Ratner, emphasizing the difference in the sports of boxing and MMA.

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