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Combat sports judge dissects UFC’s latest string of questionable fight decisions

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The 10-point must system is in effect for all UFC fights; three judges score each round and the winner of each receives 10 points, the loser nine points or fewer ...

weidman machida scorecard

UFC’s three-fight residency in Jacksonville, Fla., churned out several interesting storylines, but besides the health concerns, none have proven as prominent as the judging.

Questionable judging is, of course, nothing new; however, these past three events featured what felt like an abnormal quantity of eyebrow-raising scorecards. Heading over to MMADecisions.com, whose web administrator(s) deserve the utmost respect, we can see that the media majority had both of last Saturday’s split decisions going the other way and were unanimous (or near-unanimous) for Wednesday’s split decision winners. There was also the question of Andrei Arlovski and Nate Landwehr getting 30-27s in fights where they clearly lost the first round.

Seeing as this weekend’s event was bumped to at least May 30, 2020, now seems as good a time as any to have a review session. Full disclosure: I participated in — and successfully passed — a judging clinic with Jerin Valel in 2017 and have been a practicing amateur boxing official since that same year.

I also want to make clear that this isn’t in response to any particular fight. Of the recent contentious decisions, only Dan Ige over Edson Barboza struck me as a genuinely grievous mistake. I just figured that, well, the topic is relevant and we have time.

To begin, here’s a link to the most recent iteration of the “Unified Rules” themselves. It’s just over three pages and only the first and a bit specifically concern the judging criteria, so it shouldn’t take long to do your assigned reading.

There’s a few interesting tidbits in there, including that a takedown is only to be considered successful if it results in the “establishment of an attack from the use of the takedown,” but the key thing to note is that the three main criteria are tiered. You’re probably aware of this thanks to the announcers’ familiar litany: “scoring is based on effective striking and grappling, followed by aggression and Octagon control, in that order.”

While that’s technically accurate, it’s also slightly misleading. It’s not that (effective) aggression and Octagon control are weighed less heavily, it’s that they’re not weighed at all if someone has a clear edge in striking/grappling. For them to factor in at all, the striking/grappling, here measured as ...

“Legal blows that have immediate or cumulative impact with the potential to contribute towards the end of the match with the IMMEDIATE weighing in more heavily than the cumulative impact. Successful execution of takedowns, submission attempts, reversals and the achievement of advantageous positions that produce immediate or cumulative impact with the potential to contribute to the end of the match, with the IMMEDIATE weighing more heavily than the cumulative impact.”

... must be absolutely dead even before aggression is even considered. If you’re at a deficit in terms of striking or grappling, you cannot make up for it with aggression. Similarly, Octagon control isn’t to be considered unless both of the previous criteria are inseparably close. The rules outright state that it “will be assessed very rarely;” frankly, barring extraordinary circumstances, any judge worth their salt should be able to discern enough differences to pick a winner well before Octagon control becomes important — even aggression should be considered a last resort.

Speaking of that, it’s worth clarifying what “effective aggression” is.

“Aggressively making attempts to finish the fight. The key term is ‘effective’. Chasing after an opponent with no effective result or impact should not render in the judges’ assessments.”

That is, admittedly, a bit of a tautology; however, note that “aggression” does not necessarily involve advancing. Per these criteria, a person fighting off the back foot but regularly throwing and landing heavy shots is considered effectively aggressive. Someone charging forward and missing, or someone only throwing noncommittal strikes on the retreat, is not.

There is, obviously, a ton of subjectivity, made worse by the fact that you can’t assign a consistent exchange rate between striking damage and submission attacks. It’s still worth having reference material.

While the issue didn’t crop up during this latest bushel of events, it’s also worth talking about what constitutes a 10-8 round. Valel boiled it down to the “Three D’s:” Damage, dominance and duration. For a round to be scored 10-8 or wider, all three criteria must be met.

  • You drop a guy early, chase the finish for 30 seconds, and the rest of the round is competitive? That’s damage and dominance, but no duration ... 10-9.
  • You latch onto a guy’s back and spend the whole round hunting the rear-naked choke without delivering any meaningful ground-and-pound? That’s dominance and duration, but no damage ... 10-9.
  • You steadily chop up a guy’s face in what’s otherwise a back-and-forth round? That’s damage and duration, but no dominance ... 10-9.

The sheer variety inherent in mixed martial arts (MMA) MMA ensures that we’ll always have wonky judging; you can’t have this many avenues of attack in a sport and expect everyone — no matter how experienced or well-trained — to value them equally or consistently. The best we can hope for is accountability, which we’ll also never get.

That said, I hope this at least provides some useful fuel for Internet arguments.