Fighting a restrictive MMA judging system

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When UFC light heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida got his hand raised on Oct. 24 after his title defense against Mauricio "Shogun" Rua, in a fight where most polls showed about 80 percent of the public believed the title should have changed hands, it set off a series of three straight major-show UFC main events in which judging became a hotly debated issue.

But some of the most vehement response has come from a surprising source: the judges themselves, some of whom feel handcuffed and frustrated with the system in place.

The most vocal is veteran official Nelson "Doc" Hamilton. Hamilton was one of the three judges who controversially scored that fight 48-47 in favor of Machida. Yet after watching tape of the fight, Hamilton now believes Rua was the winner.

"There was a round in that fight [Round 4] where my line of sight while they were standing was blocked," said Hamilton, who feels TV monitors for judges would solve the problem. "Because of the angle where most of the round was fought, I couldn't see the punches and whether they were landing. If the fight had been on the ground, I could look at the big screens, but this was a fight where the blows were coming one at a time and you don't want to look away and miss an important blow."

When Hamilton saw the fight again, he noted that viewers saw Round 4 from a completely different perspective that he did. He also added that the live commentary may have swayed viewers into thinking Rua won decisively. So, based on what he couldn't see from his cageside vantage point, he believes Rua won the round.

Keith Kizer, the executive director of the Nevada Athletic Commission, said usage of monitors at the judging stations is worth looking into, but he also noted its flaws. He said he's noticed that when he has watched fights on monitors while at ringside, sometimes he's still looking at the monitor when the fight is front in front of him.

"The reason we have judges in three different positions is to get three different vantage points," said Kizer. "If all three judges are watching a monitor, they are all getting the same vantage point – the television camera angle."

'Square peg in a round hole'

The lack of monitors, however, is a secondary point in Hamilton's attempt to revamp the scoring system and the primary criteria used for fight judging. He considers the 10-point must system – used by commissions for MMA because it was in place for boxing – as "trying to put a square peg into a round hole."

Machida-Rua and other fights, including the Nov. 14 Brandon Vera-Randy Couture match and the Tito Ortiz vs. Forrest Griffin fight seven days later, underscore points that Hamilton has been trying to make about the current system. Most of the regulations in the sport were put in place in 2000, when New Jersey's Athletic Control Board started regulating UFC events in Atlantic City. It created rules for the sport and its judging, which, with some modifications, turned into the current "unified rules" used throughout North America.

"But we're a different sport," said Hamilton, 61, a chiropractor by trade and lifelong martial artist who not only regularly judges MMA events under the current system, but who has also judged MMA in Japan for Pride with a different system, as well as kickboxing with another system. "We're not wrestling, we're not judo and we're not boxing."

The single most obvious problem with the current scoring system came with Ortiz vs. Griffin. Judges are discouraged from handing out 10-10 scores in a round, and they usually only hand out 10-8 scores for an incredibly one-sided round. So most of the time, anything from winning a squeaker of a round to completely dominating a round yet coming short of destroying the guy ends up on the scorecard at 10-9.

In the case of Ortiz-Griffin, the first two rounds were close and could have been judged either way. The third round saw Ortiz run out of gas. Griffin picked him apart at will, out-striking Ortiz 41-5 in a round that didn't go to the ground. Still, he never knocked Ortiz down or had him on the verge of finishing, and thus didn't get a 10-8 score.

Griffin's dominant second round counted as much in the scoring as the two previous rounds, which were coin-flip close. In judging the fight overall, Griffin clearly won, and he did get the split-decision win. But a very reasonable judge could have scored it 29-28 for Ortiz based on the flaws inherent in the round-by-round scoring system, while being fully cognizant that Griffin clearly won the fight.

Another inherent problem is that while judges are told they can give 10-10 scores, they also believe if they do so with any frequency, they won't be asked back.

"I'm not going to die on that sword," said Hamilton.

There is also a reluctance to give 10-8 rounds unless a fighter is completely dominant in the round.

"Judges think that if they give a 10-8 in a three-round fight that they've made it almost impossible for the other fighter to win a decision," said John McCarthy, MMA's most well-known referee, who frequently works as a judge and teaches seminars in judging the sport.

Half-point proposal

Hamilton proposes a scoring system based on breaking the scoring down to half-points, where a close round, a solid win, a dominant win and having the opponent on the verge of defeat could all be differentiated.

Under this system, if a fighter wins a round that's difficult to call, it gets scored 10-9.5. When it's clear that one fighter won the round, it's 10-9. When a fighter dominates the round but doesn't have his opponent in bad shape during the round, or if a fighter does major damage but the opponent gets a degree of offense in, that would be a 10-8.5. A 10-8 round or lower would be similar to how things are scored today.

"To a man, every judge I've spoken with favors this system," Hamilton said. "The problem is you will start getting arguments about a 10-9 vs. a 10-8.5. Do we then go to quarter-points, or go like gymnastics with tenths of a point," said Kizer, the executive director of the Nevada Athletic Commission.

Without question, this system will lead to more debates about scorecards from fans, but it could fine-tune final scores, to the point that the judges' scores aren't at odds with the person they feel won the fight.

Kizer said Hamilton's proposals were talked about at the recent American Boxing Commissioners convention, and he believes that of all the different ideas for scoring he's seen, Hamilton's is the second best "only to the system we have in place."

"I think that MMA is a young sport and we should be open to possibilities for improvement," said Nick Lembo of the New Jersey Athletic Control Board. "Doc Hamilton's half-point system is something that should be explored and debated. In a sport featuring three- and five-round fights, a half-point system, used properly, may lead to more acceptable and proper outcomes."

Hamilton noted that in the Nov. 14 main event, where Couture beat Vera on straight 29-28 scores based on squeaking out Rounds 1 and 3 but solidly losing Round 2, his system would have likely judged Vera the winner. He saw it as 10-9.5 for the first and third for Couture, and a 10-8.5 for Vera, adding up to 29-28.5 for Vera, who scored a knockdown and inflicted the most damage in the fight in Round 2.

He wasn't the only official who came to the conclusion that Vera won.

"Based on who did the most damage, Brandon Vera won the fight," said McCarthy, who advocates the half-point system.

McCarthy noted that when he watched the fight, under the current scoring system, he felt Couture won the first round close because Vera did almost nothing on offense. He said Vera clearly won the second round but while he got a takedown and was even momentarily in a mount in Round 3, Vera did no damage and he was inactive much of the round, and could reasonably have been judged to have lost it.

Damage done

The current criteria in place for judging fights are listed as effective striking and grappling, effective aggression and cage control.

McCarthy believes damage should be the first criteria looked at, and the effort to finish the fight the second.

"At the end of the day it's a fight, and the winner of the fight should be the guy who does the most damage," McCarthy said.

Hamilton and McCarthy concur that a major problem with the current judging is that not enough credit is given to effective grappling, and in particular, near-submissions that do damage. Hamilton pointed to the Oct. 10 fight between Donald Cerrone and Ben Henderson, where Cerrone had Henderson in a choke and on the verge of finishing him in the first round, yet he still lost the round because Henderson got more punches in. Cerrone ended up losing a close decision in the five-round fight.

"When you have a choke or a triangle nearly sunk in, you are making it hard for the opponent to breathe; you are doing damage," said McCarthy, who also pointed out in Machida-Rua that a clear sign of damage was Machida switching his stance and changing his lead foot as the fight wore on.

McCarthy said another issue, which he's heard directly from judges, is the mentality that comes from boxing where, in a championship fight, a challenger should have to clearly beat the champion to win the title.

"That's the most asinine thing in the world," he said. "The minute the fight starts, nobody is the champion. They are fighting for the championship."

Hamilton said making changes in bureaucracy is difficult and that, left to their own devices, those in charge aren't going to make the changes.

"At this point, it is far from implementation," said Lembo. "It would need to be presented to the ABC, voted on and, if passed, adopted by individual commissions in their respective jurisdictions.

"It's my goal that these changes are implemented within my lifetime."