Experiment could revolutionize MMA judging

Dave Meltzer
An experimental scoring system being tested in California amateur bouts in reaction to results of controversial fights like the one between Quinton "Rampage" Jackson and Lyoto Machida

At UFC 132 on July 2 in Las Vegas, a fight between Dennis Siver and Matt Wiman followed what has become a regular pattern.

The fight’s first and third rounds were very close. A judge could have made a case for scoring either round in favor of either fighter. Wiman clearly won round two, taking Siver down, busting his head open with ground strikes and connecting with elbows for most of the round. Wiman was never close to finishing, but dominated the round, though not enough for a 10-8 score on any of the judges cards.

When it was over, there was no doubt Wiman had done far more damage in the fight. My thought was that Wiman won rounds two and three, but rounds one and three could go either way. In this case, all three judges gave Siver both of the close rounds for a unanimous-decision victory.

The crowd lustily booed the decision. Wiman was so upset he stormed out of the Octagon. People on the Internet complained about corrupt judging and robberies. Reporters after the fight in the press room debated what happened. UFC president Dana White was asked, and he noted the people with whom he watched the fight, all had different viewpoints on who should have won.

There are more complaints in mixed martial arts about judging – after nearly every fight card – than any other issue. The system is basically a hand-me-down from boxing’s 10-point must system, which works in bouts of eight, 10 or 12 rounds. But too often in a three-round MMA fight, a fighter, like Wiman, can inflict a great amount of punishment in winning a round, but lose the fight because he comes out on the wrong end of two coin-flip-close rounds, despite clearly doing more damage over the course of the bout.

There is no scoring system that can overcome bad judges, and it’s much easier to blame incompetent judges, who do exist, and occasional bad scoring, which will continue to exist no matter what system is in place, then to make a change that will lessen but not eliminate the problem. The current system can, on occasion, render a bad decision from very good judges, usually with the “two close rounds, one dominant round” fight being the main culprit.

"I think it’s just apathy and complacency," said J.T. Steele, the president of the amateur California Martial Arts Organization, which is experimenting this year with a new system. "To change the status quo, and for our sport to evolve, you need passionate people willing to work hard. It costs money and it takes time. There’s not a lot of people out there willing to do that.

Most of the controversial decisions, like Wiman vs. Siver, are based on a fighter being lucky on close rounds. Lyoto Machida vs. Quinton "Rampage" Jackson at UFC 123 was the last UFC main event to fall into this category, where after the fight, reporters’ consensus was that Machida was the obvious winner of the fight, but that given the 10-point must system in place, the win by Jackson was the correct verdict – even though Jackson himself after the fight said he thought he had lost.

It’s the inherent weakness of a system where almost every round is scored 10-9, no matter how close or how dominant it is. Virtually no rounds are scored 10-10, although judges are technically allowed to do so. Unless you dominate the round from start-to-finish and have your opponent just about finished, you are unlikely to get a 10-8 score.

As frustrated as the fans and the promoters are, perhaps nobody is as frustrated as the judges themselves. At times, the person with the most points on your scorecard is not the person you really believed won the fight, a distinction few fans watching comprehend.

Since the start of 2011, California has experimented with a half-point scoring system on its amateur shows, both to get feedback from its judges, and also to compile statistics. At the end of the year, when the stats are done, the findings will be presented to people like Marc Ratner, the vice-president for regulatory affairs at the Ultimate Fighting Championship, and the Association of Boxing Commissioners, to see if the system has more merit than the one in place.

"I like what they are doing," said Ratner. "Right now the best thing to do is use the system for a year, compile the statistics and see what we can learn."

Instead of always writing 10-9 on a scorecard unless there is a completely dominant round with a near finish, you have more options. A 10-9.5 is for a close round, like rounds one and three in Siver vs. Wiman, and rounds one and two in Jackson vs. Machida – both fights in which the person who ended up losing in the current system would most likely have won with the new system.

A 10-9 would be the score for a round that is competitive, but, you have no doubt who won. That is still the score that comes up most of the time with the new system. A 10-8.5 would be for a round where one fighter dominated, but didn’t do enough for a 10-8, notably round two in Wiman vs. Siver, and round three in Machida vs. Jackson.

A 10-8 would be similar to how it is currently used, and you’d even have a 10-7.5 for something more dominant than a normal 10-8 round, but for whatever reason, the fight isn’t stopped.

The new system also includes a fourth judge whose lone job is to award points based on criteria. If the three judges come out to a draw, which has happened six times so far this year, a winner is determined based on a points system.

The point system was put together by a panel that included well-known referees and judges “Big” John McCarthy, Herb Dean and Nelson "Doc” Hamilton, as well as Steele and George Dodd, the executive director of the California State Athletic Commission.

The system is four points for a knockdown, two for damaging strikes, one for a takedown, one for a sweep, two for grappling into a dominant position (back, mount or side control), and four for a near submission.

"We’re not married to this system," said Steele. "We’re working on getting it as good as we can, and it’s getting close."

So far this year, 155 amateur fights in California have gone to a decision under these new rules. Of those, six, or 4 percent, had different winners based on half-point judging than they would have based on the current system. But there were 17 instances where one judge out of the three had a different winner based on half-points that he would have based on the current system.

"The only ones that are changing are the ones that are very close and the judge has a finer gradient to implement points," said Steele.

"That’s going to occur in a very low percentage," noted McCarthy. "Maybe in the end, the half-point system will make a difference in 5 percent of the fights, but that’s 5 percent where the fighters are getting the right outcome instead of the wrong outcome."

McCarthy noted he’d have given the UFC 132 bout to Wiman based on the half-point system, but also noted he had it 29-28 for Wiman with 10-point must, so in his case, it would not have changed the result on his scorecard had he been judging the fight.

He said the big fear going into the year is the new system would result in more draws, which is why the fourth tie-breaker judge was put in place. Thus far with the half-point system, the number of fights that ended in a draw before going to the tie breaker was 3.8 percent. With the tie-breaker criteria, while a draw is still a possibility if the fighters end up even on points, that would virtually never happen in practice. So far in 2011, 2.4 percent of UFC fights have ended up as draws.

"One thing we feared was more draws, but that hasn’t happened," said McCarthy. "What we learned about the table [tie-breaker] judge is he’s giving points for things happening in the fight. You could take the table judges scores and look at the official judges scoring of the fight and it’s a very good way for the athletic commission to critique judges. If you have a fighter who scored 12-3 in one round and a judge who gave the round to the fighter with three, he’s obviously missing something."

"One thing we really like is at the end of the night, when we have the fourth judges’ points and then look over the scorecards, it’s very clear what happened during the fight," said Steele. "You can tell if it’s a close round, a dominant round, it paints a better picture. Ten-point must is black and white. Half-points give you color. I think from a fan perspective and a regulators’ perspective, the half-point system gives you more validation. It gives you a better perspective of the bout. I think at the end of the day, the fighters deserve to have points awarded based on their merit. We’re really focused on trying to help the sport evolve from a grassroots level."

"I’ve talked to a lot of judges and they like it, and the one I’ve spoken to the most is my son, and he loves the half-point system," said McCarthy. "At times, you can give a close round where a guy didn’t get taken advantage of, a 10-9.5, or with Wiman’s second round against Siver, a 10-8.5 – he does so much damage but he didn’t completely dominate the entire round. He likes the ability to do that."

"I haven’t encountered any criticism from my colleagues," said Bill Douglas, another California judge, who favors the system for MMA, but not boxing or kickboxing, because most MMA fights are only three rounds. "The reaction has been very consistent. It’s either, ‘I’m good with this but if we have to go back, I’m also OK with it,’ or a number of officials are completely for it, but there’s been no negativity so far."

Steele considers this year part of a learning process, and wants a full year of statistics to learn advantages and disadvantages. Athletic commissions are usually interested in keeping the status quo. He feels if there is going to be a change, it will be spearheaded by the UFC itself.

"I think it comes down to the UFC," said Steele. "They have the most valuable MMA sports property in the world. The second they think that the judging is starting to negatively affect their product, and if they believe the scoring system is part of the negative affect on their product, we’ll see changes. For any athletic commission, being graced with the UFC coming to their state is the best thing for the athletic commission, for a city, or a town and for a local economy. If they really think it’s damaging their product, we’ll see changes."

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