The Official Word: The Problem With MMA Judging And How We Intend To Fix It
By Cory Schafer, ISKA President
Last month we discussed how a fan’s perception of an MMA bout can vary from the official judge’s point of view due to the very real difference between “watching” and “judging” a fight. I also indicated that, although these differences can account for what some consider “bad” decisions, real challenges do, in fact, exist concerning how MMA bouts are currently being judged.
So let’s have at it.
The three real challenges regarding how MMA bouts are judged, in order of priority are as follows:
1. Too few judges have an adequate understanding of the grappling and submission fighting aspects of MMA and how it should impact the scoring of each bout.
2. The official scoring criteria (OSC) needs to be updated. The OSC is a description, in order of importance, of the fighting elements that each judge is required to evaluate in order to determine his or her score.
3. The OSC needs to be modified to allow judges to award scores that better reflect the margin and/or method of victory in a given round. The current OSC is the “10-point-must system,” whereby the winner of each round is awarded 10 points and the loser is awarded 9 points. In the event that the margin of victory is considered overwhelming, the score of 10-8 may be used.
In this column, I’ll explain how we’ve arrived at where we are as a sport; why the current scoring system was adopted (#3 above) and what changes need to be made in order to make the system more effective for MMA. I will expand on the official scoring criteria (#2 above) and how to better educate our officials (#1 above) in my next two columns.
Mixed Martial Arts in its current form has really only existed for less than a decade and a half. That being considered, the quality and consistency of the manner in which it is regulated (including the judging) is actually quite strong in comparison to that of other sports when they were at the same stage of existence.
There’s a creed in science that explains “If I see far…. It is because I stand on the shoulders of giants”. For me, and others like me, who point out flaws and recommend changes to the current system, we have the luxury of doing so because of the past, painstaking work of “giants” like John McCarthy, Nick Lembo, Mark Ratner and others who created the foundation of our sport. These individuals created something from nothing.
That being said, it’s always about moving forward and evolving. The minute we stop moving forward, we begin to move backwards.
Historically, one of the most important transitions for our sport occurred in 1997, when UFC, then owned by SEG, was actively pursuing government regulation for what was viewed by many as a rogue form of sport.
Combat sports are regulated at the state level through agencies known as state athletic commissions. These agencies are tasked with the responsibility of seeing that each professional event is conducted in compliance with all of the laws, policies, rules and regulations regarding safety, fairness and consumer protection. This responsibility includes assigning and supervising judges for each event.
Each state athletic commission is a member of a national association of commissions known as the ABC (Association of Boxing Commissions). The ABC addresses all combat sports issues in an effort to establish a consensus, so that the sports will be conducted in a consistent manner throughout the country. When people speak about the “Unified Rules of MMA,” they are referring to the rules confirmed and approved by the ABC.
Although each state commission is not legally obliged to adopt or abide by the ABC’s rules, these rules are, more often than not, used as at least a basic guideline for each state’s regulations.
The best plan for enacting changes in judging is to work through the ABC, which will impact each state commission and the respective judges that it appoints and supervises.
Speaking historically again, part of the parameters of having the sport regulated by state athletic commissions was the adoption of the judge’s 10-Point-Must System, used for boxing. Even at the time it was conceived, it was recognized as anything but ideal. However, it was accepted as one of the compromises necessary to advance the sport.
Although the name may lead us to believe that 10 points are used to score each round, the reality is that it could more accurately be described essentially as a “two-point” system. The “10” actually refers to the requirement in each round for each judge to award one fighter 10 points, and the fighter’s opponent, 9 points or less.
Scoring rounds 10-10 is frowned upon as a failure to fulfill the function of a judge. The score of 10-9 is the workhorse, used to reflect the vast majority of rounds contested.
The score of 10-8 is used very sparingly, when one fighter’s performance is considered “overwhelmingly dominant.” Speaking statistically, scores of 10-7 or less don’t even exist.
So what is the problem with this system?
The problem is that only two different scores are being used to reflect four different potential results:
• One fighter won by a small or marginal advantage
• One fighter won by an obvious or clear advantage
• One fighter won by a dominant advantage
• One fighter won by an overwhelming advantage
The current system requires that judges use the same score (10-9) to reflect three of the four possible results. In effect, judges are forced to reward fighters equally, round by round, for very unequal efforts and results.
In bouts in which one or more rounds are particularly close, or in which one fighter displays an obvious or dominant advantage, this can lead to questionable bout decisions that do not reflect the competence of the judges, but rather the effectiveness of the scoring system.
The simple solution is to arm our judges with four different scores as tools that can be used to reflect their judgment regarding the four basic results. Keeping the general context of the current 10-point-must system for ease of adaptation, we can accomplish this by the use of half-points.
A Marginal Advantage = A score of 10 – 9.5
A Clear Advantage = A score of 10 – 9
A Dominant Advantage = A score of 10 – 8.5
An Overwhelming Advantage = A score of 10 – 8
Switching to a scoring system in which fighters recognize that they will be rewarded more for achieving more, and less for accomplishing less, will not only make the sport more fair, but also potentially more exciting. Fighters who favor any kind of stalling strategy, hoping that a single takedown will be the only action necessary to win a round, will only gain a half point advantage for their efforts, thereby keeping their opponents competitive and able to emerge victorious.
Although no one doubts that fights must be scored round by round, the resulting totals should also reflect the outcome of the fight in its entirety. Ten minutes of cage control should not trump five minutes of overwhelming effectiveness in combat in a 15 minute (3 x 5 minute rounds) fight. The current system, however, allows it to do so.
The good news:
The half-point scoring system has been under review by the ABC for more than a year. Renowned MMA judge and Tennessee State Athletic Commission Director Jeff Mullen is also chairman of the review committee. He supports this system as do many other leading commission directors.
The evidence is in:
Half-point scoring has been used effectively for amateur programs in both Florida and California for almost two years and the results were presented at this year’s ABC national convention. Statistical analysis of more than 300 bouts held in Florida shows that the use of the more precise, half-point scoring system affected the overall results in 4 percent of the bouts contested. In my mind, that translates to as many as 4 of every 100 bouts that go to the scorecards being awarded to the wrong fighter under the current system.
One fear concerning the half-point scoring system is that the number of draws would increase. The statistics, however, indicate otherwise. In both Florida and California, the percentage of draws using half-point scoring has been around 3.5 percent. In Florida, where the percentage was 3.6 percent, a full one-third of those bout results were impacted by penalty points.
The bottom line:
By using a more precise scoring system, we will be enabling our judges to award scores that more precisely reflect the method and margin of victory in each round, thus resulting in a more accurate final score. Half-point scoring can also contribute to a more exciting sport, as fighters realize that stalling tactics are less viable and fighters are better able to come-from-behind on the score cards in closely contested bouts.
Next time, we’ll look at the official scoring criteria, and how it can be changed to better reflect the needs of our sport.
About ISKA President Cory Schafer:
- Strikeforce Rules Director, 2006-2011.
- K-1 USA Chief Official, 2001-2005
- Commissioner for Chuck Norris’ World Combat League, 2005-2008
- ISKA President, 1997-present
- Director of the US OPEN World Martial Arts Championships as seen on ESPN