What's the Score? Breaking Down Judging in Mixed Martial Arts
"Don't leave it in the hands of the judges"
Those are the words Dana White has echoed countless times towards combatants unable to finish their opponent before the final round hits triple zero. However putting your opponent to sleep is easier said than done so the end result of an encounter is left in the hands of three professional judges.
Judging is always amongst MMA's hottest topics and an aspect of the game that gets too much attention for all the wrong reasons.
Seemingly every time an event comes to a close there is a portion of the audience debating against the scores inked by the men that matter at cage side.
But what is all the fuss about? it can't be that hard can it?
In the United States they follow the 10 point Must System -- Under this system, 10 points will be rewarded to the winner of a round with the opponent getting 9 or less points, except for a round with no conclusive winner when both combatants will be rewarded with 10 points.
Judges evaluate on a round-by-round basis scoring effective striking, grappling, aggression and control of the fighting area.
And that's where it gets complicated, the definition of the word effective -- each person views a bout in a different way and everyone isn't always going to agree much like in any sport.
When the final buzzer sounds and two men have exchanged blows back and forth for a majority of the bout there is always question over who was the most effective striker.
Often the hardest rounds to score are rounds contested closely on the feet because you have to pay attention to who is landing the better, cleaner strikes.
Often we are left with the most efficient striker and the most effective striker, the most efficient striker is the fighter who lands the larger total number of strikes however the more effective striker is the fighter who lands the heavier strikes.
Lets take the clash to determine the Strikeforce Middleweight Championship between Ronaldo Souza and Tim Kennedy from this past August for example, the two battled for 25 minutes for the right to hold the ten pounds of gold -- Despite the fact that Kennedy landed 183 strikes in comparison to Souza's 128 strikes Souza was the more effective striker because he landed with the heavier, more precise strikes.
Possibly the most complex aspect of scoring a bout is determining which combatant was the effective grappler because there are so many factors to play in.
Factors include which fighter is able to secure a clean take down and utilize an active guard, whether both men are actively grappling, which men are attempting to finish the fight, whether the fighter on top is able to pass position since the guard position is scored as neutral & whether each individual searches for a reversal on his opponent.
Now that is a lot of things to take into consideration while trying to score a round but that's only the beginning.
In addition, you have to determine how many points a take down is worth -- If fighter A is working for a take down for a large portion of the round, does he have the advantage? No, this would be neutral because you have to acknowledge that fighter A is working for the take down but in addition you must also acknowledge that fighter B is preventing the take down.
Also, if fighter A takes down fighter B for a short period of time but is unable to have any offense before fighter B get's back to the feet does fighter A have the advantage? No, again a neutral scored situation because fighter A was unable to do anything on the mat and fighter B must be rewarded for getting back to his feet.
However the biggest problem in scoring effective grappling is determining who is the more active fighter on the ground, in most cases the fighter in top position will have the advantage on the score cards regardless of whether his opponent is actively working from the bottom.
Great example comes from WEC 42 with a bantamweight scrap between Jeff Curran and Takeya Mizugaki -- the hard fought fight went the distance and on the score cards the judges awarded the bout to Japanese stand out, Mizugaki.
The problem with this outcome was Mizugaki took Curran down to the mat and was stalling in top position while Curran was working from the bottom throwing up submissions and strikes and looking to finish his opponent.
When one fighter is actively working from bottom position that is an offense and has to be taken into consideration while making your final ruling.
Effective aggression is determined by moving forward and setting the tempo of the contest while effectively scoring with legal strikes, take downs, and submissions while blocking the opponent's counters.
Common problems that come with effective aggression are if one opponent is throwing a strike while stepping backwards or if one opponent is pushing forward while being struck by his opponent that is not effective aggression.
A good example of effective aggression being used properly was Yushin Okami's upset victory over Nate Marquardt from UFC 123 -- Okami effectively moved forward with his striking and used his aggression to his advantage.
Effective Control of The Fighting Area
Control of the fighting area is determined by the fighter who is dictating the pace, place and position of the fight.
For this example, fighter A wishes to take down fighter B while fighter B wishes to keep the bout standing.
Fighter A would demonstrate control of the fighting area by being able to take down fighter B and take the fight to the mat where he wants it.
Fighter B would demonstrate control of the fighting area by being able to fend off the take down attempts of fighter A for the bout to remain standing.
So what are the alternatives? Keyboard warriors have formulated their own flawed judging criteria but the two that are pointed to as alternatives are the Pancrase & Ippon scoring systems.
In Pancrase, each combatant begins the fight with a certain number of points to start the match. Then when they are caught in a submission but made it to the ropes to escape or or were knocked down to the mat, they lost points. When the fight came to a close the fighter with the most remaining points was the winner.
This system, unlike the 10 point must system utilized in the United States favors the combatant looking to finish his opponent however it is very flawed.
While judging points, it also allows each fighter to know when they're ahead which allows them to bite time and win a decision.
The Ippon scoring system is more commonly known, it was popularized in the late 90's by the Pride FC organization in Japan and today is still used in Japan -- the word Ippon means "one whole point" so the winner of the bout will be awarded one whole point and the victory.
Unlike the 10 point must scoring system, instead of scoring a bout round-by-round it is scored overall at the end of the bout. The major difference is Ippon favours effort to finish the fight is the first and most important factor in a decision followed subsequently by damage, combinations & ground control, takedowns & takedown defense, and agressiveness
On paper, this sounds like a much more effective system however it is heavily flawed -- Let's take the semi-final bout in DREAM's Welterweight Grand Prix between Andre Galvao & Jason High.
Galvao being the much more effective grappler dominated the 10-minute opening round on the mat while High had seemingly no offense off his back, in the 2nd round High was able to keep the encounter standing where he had the advantage.
When all was said and done, the fight was awarded to Jason High despite the fact that he was dominated on the mat for the better portion of the bout. If this were scored under the 10-point must system Galvao would win this bout.
So what do we have to change for this to be a more effective system? Nothing.
The only thing that we need is time, you need to take into consideration this sport is still young -- We only began 13 years ago, other sports have had hundreds of years to perfect their craft.
As a community we have made progress in the judging department believe it or not, if you look back a few years things were a whole lot different.
Several years ago, fight fans weren't interested in how a fight was scored, people didn't argue over who won each round in a fight and nobody cringed when they heard the name Cecil Peoples.
The only thing I would change if I had the chance about our current system would be to implement monitors for the judges at cage side.
Due to great technology and multiple camera angles you get the best view of the action in the comfort of your own home, judges could benefit from being able to see everything rather than what they can see from their position.
Over time, this sport will move forward and progress in every single way and judging will come with it, all we need is a little patience.