By Eric Kamander
It seems that after every major MMA event questions about judging and scoring come up, and UFC 123 is no different. While most criticism always seems to fall on quality and education of the judges, the main event highlights something I've been saying for a long time now, which is that the rules are too ambiguous. How can we expect judges to supply reasonably consistent scoring when the rules are as so open to interpretation? I'm not saying that the 10 point must system is inherently bad. Nor am I suggesting that the scoring criteria be so granular that every move has a point value and all subjectivity is removed. But I am saying that the Unified Rules of MMA in their current form are difficult to sustain.
Ironically the last time I wrote about this was after Lyoto Machida's controversial decision win against Mauricio "Shogun" Rua at UFC 104. While others have debated about who won the fight, Machida's latest fight with Quinton "Rampage" Jackson provides us with a useful opportunity to take an in depth look at the scoring criteria, specifically what they are, how they are open to interpretation, and where they need to be clarified or changed.
The rules say that Judges shall evaluate MMA fights based on effective striking, effective grappling, control of the fighting area and effective aggressiveness and defense, in that order.
Effective striking is judged by determining the number of legal strikes landed by a contestant and the significance of such legal strikes.
This seems pretty clear cut on the surface, after all a cross is worth more than a jab. But how significant are leg kicks, knees to the thighs and foot stomps, for instance? How is volume compared to significance? Is significance determined by the type of strike or the effect it has on the opponent? Are strikes really more significant than submission attempts?
Effective grappling is judged by considering the amount of successful executions of a legal takedown and reversals. Examples of factors to consider are take downs from standing position to mount position, passing the guard to mount position, and bottom position fighters using an active, threatening guard.
One would have to assume that the example of a bottom position fighter using an active, threatening guard is meant to represent submission attempts. But why does one have to make such assumptions about something as fundamental to MMA as submissions? Are submissions really as significant as reversals? Is forcing a fighter to defend against locked in submission as significant as holding someone down?
Fighting area control is judged by determining who is dictating the pace, location and position of the bout. Examples of factors to consider are countering a grappler's attempt at takedown by remaining standing and legally striking; taking down an opponent to force a ground fight; creating threatening submission attempts, passing the guard to achieve mount, and creating striking opportunities.
Most of the criteria here seems like the things a fighter does to set up effective striking and grappling (and submissions). But some of the examples listed are exactly the same as effective grappling, such as passing the guard to achieve mount, creating threatening submission attempts and taking down an opponent. Does it count if a fighter counters an attempt at takedown by remaining standing and does not strike? Should the rules really indicate that a fighter is (or is not) a grappler? Rewarding fighters for dictating the pace, location and position of the bout requires that judges know every fighters preference for each of these aspects of the fight. Is this something judges should have to consider as opposed to what actually happens in the fight? Are judges expected to be able to interpret when a fighter is playing possum, is willing to fight off their back, or prefers to circle around the outside of the fighting area?
Effective aggressiveness means moving forward and landing a legal strike or takedown.
Since effective striking and grappling is listed above one must assume that this refers to ineffective striking or takedowns. I suggest this is worthy of some clarification. Where does a judge draw the line between what is effective and what is not effective, but is still somehow significant. Why is effective aggressiveness determined by moving forward as opposed to just attacking, regardless of the direction in which you are moving?
Effective defense means avoiding being struck, taken down or reversed while countering with offensive attacks.
The way the rules are written it is unclear whether 1) control of the fighting area and 2) effective aggressiveness and 3) defense are of equal or progressively less significance.
Should fighters have to change their fighting styles because the rules penalize them for throwing strikes while moving backward or sideways? Its not like they aren't attacking or are running away.
All of these questions are left to the interpretation of the judges, and the way each judge resolves these questions can account for wide disparities in the manner that rounds are judged. Consider the first two rounds of Jackson vs. Machida:
In the first round Rampage was walking Machida down for the first 90 seconds of their fight when Machida kicked him in the leg. Who was winning at the point? At 2 minutes in Machida's 4 leg kicks were the only strikes landed. That's when really turned on the aggression, but 15 seconds later Machida clinched Rampage up and the only other strikes that had landed were another of his leg kicks. In the clinch Rampage landed some foot stomps, knees to the thighs and some light punches to the body. What are they worth? With 1:55 remaining Rampage landed an uppercut, the first major punch of the fight. Nothing else of significance happened in round, with Machida landing one kick to the body and pushing Rampage against the cage and landing some knees to the thighs. The round boiled down Rampage's one uppercut vs. about half a dozen kicks from Machida. Rampage didn't really show any significant advantage in the fighting area control or effective aggressiveness areas as the only times he moved forward was in the beginning of the round when he was getting kicked in the leg and during a flurry later on, that didn't land any strikes. Machida was able to tie Rampage up multiple times and push him around. I can see giving the round to Machida, but a draw seems more appropriate.
Thirty seconds into the 2nd round they were tied up again, with both fighters having thrown strikes, but landing none. Its clinch seemed to be mutual though Rampage did have Machida's back to the cage and started landing knees to the thighs and punches to the body until Machida reversed him and a knee to the groin by Rampage separated them. At 3:30 remaining no more strikes had landed and Machida tied Rampage up. Rampage landed a knee to the body, Machida reversed up against the cage, Rampage landed a few punches and elbows to the body. At 3:10 Machida landed a knee to the body and Rampage used it to take Machida down. Machida sat up immediately and Rampage held his legs until Machida stood up at with 2:45 remaining. Machida immediately put Rampage up against the cage for another 15 seconds until the separated. Right after the half way mark Rampage throws a right hook, and Machida blocks it, clinches and pushes Rampage up against the cage. Rampage pushes off the cage, lands a knee to the body, pushes Machida's back against the cage and starts landing more elbows to the thigh and punches to the body. They quickly separate, Machida rushes in with a knee to the body and Rampage lands an uppercut. They walk each other out until Machida lands a leg kick and ties Rampage, pushing him against the cage. Machida fails to trip Rampage and they both land knees. They separate and right at the end of the round Rampage throws a right, Machida ducks and knocks Rampage to the ground. Rampage bounces back up and blocks a kick just as the bell sounds.
The 3rd round was pretty clearly Machida's so I won't go into it. But while watching the fight again, often in slow motion, what I found most interesting is how often, contrary to popular opinion, it was Machida that was controlling the space and pace, so often tying Rampage up and pushing against the cage, as well as defending.
Now that we've looked at what the judges need to look for, lets look at what the judges are supposed to do with that information as this is of equal importance and ambiguity.
Margins of the 10 Point Must System: Draws vs. Domination
The following objective scoring criteria shall be utilized by the judges when scoring a round;
1. A round is to be scored as a 10-10 Round when both contestants appear to be fighting evenly and neither contestant shows dominance in a round;
2. A round is to be scored as a 10-9 Round when a contestant wins by a close margin, landing the greater number of effective legal strikes, grappling and other maneuvers;
3. A round is to be scored as a 10-8 Round when a contestant overwhelmingly dominates by striking or grappling in a round.
4. A round is to be scored as a 10-7 Round when a contestant totally dominates by striking or grappling in a round.
Where does 'neither contestant shows dominance in a round' end and 'a contestant wins by a close margin' begin? Where does 'overwhelmingly dominance' begin? What's the difference between 'overwhelming' and 'total' domination?
How is it that in the spectrum of all possible fights outcomes and gradations of dominance we hardly ever see a 10-10 or a 10-8 round? What type of curve is being used to determine that almost every round is a 10-9? If the rules stipulate that judges have four grades to choose from when scoring a fight then we should see scores spread somewhat evenly across the spectrum even if they taper drastically at the ends. I can accept draws being rare and using the smallest criteria available to determine greater effectiveness. However, if that is the case then the bar for 'overwhelming' domination must be set correspondingly low. Conversely if draws are given out liberally and a significant amount of domination is required to win a round, then I can accept the bar for a 10-8 round being set correspondingly high. But neither is the case and that simply doesn't make sense. And what's more important is the lack of clarity offered in the rules.
On explanation for this is that in 3 or 5 round fights scoring a round 10-10 or 10-8 drastically increasing the chance that the fight will be scored a draw, and that's not popular with fans or promotions. There are various potential remedies for draws including more rounds, over time rounds, must decisions, full fight scoring and half point scoring.
These question might seem excessively picky, but these are rules and rules should be specific. If you think the rules do not need to be more specific then don't complain about the scoring or judges, because they might well be asking themselves these questions like a naked emperor wondering where are their clothes.
Full Fight Scoring
The FightMetric report shows that Rampage had a slight edge in round 1, the 2nd round was a draw, and Machida won the 3rd round by a large margin. Now whether or not you agree with the assessment of this particular fight, the possibility of this outcome is very real. The issue here, which is that not all 10-9 rounds are equal, plus the potential for a round being scored a draw, means that a fighter can do better overall, but still not win the fight. This has led many to mention how Machida would have won the fight under the Pride rules, which is ironic considering that Rampage used the Pride theme has his entrance music.
Does it make sense that a fighter can lose the fight, even if he beat his opponent? You can argue that those are the rules, but is that the way we want the rules to be or would we prefer to see rules that reflect who beat who up more?
Half Point Scoring
Another popular thought circulating recently and especially in reference the Jackson/Machida is Nelson 'Doc' Hamilton's half point scoring system.
One thing that is not obvious in the name, but is essential to this system, is that not only does it change the scoring, but it changes the criteria used as well.
In this system the criteria are 1) damage, 2) effective striking and grappling (including near submissions as determined by the referee), and 3) cage control.
This criteria seem to be far more appropriate to MMA than the current criteria in the Unified Rules. Although I don't know if I favor the referee having the additional responsibility of having to evaluate and signal to the judges whether a submission attempt is significant. But this can just as easily be determined by the judges without the referee's involvement.
In addition this system introduces a fourth judge that evaluates the fight as a whole and only comes into play to eliminate draws. Whether or not a fourth judge or the three existing judges play this role this would eliminate the reluctance on the part of promotions to score 10-10 or 10-8 rounds.
As for implementing actual half points, this will have the same problems as the current system unless the distinctions between each scoring gradation are clarified.
There are many varieties of improvements that can be made to the current rules. Which do you prefer? Whichever it is, I hope you can agree that, even though there will always be an inherent amount of subjectivity in judging fights, the rules need to be specific.
November 24, 2010
By Eric Kamander