MMA Scoring || Finding Clarity Among Judging Ambiguity

Written by @NickRiznerMMA

The ambiguity of judging has long been a problem in MMA. Far too often, fans and fighters are left scratching their head at a decision following a close fight. Sometime, even the not-so-close fights end in perplexing controversy. In a perfect world, every judge would agree on the scorecards, but that would require a perfect scoring system. The way things stand now, much of the judging criteria is left up to the interpretation of the individual. And with that, comes human error. Or at least human discrepancy.

MMA referees face a similar problem for a similar reason. People are different, by nature. It’s that simple.

If ten people share a particular experience and you ask those ten people for a retelling of the event, no two stories will be identical. Perception is a tricky thing. Everyone sees things differently. And for that reason, predictability gets thrown out the window and things can become a bit cloudy.

Top ranked lightweight Tony Ferguson experienced this first hand when he dropped a close decision to Michael Johnson back in 2012. He nearly tasted it again when one judge ruled in favor of Danny Castillo at UFC 177. And just recently, one of his fighters was on the losing side of a controversial decision at an RFA event.

In a recent appearance on the MMA Mad Podcast, El Cucuy weighed in on the importance of referee and judging clarity.

“I just think that something that would help is if the ref actually does come to the  fighter and actually talks to them. That way they have a relationship, they know exactly what they’re dealing with.”

“The higher up I’ve gotten, the better everything is.” – Tony Ferguson

Ferguson went on to describe his days competing in underground, unsanctioned fights – also known as smokers – and how it taught him to never rely on the accuracy of the judges. This is a lesson that dates back to his amateur wrestling career, as well; one that every athlete competing in combat sports would be wise to learn.

“I never leave it to the judges man. You just don’t do that. And I’ve never been that kind of a wrestler. I was always going for the fastest pin or the fastest technical fall. TF. Tony Ferguson. Boom. TF.”

In essence, the problem is as old as the sport itself. In an attempt to allow a boxing audience to transition to MMA more easily, the 10-point must system was adopted and implemented. As stated by Rogan and many others throughout the years, this is a scoring system that makes much more sense in the boxing arena than it does in mixed martial arts. However rules – once established – are hard to change. So here we stand.

This may be a bit redundant for hardcore fans, but it’s worth recapping nonetheless. The 10-point must system is named after the idea that a judge must award ten points to at least one fighter per round. This often results in a score of 10-9, or in a particularly lopsided round, a 10-8. An extremely close round can be ruled a draw at 10-10, and 10-7 scores are possible, but extremely rare.

The difference in scores come down to the opinion of the specific judge and his or her particular scoring style. Therein lies the problem. With stand up, clinch and ground work, it’s nearly impossible to represent the true winner of any given round with a simple 10-9. Some judges favor stand up dominance, while others put more emphasis on the ground battle. Some judges look for damage, while others focus more on positioning and cage control. With so many areas of focus, it’s extremely difficult to simply choose a winner.

Apples to oranges, as they say.

In boxing, replication is easier. While controversy still exists, it’s much rarer with a more limited set of rules. Punching only. No elbows, knees, kicks, take downs, submission attempts, etc. If you edge out your opponent, it’s a 10-9. If you knock them down, it’s a 10-8. Knock them down twice, 10-7. Simple.

Thus, the phrase “never leave it in the hands of the judges” has become a staple of the sport. While this is sound advice for a variety of reasons, it’s far from a steadfast solution. Because unfortunately, even when this advice is followed, there is still a risk of referee confusion affecting the outcome of a fight.

There are early stoppages and inappropriate point deductions. Sometimes fights are allowed to continue for too long and fouls are missed or ignored. When people are involved, there’s always a risk of a mistake. All we can really do is take the steps required to reduce this possibility. And by looking to the best referees in the business, we can see this strategy in action.

Enter John McCarthy.

The godfather of MMA refereeing, Big John has been with the sport since the ‘dark ages,’ and is responsible for many of the rules that pulled it out of this era. Still serving as one of the sport’s most effective referees, alongside the likes of Herb Dean and Dan Miragliotta, John makes a point to sit down with fighters and explain exactly what it is that he’s looking for in the cage.

“He’s the best” – Joe Lauzon on John McCarthy

In the third episode of Joe Lauzon’s vlog series before his rematch with Jim Miller, we get to see a behind-the-scenes clip of that conversation. For example, when it comes to the definition of ‘an illegal blow to the back of the head,’ McCarthy lays out very specific instructions as to what terminology he will use and when.

“If you know you’re in a good position, target those flappers on the side of his head. If he turns his head and you hit him illegally, you’re gonna hear me caution, ‘watch the back of the head.’ ‘Watch the back of the head,’ is telling you that’s a great shot. It’s legal. Don’t come with the second one. If you do something that’s illegal, I’ll say ‘don’t hit the back of the head.'”

(Skip to the 2:30 mark in the video below for the full scene with John McCarthy.)

This difference may go unnoticed by spectators, but the fighters seem well aware of the phrasing. When I asked Tony Ferguson about this distinction, he recognized it immediately.

“You hit the ear. You hit the ear. That’s what he’s saying, he’s like ‘you hit the ear, don’t try to hit the back of the head, but keep aiming for the right spot.'”

Ferguson describes this as the fundamental difference that separates the smart fighters from the rest.

“That’s what I’m saying with being able to operate on and off the field. If the referee is yelling one thing and saying something, you have to adjust man. You’re a professional.”

“Being a wrestler, you can do both things at once. You can beat somebody up, and listen while taking advice, and then beat ’em up some other way.” – Tony Ferguson

The sport can be slow to evolve at times. There are meetings and rule changes as said evolution dictates, but massive overhauls of the scoring system or judging criteria have yet to occur. As a fighter, you really have no choice but to follow Tony’s advice. You have to adjust man. Adapt and survive. The market will ultimately determine which aspects work and which don’t, but the best fighters in the world will have to put up with the current landscape in the meantime.

Learn the game. Operate within the rules. And do your best to finish the fight before that final bell. This is the path to success. It may not be fair at times, but it’s like my mom always said:

Life isn’t fair. Deal with it.

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