Something that most sports fans take for granted is that the result of their games are more often than not indisputable. Of course, a missed call or a phantom foul caused by a referee can have an effect of some degree on the result, but rarely is the whole match decided upon the decision of an official. This is where combat sports differs.
Unlike football or most team sports, Mixed Martial Arts relies on judges to determine the winner of a fight (if it goes the distance of course). According to the UFC’s official website, a MMA fight is judged on effective striking, grappling, ring control, aggressiveness and defense. Now while the scoring system in it of itself has quite a few problems, it seems increasingly less likely that we’ll see any changes coming to the scoring system as a perfect system is impossible to find. Every system has its flaws and strengths, but those flaws are even more pronounced when you have the bumpkins known as MMA judges running the show. Enter the MMA fanbase.
You can bet your bank account that if a close fight goes to the judges’ scorecards, MMA fans are surely going to debate about it afterwards, it’s human nature after all. Then, there are the fights that are debated for years after their occurrence, the ones which stoke the flames of forums and comment sections everywhere. To honor those keyboard wars, I will rank the top 15 most controversial decisions in MMA history. For the most part, the rankings will go in order of which decisions caused the most discussion among the public. Except for number one. That one is just the worst judgment I’ve ever seen ever. Even worse than casting Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze.
15. Frankie Edgar vs. Ben Henderson I, UFC 144
Scorecards: 49-46 (x2), 48-47 Henderson
This one is controversial, but I honestly have a hard time seeing why. In his first title defense that wasn’t a rematch, Frankie Edgar took on Ben Henderson in the UFC’s first Japan card in over a decade. Finally defeating his rival Gray Maynard in their third match by TKO, Edgar was on the high of his career until a “Smooth” man took it away.
For full disclosure, Edgar is my favorite active fighter and I see no way how Edgar won this fight. Yes, he caught nearly every kick which Henderson threw at him and landed a few takedowns, but Henderson landed more overall strikes and laid in some heavy damage with an upkick in the second round. Henderson also snatched up a close guillotine in the fourth round. Controversial fight, but not even close to their second encounter (don’t worry, we’ll get to that one).
14. Jon Jones vs. Alexander Gustafsson, UFC 165
Scorecards: 49-46, 48-47 (x2) Jones
Unexpected. That would be the best word to describe Alexander Gustafsson’s spectacular performance against former Light Heavyweight Champion Jon Jones at UFC 165 in Toronto. Unlike others before him, Jones’ 84.5 inch reach didn’t affect Gustafsson and the Swede boxed up the champ with crisp punches and sharp defense. To top it off, Jones didn’t land a single takedown attempt.
But did he win? No, but a lot of people would have you believe otherwise. Those who say Gustafsson should have won will tell you that The Mauler’s punches were enough to win but I say not. While his punching game was outmatched, Jones exploited his foe’s head movement with head kicks and most notably with his signature spinning elbow in the fourth round, easily the most damaging strike of the fight. The biggest folly of all though was not from the judges, but the fact that we never saw a rematch.
13. Quinton Jackson vs. Lyoto Machida, UFC 123
Scorecard: 29-28 (x2) Jackson, 29-28 Machida
Jackson may have been arrested for a hit and run in 2008, that isn’t the only crime on his record. His “win” over Lyoto Machida at UFC 123 should be on there as well.
Jokes aside, this was a razor close call. This fight can be considered an example of how the scoring system is flawed as Rampage arguably won the first two rounds based on aggression, but Machida undeniably won the third round with a flurry of punches and a head kick in the middle of the round. More a systemic flaw than a judge’s error, but a controversial decision nonetheless.
12. Michael Bisping vs. Matt Hamill, UFC 75
People often point to this decision as a example of hometown favoritism in judging. Taking place in his Bisping’s native home of England, two judges scored the match in favor of Bisping while British judge Chris Watts scored all three rounds for Hamill. Oh, so much for that hometown favoritism.
As far as the actual fight goes, it was close. Don’t be fooled by those who claim that Hamill owned Bisping. Round three clearly went to “The Count” and round one definitely went to Hamill but round two was close. Personally, I agree with the judges that Bisping’s active striking game in the second round counted for more than the takedown scored by Hamill. Still, the keyboard warriors’ battle against this decision rages on.
11. BJ Penn vs. Frankie Edgar, UFC 112
Scorecards: 50-45, 49-46, 48-47 Edgar
The UFC’s first event in Abu Dhabi was remembered mostly for the ridiculous circus that was its Anderson Silva versus Demian Maia main event. What is sometimes forgotten however, is the stunning upset in the co-main event where Frankie “The Answer” Edgar outlasted Lightweight legend BJ Penn to take the UFC Lightweight Championship. But did he earn it?
In short, yes. In long, yes but not nearly as decisive as two of those scorecards say. The first and second rounds are Penn’s while four and five belong to Edgar. The third round is the divisive round with some giving it to Penn for his slightly heavier shots and some to Edgar for more volume. The controversy was swiftly settled in the rematch when Edgar dominated Penn in a clean sweep at UFC 118. That 50-45 score though? Just… no.
10. Randy Couture vs. Brandon Vera, UFC 105
Scorecard: 29-28 (x3) Couture
To be a legend, you have to beat a legend… well that’s one way of doing it anyway. The man who once claimed to be the future Heavyweight AND Light Heavyweight champion, Brandon Vera looked to get back on the road to his conquest by taking out Randy Couture in Manchester, England. If better men were judging, he might have gotten back on that track.
Couture’s gameplan hinged on clinching with Vera and using his great Greco-Roman wrestling to smother the younger fighter. It worked well enough in the first round, but whenever Vera had space to strike in rounds two and three, Vera smashed home body kicks and knees, one of which resulted in a knockdown in the second round. Vera’s striking should have gotten him the nod, but unfortunately for him “The Natural” took the controversial win.
9. Diego Sanchez vs Martin Kampmann, UFC on Versus 3
Scorecard: 29-28 (x3) Sanchez
When asking a friend of mine (who is a MMA fighter by the way) who was the last guy he would want to fight, he said Diego Sanchez. Now he said it was because he thinks Sanchez is nuts, but I think it’s because of Sanchez’s ability to sway the judges with his Jedi mind powers.
At the UFC’s third event on the now defunct Versus channel, “The Dream” (or Nightmare, depending on his mood) took on Martin Kampmann in the main event and had his face rearranged. Kampmann used his superior technical striking to outwit the wild brawler but Sanchez, gritty style somehow swayed the judges in round two. Round three was his best round, but still shouldn’t have been enough for the unanimous decision.
8. Kevin Randleman vs Bas Rutten, UFC 20
Is it better to be on top or on the bottom? Not in that way pervs, I mean in MMA. That is the question that is on everyone’s mind when discussing the Heavyweight Title fight from UFC 20 between Bas Rutten and Kevin Randleman.
The fight takes place in a unique situation where the judging criteria for MMA wasn’t formally established yet (so no scorecards this time), which might have had an impact on how it was judged. With how wrestlers usually are given the nod for being in top position nowadays, one would think that Randleman would have gotten the win in today’s UFC because of his top control and numerous takedowns. However, Rutten was more active from the bottom with strikes and an armbar attempt in the second round. The judges gave the fight to the active Rutten and with it, the UFC Heavyweight championship.
7. Lyoto Machida vs. Mauricio Rua, UFC 104
Announcers may hammer it home to viewers that Lyoto Machida is a riddle, but Shogun Rua figured it out years ago at UFC 104. The judges didn’t see it that way though.
Focusing his gameplan on leg kicking Machida to hamper his movement, Rua had great success with punting The Dragon’s lead leg whenever he could. To his credit Machida did pull off several body shots throughout the fight and ultimately did enough in the judges’ eyes to retain his title. In the rematch, Rua said “screw the judges” and knocked out Machida in the first round to earn his only Light Heavyweight Championship.
6. Frankie Edgar vs Benson Henderson II, UFC 150
Scorecard: 49-46 (Edgar), 48-47 (x2) Henderson
As I said, I thought the first match between Henderson and Edgar was pretty decisive for Henderson. This one though, I feel the judges got wrong.
Each round in this match felt like a war of attrition. For half of the rounds you could have probably flipped a coin and nobody could argue with the result. If you twisted my arm though, I would say Edgar took the fight. Why? Well for one I’m an Edgar fanboy. Two, The Answer in my eyes inflicted more damage to the champ than the other way around, including a knockdown in the second round. If this fight was between a couple of bigger names, this would have probably been even more controversial than it already is.
5. Diego Sanchez vs. Ross Pearson, UFC Fight Night 42
Scorecards: 30-27 Pearson. 30-27, 29-28 Sanchez
Sometimes you have to wonder whether or not Diego Sanchez is a brilliant strategist or a terrible one. Despite his offense consisting of mean mugs and inaccurate punches, Sanchez usually comes out on top of judges scorecards in fights he clearly doesn’t deserve. Exhibit A: his fight with Brit Ross Pearson at UFN 42.
Taking place in Sanchez’s backyard of Albuquerque, New Mexico, the table was set for Sanchez to have a hero’s welcoming if he got past Pearson. Pearson didn’t get the memo as he dodged most of Sanchez’s wild swings and even knocked him down in the second round with a right straight. Somehow, two of three judges saw it fit to give the fight to Sanchez. The decision was so bad that Dana White gave Pearson his win bonus despite the “loss”.
4. Quinton Jackson vs. Murilo Rua, PRIDE 29
The forgotten brother of Mauricio “Shogun” Rua and the owner of one of the best nicknames in MMA history, Murilo “Ninja” Rua didn’t come close to the success of his brother, but he is a victim of the most controversial decision in PRIDE history.
Since PRIDE fights are supposedly judged as a whole rather a round by round basis, it makes it more baffling as to why the judges gave it to “Rampage”. Outside of some takedowns and mostly ineffective ground and pound, Jackson didn’t do much of anything to Rua. I hesitate to use the word robbery since it’s overused, but this was robbery, plain and simple. So much so that even Rampage knew it as tried to refuse the trophy given to him at the end of the fight.
3. Carlos Condit vs. Nick Diaz, UFC 143
Scorecards: 49-46 (x2) 48-47 Condit
Where there is a Diaz, there is controversy. Whether they be taunting their opponents, starting brawls at World Series of Fighting events or failing drug tests, the Diaz brothers always seem to be getting into controversy. Older brother Nick’s interim Welterweight title fight with Carlos Condit at UFC 143 was no exception.
If you read comment sections about this fight it goes like this:
Diaz fan: “That punkass bitch Condit ran from Diaz all night what a bulls*** decision.”
Condit fan: ” You’re just upset that your boy can’t figure out how to use footwork you idiot.”
And really, I have to agree to agree with those Condit fans. Was it an exciting fight? Not really, but Condit undoubtedly exploited Diaz’s terrible ring cutting ability (explained here by the sublime Jack Slack) and landed enough kicks to win himself at least 3/5 rounds. Don’t tell Nick Diaz fans that though, they might try to fight you by mean mugging you. A lot.
2. Georges St-Pierre vs. Johny Hendricks, UFC 167
Scorecards: 48-47 Hendricks, 48-47 (x2) St-Pierre
No fight in MMA has divided the fanbase more than the apparent final fight in Georges St-Pierre’s career. Faced with his toughest challenge yet, the French Canadian mega star gutted out a close victory over Johny Hendricks at the UFC’s 20th anniversary show. A victory that many feel belonged to Hendricks and I can’t blame them.
While I stand on the side of GSP for this fight (TOTALLY no bias there, a Montrealer picking GSP), I can definitely see the argument for Hendricks winning the fight. The Texan undoubtedly inflicted more damage throughout the match and definitely won rounds 2 and 4 while GSP landed consistently enough in rounds 3 and 5 to take those. However, it is the first round where the controversy lies.
The first round had hard elbows and a brief takedown by “Bigg Rigg”, but St-Pierre was on point with his jab and scored with a right head kick. It really comes to what do you score more, control or damage. After the retirement of St-Pierre though, it seems that this fight’s decision has taken on a life of its own, with fans often taking polarizing stances when in reality the fight was super close.
1. Leonard Garcia vs. Nam Phan, TUF 12 Finale
Scorecards: 29-28 (x2) Garcia, 30-27 Phan
I know this list is called most controversial decisions, but this one is undoubtedly the WORST decision in the sport’s history. It’s so bad that I have to place above the more hotly debated GSP/Hendricks fight. This call is so bad that even though I watched this fight in my first year of watching MMA on a consistent basis, I knew this was a terrible call. How bad was it? Let’s see.
The fight goes like this: Garcia attempts a ridiculously telegraphed strike, Phan counters/ dodges it. Repeat until Phan drops Garcia in the second round with a body kick and gets him in a rear naked choke. Third round starts up? Go back to square one.
Defying all logic, judges Adalaide Byrd and Tony Weeks gave rounds 1 and 3 to Garcia. The crowd responded to the announcement from Bruce Buffer with chants of “BULLS***” and Phan stood in disbelief at the call. I’d hate to see a worse judges’ call than this one.
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