One would think that the amount of poor decisions would decline as the sport of MMA evolves. Unfortunately, dreadful decisions are just as prevalent now as they were a decade ago. Just this past weekend at UFC Fight Night 59, fans witnessed two more bad decisions. Cathal Pendred's victory over Sean Spencer was borderline obscene. The UFC immediately booked a rematch and awarded Spencer his win bonus regardless of the scorecards.
The second questionable decision took place when Donald Cerrone was awarded a unanimous decision victory of Benson Henderson. This one was not highway robbery, as we have seen much worse decisions. However, Dana White, the media. and the majority of fans thought Henderson won the fight, but there's a case to be made that the judges got it right.
There is a huge distinction between a "bad decision" and a "controversial decision." The Pendred win is considered a bad decision because of the sheer incompetence on the judges part. The Cerrone win is a controversial decision because there's confusion in the scoring criteria. Henderson landed more strikes than Cerrone, but a lot of them were leg kicks. Should leg kicks be valued the same as any other strike? It depends on who you ask, but there's no clear cut criteria on how to score a round.
"Don't leave it in the hands of the judges" is a really cute slogan, but it's not that easy. A poor decision deeply affects the livelihood of a fighter, as most of the time they are paid double when they win. Let's take a look at some of the more confusing aspects of MMA scoring.
8 Octagon Control
We hear the term "Octagon Control" before every UFC pay per view when Mike Goldberg discusses the rules. There has been 183 pay per views and people still don't have the foggiest idea as to how it impacts a fight (or doesn't impact the fight).
The fighter that's controlling the center of the octagon has "Octagon Control" because he/she is the one pushing forward and being the aggressor. There have been instances where Octagon Control has been the difference in a close decision, and there has been other times where it falls by the wayside. Octagon Control won the fight for Rampage Jackson when he fought Lyoto Machida at UFC 123. Jackson was constantly pushing forward, trying to make something happen while Machida was backpedaling. Jackson was given the nod despite Machida out striking him and clearly winning the third round with a takedown and a barrage of punches. But when Carlos Condit won a close decision against Nick Diaz, Octagon Control suddenly meant nothing as Condit was retreating the entire time. Granted, Condit was tagging him with shots as he was moving backwards. But it got to the point where Diaz was literally chasing him down and calling him a b***h in the process.
There needs to be a clear distinction as to what constitutes Octagon Control, and how much should it be valued in a fight.
7 Submission Attempts
This applies at least once during every MMA card. When a fighter is in the top position for most of the round, he/she is usually winning. But there are times where the fighter on top is just laying there, while the fighter on the bottom is staying busy and attempting submissions. In that case, is the fighter on top winning the round due to top position or is the fighter on the bottom winning because they're staying active and trying to finish the fight? If you ask a wrestler, they'll probably tell you that the fighter on top is winning. If you ask the same question to a Jiu Jitsu practitioner, they will tell you that the fighter on the bottom is winning. If you ask a judge, it's 50/50!
Let's take this question all the way back to UFC 20, where Bas Rutten narrowly beat Kevin Randleman via split decision. Rutten spent virtually the entire fight on his back, but was ultimately given the nod because he was far busier and actually landed more strikes from his back than Randleman did from the mount. In cases like that, the busier fighter should be awarded the win because he/she actually inflicted more damage. But in a case where someone is trying for submissions but ultimately fails, the attempts should be void. If a fighter throws a haymaker but misses by two inches, they are rewarded with nothing because they missed! The same thought process should apply with submission attempts.
The concept of damage is extremely confusing. Sometimes damage doesn't mean very much. Example: if a fighter sustains a cut in the first round and proceeds to bleed the rest of the fight, but soundly wins the next two rounds, the damage is nullified because they lost two rounds to one (assuming they were 10-9 rounds). Despite the fact that "Joe Tough Guy" at the end of the bar is yelling: "HOW COULD HE HAVE WON? LOOK AT HIS FACE."
But there are scenarios of ambiguity where everyone is puzzled as to how to score the round. What happens in a round where someone is leading the way in striking and takedowns, but they get tagged with a hellacious shot that causes severe damage? Should the fighter with the better fight stats win the round, or should the fighter that landed the more damaging blow win the round?
It's a tough nut to crack but there needs to be a more clear cut standard. What's worth more, punches in volume or significant strikes? Granted, there's a strong probability the judges would mess it up anyway, even if there was a standard. When Diego Sanchez beat Martin Kampmann via unanimous decision, Sanchez's face was banged up to a scary degree. But he also got out struck 97-45. That's right, he was a bloody mess and was out struck by more than double, but was still given the win...good grief.
5 Leg Kicks
Leg kicks apparently meant nothing last weekend as Benson Henderson lost a very iffy decision to Donald Cerrone. This was a stand-up battle, as neither fighter seemed interested in hitting the mat. It was a fantastic stand-up war to watch but many were left scratching their heads, while Henderson looked like he had just seen a ghost, when Bruce Buffer read the scores.
Henderson landed 86 of 155 significant strikes while Cerrone landed 57 of 125. The issue was that many of Henderson's strike came via leg kick. Many judges do not value leg kicks as much as other strikes because they don't finish a fight. Judge Cecil Peoples has been pretty open about that, although I'm sure Uriah Faber would disagree with that notion after Jose Aldo battered his leg into oblivion, but we digress.
Conversely, when Forrest Griffin defeated Rampage Jackson for the light heavyweight championship at UFC 86, the deciding factor was leg kicks!!
4 4. Takedowns
MMA is becoming more geared for the wrestler. Back when PRIDE Fighting still existed, there would be yellow cards or a deduction of points for a fighter that was stalling (trying to avoid the fight). This applied even if a fighter scored a takedown and was in top position, because sometimes fighters will simply lay in their opponent's guard and not try to advance the position.
It works differently in modern day MMA. If a fighter is stagnant in his/her opponents guard, the worst that happens is the ref stands them back up and there's no repercussion. Side note: if this explanation didn't tickle your fancy, check out Nick Diaz's thoughts on people using stall tactics during fights. He's a beauty!
MMA judges are about to take a lashing in the upcoming examples, but there are examples where they were bang on in regards to the scoring. Rampage Jackson vs. King Mo at Bellator 120 was an uneventful fight to say the least. Mo certainly landed more takedowns but he was doing nothing to advance his position as he was content to simply lay there without inflicting any damage. Rampage landed more strikes, and was pushing forward the whole time. He also managed to get back to his feet after he was taken down. Mo was certain he was going to get his hand raised (he's still complaining about it), but it was Rampage that was awarded the unanimous decision.
Sometimes a takedown is too heavily weighted, particularly when there's no damage inflicted once the takedown is completed. The judges got it right here!
3 Not Enough 10/8 Rounds Awarded
Virtually every round is scored 10/9 nowadays, as you basically need to use your opponent as a mop to be awarded a 10/8 round. This is leading to some very puzzling outcomes to fights.
The most prevalent example of this came at UFC 167 during the welterweight title bout between Georges St-Pierre and Johny Hendricks. It may have been the most controversial decision in a high profiled fight. GSP was awarded rounds 1, 2 and 5, Hendricks was given rounds 2 and 4. St-Pierre got mauled in the rounds that he lost, as he was beaten, battered, and even dropped on a few occasions. The rounds that he won were really close and even debatable. Unfortunately for Hendricks, the rounds that he clearly won were worth the same as the rounds that GSP "sort of" won.
The hesitation to give out 10/8 rounds needs to stop or decisions like this will continue to happen. Pundits were furious at the judges for this one, but in reality, it's more the scoring criteria that's warped.
2 Scores are Affected by Crowd Reaction
It's human nature to get swayed by the crowd's reaction. If the place erupts every time the hometown fighter lands a strike, it may seem like he/she is getting the better of the fight when it may not be the case.
Diego Sanchez's split decision over Ross Pearson at UFC Fight Night is up there as one of the worst of all time. It was so horrendous that the UFC completely disregarded the decision and gave Pearson his win bonus and treated it as a victory as they booked him against a tougher opponent for his next bout.
The issue here was the fight took place in Sanchez's hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico. The crowd was very lively that night and was firmly behind Sanchez. Unfortunately for Pearson, the crowd's reaction swayed the judges. Perhaps, if you add two more judges scoring the fight in a non partial location, such travesties can be avoided.
1 Judges are not Properly Educated
There are some people that are under the impression that we shouldn't be questioning the judges because they're professionals and must be there for a reason. That thought process would apply for most other sports, but not in MMA.
How exactly do you become an MMA judge? There is a two-day course offered for certification. It's an intensive course with three exams and if you get over 90% in all of them, you are officially certified. Wait, what? Yes, a two-day course. This is not a joke, visit referee.com if you're interested in becoming a judge or referee. Pretty sure training to work at Mcdonald's is more strenuous (not knocking Mcdonald's employees, that deep fryer is tricky!).
Now, let's not get it twisted. Someone cannot simply do this two-day course and immediately get a job with a major athletic commission, they'd have to work their way up just like anywhere else. The main issue is that boxing judges who are already employed with the commissions are the first people offered jobs judging MMA. The commission feels like the transition will be seamless since they already have judging experience. The harsh reality is that judging MMA and judging boxing are two entirely different beasts, and these judges truly need more extensive training. When a fighter is awarded a 30-27 decision on one scorecard, and then 27-30 (the opposite way) on the following card, are we really supposed to believe that these judges are on the same page?
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