The phrase, “Never leave it in the hands of the judges,” has become increasingly common among combat sports fans. Occasionally, time runs out for a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fight with both fighters still standing. When their time is up, three scorecards from three judges will determine a fighter’s fate.
Unfortunately, fans and fighters alike have witnessed this countless times, and bad decisions have become more commonplace in the process. But why do they occur in the first place?
The judges and referees
The immediate answer to that question points to the judges themselves. Certain judges have become infamous for their decisions.
One notable example is Douglas Crosby. On December 9, 2022, Crosby scored an Interim Bantamweight title fight at Bellator 289 between Raufeon Stots and Danny Sabatello. Stots won the fight via a split decision, with the two other judges ruling in favour of Stots and the only scorecard for Sabatello coming from Crosby. Crosby consistently ruled in favour of Sabatello and scored the fight 50–45, marking the first time in Bellator’s history that a losing fighter swept their opponent on one judge’s scorecard.
The next day, Crosby scored a bout between Paddy Pimblett and Jared Gordon at Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) 282. He scored the contest 29–28 in favour of Pimblett, as did the other two judges, Chris Lee and Ron McCarthy. Yet, MMAFighting’s deputy editor, Shaheen Al-Shatti, dubbed the decision — which they said robbed Gordon of the win — the “heist of the year.”
I think referees can also add to the issue of scoring. Different referees have their own styles. Some provide multiple warnings and shy away from calling fouls, while others may be quicker to deduct points. Certain referees may also force the fight back from wrestling on the ground to fighting from a standing position if they believe insufficient action is occurring on the ground. This can harm a fighter’s proficiency in wrestling by taking them out of an advantageous position.
When one looks beyond the surface, other factors start coming into play. MMA has adopted the ten-point scoring system used in boxing yet obviously needs to change its criteria for scoring bouts.
In MMA, three primary criteria determine these scores: effective striking/grappling, effective aggressiveness, and cage control. In contrast, boxing is scored based on hard and clean punches, effective aggression, defence, and ring generalship — who has overall control of the fight.
Furthermore, in boxing, the amount of points judges give to each fighter is easier to determine. According to boxing’s criteria, judges score a round 10–9 when one fighter has been more effective. They score a round 10–8 mostly when one fighter scores a knockdown, but also if a fighter dominates by a large margin. If a fighter scores two knockdowns, judges score a round 10–7.
Yet MMA does not specifically award or deduct points based on knockdowns. The unified rules of MMA state that if a fighter wins by a close margin, judges will score the round 10–9. They score a round 10–8 if a fighter won it by a large margin and 10–7 if one fighter completely dominates the other. This already makes judging more convoluted compared to boxing, which has set clearer indicators.
Another issue lies in the frequency of these different sets of points. The most often score judges award is a 10–9 round, and a 10–8 round is much rarer. But a 10–10 round is even rarer than that, and judges are discouraged from giving that score. Thus rounds in which both fighters are largely equal would be scored a 10–9, which can unfairly skew a fight.
The unified rules of MMA determine the efficacy of striking based on the impact or effect of legal strikes. However, determining the impact or effect of strikes can become confusing in certain scenarios.
The bigger issue is when judges use visible evidence to determine the effect of strikes. Factors such as the amount of scar tissue on a fighter have played a large role. Old cuts can open back up, amplifying the visible damage from strikes — evident in the career of MMA veteran Nate Diaz. Additionally, fighters’ cuts can open if they accidentally clash heads, which could be misinterpreted as damage from a strike. One big issue with the unified rules of MMA is that they have a section on impact, stating that visible evidence, such as swelling and lacerations, can influence a judge’s decision.
Furthermore, effective striking is also grouped together with effective grappling in the unified rules of MMA. This can create issues because one fighter may dominate the ground game while the other dominates when standing up.
It doesn’t seem that the MMA will solve issues surrounding its scoring soon — that would require reworking the scoring system. However, a little hope emerged on September 18, when MMA journalist Ariel Helwani tweeted that the Nevada State Athletic Commission would hold a training session for judges on September 20 to improve the results of their calls. The news comes after another divisive scorecard ended the UFC flyweight title bout on September 16 in a draw, allowing Alexa Grasso to retain her championship over Valentina Shevchenko.
This announcement might be a sign of improvement, but it seems frustrated fight fans are doomed to face more evenings screaming at their screens.