Judging and scoring in MMA remains a contentious and head-scratching topic in 2022, five years after the adoption of the new unified rules by the Association of Boxing Commissions. Inconsistencies with how the scoring criteria are applied, a lack of transparency and accountability, and a jumbled pipeline of information continue plague the sport.
MMA fights, as outlined by the updated 2017 unified rules, are scored primarily on effective striking and grappling. Effectiveness is considered by impact with the immediate impact taking precedence over cumulative impact. If you can determine who came closer to finishing the fight, most often in the form of damaging strikes and meaningful submission attempts, you generally have your round winner. The secondary and tertiary criteria of effective aggressiveness and fighting area control, respectively, are non-factors if you can determine who had the more impactful striking and grappling. For example, if Fighter B is pressing forward but Fighter A lands the harder punches, Fighter A wins the round with no weight given to Fighter B's forward pressure.
While the criteria generally appear to be followed by the commissions that employ it, a big headache remains the difference between a 10-9 and 10-8 round. MMA fights are judged by each individual round with the round winner being awarded 10 points and their opponent nine or fewer. The problem is the gap between 10-9 and 10-8 can seem rather large at times. Judges are dissuaded from scoring rounds 10-10. As a consequence, judges award 10-9s for a narrow round as well as a decisive but unspectacular one.
"There was a time where in order to get 10-8, you had to beat someone like you're about to finish the fight. You had to brutally beat them," TSN MMA reporter Aaron Bronsteter, who has completed the ABC Annual Conference course, told CBS Sports. "They kind of steered away from that and started to give more dominant performances 10-8s. But now it seems to be going backwards again. It seems like in order to get a 10-8, you have to really come very close to finishing the fight. That's not really conducive to how the criteria are written."
Bronsteter noticed a scale back in 10-8 rounds after UFC president Dana White disputed scorecards in the UFC light heavyweight title fight between Jan Blachowicz and Israel Adesanya at UFC 259 in March 2021. Judges Derek Cleary and Junichiro Kamijo awarded Blachowicz 10-8s in Round 5.
"Judging has improved overall immensely from the time that it started to the time when we changed what a 10-8 round was," longtime referee and current Bellator commentator John McCarthy told CBS Sports. "But there have been some drawbacks and there's been pushback. The UFC being one of the biggest entities, Dana got upset when he saw 10-8 rounds where he felt that they weren't 10-8 rounds.
"In certain places like Nevada where the UFC has a huge impact, they kind of changed their whole concept of what a 10-8 round is now. It's not on paper that it's been changed, but it's been changed for those judges that work there. They understand exactly what the [Nevada State Athletic] Commission is looking for. It's not good that we have some rounds that are done in Nevada at the Apex Center or T-Mobile [Arena] that would be a 10-8 round if it was done in California, but it's not going to be a 10-8 round in Nevada. That's not good for the sport, but that's the way it is."
McCarthy sat on the committee that developed the changes to the unified rules that were adopted by the ABC in 2017. An identifier called the "three Ds" was introduced to help judges differentiate between 10-9 and 10-8 rounds. Damage, dominance and duration are considered in order or priority. If a fighter achieves two of the Ds, a 10-8 round is in consideration. If a fighter achieves all three Ds, a 10-8 is certain with a 10-7 in play depending on how close the fight is to being stopped.
"You had to have either damage with some duration of that damage, or you had to have domination of one opponent over the other with the duration of that domination," McCarthy said. "Now, if you had damage and duration and domination, it was an automatic 10-8 round. What we were trying to do is make it similar to boxing where if you get the knockdown, that's a home run. It's a 10-8 round unless the other fighter comes back and knocks you down or ends up really putting it on you.
"In MMA, judges were so split. If you had a 10-8 round in boxing, all three judges giving that [round] 10-8 was somewhere around 85%. In MMA, it was around 5%. It was a problem."
Statistically, Round 5 of Blachowicz vs. Adesanya was the most decisive round of the fight. Blachowicz outstruck Adesanya 64-16 in total strikes and 28-12 in significant strikes. Blachowicz could have feasibly, though not absolutely, been rewarded a 10-8 in Round 5 if abiding by the three Ds. He did more damage and was more dominant for a greater duration of the round. Below you can find a round-by-round breakdown of the fight, per UFC Stats.
|Round||Knockdowns (Blachowicz-Adesanya)||Significant strikes||Total strikes||Takedowns||Submission attacks||Control time (minutes:seconds)|
Approximately 15 to 20% of commissions don't follow the new unified rules of MMA, according to McCarthy, instead using their own unique rulesets. Bronsteter argues that aside from 10-8 rounds, the judges are generally following the criteria closely. McCarthy suggests it varies from judge to judge due, in part, to a lack of MMA experience. It echoes a familiar sentiment by coaches and fighters to install judges with more practical MMA backgrounds, though that raises separate concerns about objectivity.
"I'd go with more fighters judging," coach Ray Longo told CBS Sports. "Let them come up through the farm system, groom the guys that have fought, as long as there's no conflict of interest with teams they were on. I think that's a problem because any judge that has any association with outside fighters shouldn't be judging it. That's not their job. There are guys that have relationships with fighters. Then they'll sit their ass in the seat and judge him. It just can't happen. So transparency and I'd like to see more fighters or guys that are at least really heavily trained that understand it. Or coaches even."
Kill Cliff FC wrestling coach Greg Jones -- one of the most successful collegiate wrestlers of all time who has worked with the likes of Kamaru Usman and Michael Chandler -- is particularly frustrated with MMA commissions. Jones is shocked by the low barrier to entry into the sport. Jones pointed to how some fighters sell their coaching corner spots to fans or give them to friends and family.
"It blows my mind that, outside of paying child support, there's not one requirement necessary to work MMA world championship fights," Jones told CBS Sports. "There is no baseline, there's no standard, there's no certain level of expertise. You sign out your corner application for your commission. The question is: 'what is the experience level that allows you to corner this fight?' You can say, 'Well, I've been around sports my whole life' and it's approved."
Therein lies a component of a greater problem plaguing the sport: a lack of uniformity in the process.
"I've always said those athletic commissions are like little kingdoms unto themselves," McCarthy said. "Some of them are big kingdoms like Nevada. Some of them are small kingdoms like you get into some tribal commissions and things like that...They talk like they'll follow each other, but they don't. We still have how many sets of rules for me and when it comes to who they bring in as judges. Sometimes it's based on merit, sometimes it's based on friendship and it should never be done that way, but I've seen it done that way."
There is nearly a universal appetite to hold judges accountable. Accountability doesn't exclusively equate to punishment or penalization. Some people simply want to hear judges break down their process of scoring controversial fights.
"You are literally taking food off the guy's table," Jones said. "That's what I really f---ing struggle with. There's a f---ing big difference. You don't just lose a fight, you have a chunk taken out of your livelihood. So I think there has to be some level of accountability, whether that's press availability or something else."
"Why are we protecting these guys? It's the only job in America where I think you have to kill somebody to get fired," Longo said. "There are no repercussions. There is no sending the guy down to the farm leagues like, 'Alright, let's go back to some amateur fights. Let's see if you can get it correct.' They don't care. They're protected by the government, really. It's an athletic commission. They can't say that they were ever wrong because then it opens up liabilities."
Texas judge Seth Fuller released a video in August explaining his controversial scorecard in a fight between DonTale Mayes and Hamdy Abdelwahab at UFC 277. One year prior, fellow Texas judge Joshua Ferraro made a similar gesture following a disputed scorecard in a fight between Rafael Fiziev and Bobby Green at UFC 265.
"I don't envy the judges," Jones said. "I didn't necessarily agree with his explanation of why he did it, but he explained it and he owned it. I can respect that. He is human. We're human."
McCarthy said that judges are muzzled by the commission with Bronsteter adding that many judges behind the scenes would like to speak publicly about their decision-making. While reviews and roundtables are held behind the scenes, it appears to be the commissions that don't want their judges speaking out.
"The athletic commissions don't want their officials talking because that only leads to problems for the athletic commission. So they frown upon it," McCarthy said. "You had two judges really come out recently talking, both of them from the state of Texas. Both of them had scores that were looked at as 'what were you looking at for that round or for that fight?'
"The first thing they got was a lot of praise from the fans because at least they were coming forward and saying something. They also got huge backlash from their peers because their peers are sitting there saying, 'I would like to explain things many times and I don't because I'm told not to.'"
If commissions are not going to permit their judges from speaking to the media, Bronsteter suggests appointing a representative from the commission to communicate contentious scorecards to the press.
"I think maybe the commissioners are worried about opening Pandora's box," Bronsteter said. "It would be nice if there was some sort of balance that can be struck. Maybe they have a head official for every card and that official gets to answer a couple of questions after the fact or is available for interviews."
Rarely does a UFC card goes by without calls of a robbery, warranted or unwarranted. A crux of the issue is the lack of overall understanding of what the scoring criteria are and how they are applied. Ask commentators, fans, fighters and officials and you will get widely different answers -- even from within the individual parties. It is not unusual to hear an MMA commentator boldly state that a takedown at the end of the round secured one fighter the victory, even if it didn't.
"We just had a seminar with the announcers and referees and judges to go over the criteria, as well as to make sure that they understood what they're reporting," Marc Ratner, the UFC's senior vice president of regulatory affairs and former executive director of the NSAC, told CBS Sports in July. "Sometimes when an analyst or reporter or play-by-play person flavors the way you watch it. So it's really important to talk about whether it is duration or damage that the people understand.
"It's going to keep on evolving, but we'll have the analyst and the play-by-play guys get more involved with the judges and the referees and keep that dialogue open. I think it's really important."
Inconsistencies with how the judging criteria are conveyed to the viewer lead to a misinformed and poorly educated fanbase. UFC broadcasts often have long stretches between fights. Bronsteter sees that lull as a valuable opportunity to have someone with judging or commission experience inform the audience on how a particular fight was scored.
"If you watch an NFL game, they have former officials that they go to whenever there's something that they need to seek clarification on or they have a question about," Bronsteter said.
Everyone has their own hypothesis for how to improve judging in MMA. Longo wants more fighters involved in the process. Jones cites a lack of transparency. Bronsteter suggests a half-point system where judges can reward 9.5 and 8.5 scores. McCarthy calls for commissions to hold more educational seminars and for coaches and fighters to be more proactive in reaching out to officials for tutoring. Ultimately, it is the lack of one standardized, well-communicated process that confuses consumers and impacts fighters that depend on win bonuses to get by.