Fistic Medicine: Darwin and The Evolution of MMA Scoring

By Matt Pitt Feb 10, 2011
MMA fans will witness a new form of scoring come Saturday in East Rutherford, N.J. | Dave Mandel/

Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker has proposed the following scoring system for his promotion’s heavyweight grand prix: A state-appointed athletic commission panel of three officials will judge the fight using the standard 10-point must system, and an ancillary fourth judge will score the fight using a hitherto unseen creature -- the 10 (decimal)-point must system. Round losers will earn anywhere from 9.9 to 8.0 points, based on the degree of their opponent’s advantage.

The decimal system is as follows: 10-9.9 to 10-9.5: marginal advantage; 10-9.4 to 10-9 clear advantage; 10-8.9 to 10-8.5: dominant advantage; 10-8.4 to 10-8 overwhelming advantage. However, the fundamental problem of the 10-point scoring system persists: the near impossibility of converting adjectives into numbers.

How did such a peculiar animal come to be?

To answer that question, it’s best to consider modern evolutionary theory and how its principles apply to the development of MMA scoring.

If one chooses Ultimate Fighting Championship 1 as the starting point of American MMA -- for the moment ignoring wrestling, boxing and all species of amateur martial arts -- we see that the original MMA scoring system was an uncomplicated creature. Fighters fought until one could fight no longer. There were no judges. There were no scores. MMA was a paramecium -- a simple creature with simple organs.

The “two men enter, one man leaves” scoring system had the advantages of being uncomplicated, organic to the principle of ad adorned combat and, in theory, incontestable. But it had a fatal anatomic flaw. It could make for painfully unwatchable fights. Good fights ended in spectacular finishes, but lousy fights were interminable. The UFC 5 main event, a super fight between Royce Gracie and Ken Shamrock, ran an agonizing 36 minutes before UFC brass put fans out of their misery and declared a draw.

Casual spectators and mainstream sponsors were put off. MMA risked extinction, starved of money and fans. Stephen Jay Gould’s evolutionary theory of Punctuated Equilibrium posits that it is in these periods of high stress -- when a species is few in number, starving, struggling to survive -- that evolution occurs most rapidly. And with MMA, it did.

In UFC 6, American MMA’s scoring system underwent its first major mutation: time limits were adopted. Combatants fought for 20 uninterrupted minutes in preliminary bouts and 30 minutes plus overtime in the finals. That night’s super fight between Shamrock and Dan Severn ran its full 33 minutes. Shamrock dominated his opponent for virtually every minute of it.
Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker/D. Mandel

Coker: “Intelligent Designer”?

Unfortunately, mutations are not rational processes. They are near random events, statistically more likely to harm an organism than help. Despite the obvious peril of instituting time limits without creating a system for determining a winner, the UFC had not introduced judges or adopted a scoring system. Shamrock’s clear win was ruled a de-facto draw. It was a farce. The pressure to evolve intensified.

Two months later -- one MMA “generation” -- at Ultimate Ultimate, the UFC brought in judges. Three men with backgrounds in martial arts, Ernest Hart Jr. (kickboxing champion), John Little (martial arts publisher) and Michael DePasquale Jr. (jiu-jitsu instructor), judged the bouts using basic combat criteria. This was simple inter-species genetic adoption from Pride Fighting Championships, incorporating beneficial DNA from a successful near relative. Interestingly, with three judges imbued with substantial knowledge in MMA, all the decisions were unanimous.

For the next three years, MMA in America was under tremendous external pressures. In addition to the ever-present and growing risk of being starved of fan and sponsor funding, the UFC found itself beset by political predators. Fighting to survive and temporarily banned from cable TV, the sport went through mutation after mutation. A David and Goliath format pitting fighters of wildly divergent size was adopted and discarded. The one-night tournament format was discarded, re-adopted and ultimately discarded permanently. Rule changes evolved: weight classes, gloves, limitations on striking.

Throughout this tumult, the scoring system remained unchanged. It worked for diehard fans, and evolution is conservative. Lasting change only occurs when it will improve a species’ ability to survive.

Finally, at UFC 21 the five-minute round came to American MMA. The change was long overdue, as the long rounds Japanese spectators appreciated were not winning over American fight fans. What MMA lost in a break from the purity of unregulated combat it more than gained in more intense and broadly marketable combat. Rather than take circling rest breaks in the middle of a 20-minute round, fighters could rest in intercessions conveniently adaptable to announcers pushing products. It marked a critical evolution from struggling fringe spectacle to aspiring mainstream sport.

Similar logic brought the 10-point must system to American MMA. It increased the organism’s ability to survive in an environment dominated by boxing fans and state athletic commissions. This point bears emphasis: the sole virtue of the 10-point must system for MMA is that, in 1999, it appealed to people who knew next to nothing about MMA. Evolution does not produce perfection, beauty or rationality; it promotes only “fitness” -- the ability to thrive in a particular environment.

A year later, MMA was sanctioned in New Jersey, and it was at that point -- 10 years and a hundred generations ago, with the co-mutation loss of MMA savvy judges -- that the evolution of MMA scoring ground to a halt. The current experimentation with trivial variations on the hackneyed 10-point must system emphasizes how little influence evolution has to change a well-fed, predator-free, ecologically maximized creature like modern MMA.

Happily, there is an alternative to evolution. In his heavyweight tournament, Coker can be MMA’s Intelligent Designer. While the mandated 10-point must system will determine the winner of each bout, Coker’s fourth judge -- who chooses which fighter advances in the not unlikely event of a draw -- can use whatever scoring system Coker wishes. MMA is a dynamic, multi-faceted sport. It would be best served by a dynamic scoring system that can capture advantages in striking, submissions and wrestling. A difficult charge, surely, but a supreme being can make it happen.

Matt Pitt is a physician with degrees in biophysics and medicine. He is board-certified in emergency medicine and has post-graduate training in head injuries and multi-system trauma. To ask a question that could be answered in a future article, e-mail him at

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