Story of the Year: Judging in MMA

By Mike Whitman Jan 6, 2011



After careful consideration, the staff of Sherdog.com has decided that the outcry regarding the judging of mixed martial arts contests in the past year was too great to ignore. As such, the contributing editors have agreed that the cluster of questionable decisions, and the ensuing public backlash, was 2010’s “Story of the Year.”

The first blip on the radar came at UFC 112 in April, when lightweight kingpin B.J. Penn put his belt on the line in what was supposed to be a routine title defense against Frankie Edgar. Instead, the heavily-favored “Prodigy” found himself in a competitive match where the speedy Edgar used superior movement to outlast the longtime champion and earn a hard-fought unanimous decision victory.

Most fight fans and pundits agreed that the fight was a close one. Ringside judge Douglas Crosby, however, was not a part of that group: he scored the contest 50-45, a clean sweep for Edgar.

Two weeks later, at WEC 48, promotional staple Leonard Garcia and WEC newcomer Chan Sung Jung threw down in a wild, “Fight of the Year”-candidate brawl. Though both men sustained heavy damage, it was Jung who generally got the better of the bout’s many exchanges. Statistic providers FightMetric and CompuStrike both observed that the “Korean Zombie” had landed more strikes with better accuracy than his opponent. Somehow, two of the three officials cageside scored the bout for Garcia.

The month of September brought with it another pair of baffling verdicts. At Bellator Fighting Championships 31, Zoila Frausto defeated Jessica Aguilar in their semifinal of the promotion’s 115-pound tournament. Though Aguilar continually pressed the action and seemed to have won the fight handily, two of the Louisiana judges scored the fight for Frausto.

At UFC 119, former lightweight champion Sean Sherk outpointed rising prospect Evan Dunham. Sherk looked to be in total control in the early going, grounding his younger opponent and lacerating him with patented “Muscle Shark” ground-and-pound. In the final two frames, however, it was Dunham who battled back and took control. The then-undefeated prospect used excellent takedown defense to keep the fight standing and capitalized by using his considerable reach advantage to punish Sherk, particularly in the third period. Nonetheless, Sherk was declared the winner by split decision.

UFC 123 in November continued the trend of controversial decisions, as suffocating wrestler Nik Lentz defeated longtime UFC competitor Tyson Griffin, while Quinton “Rampage” Jackson got his hand raised against Lyoto Machida. While it was generally agreed that the Machida-Jackson bout was a close one, “The Dragon” scored a big takedown and landed the most meaningful blows of the bout in the third period after two lackluster rounds from both men. In the case of Griffin-Lentz, most viewed the fight as a clear-cut victory for Griffin. Sherdog.com and MMAJunkie.com each scored the fight 30-27, while MMAWeekly.com scored it 29-28, all for Griffin.

One of the final decisions of 2010 was also, arguably, the most controversial. In a bout named Sherdog.com’s 2010 “Robbery of the Year,” Leonard Garcia defeated Nam Phan by split decision at “The Ultimate Fighter 12” finale. Both men fought hard, but it was Phan who was more accurate with his strikes, cutting through the windmill offense of Garcia with straight punches and crisp kicks. According to CompuStrike, Phan out-landed Garcia 122 to 66 in total strikes, and connected with 61 power strikes to Garcia’s 39. Still, two of the three judges awarded the fight to Garcia.

Following that contest, UFC commentator Joe Rogan spoke live on air about the state of judging in mixed martial arts, asserting that there were a few good judges surrounded by “a bunch of incompetent morons who know nothing about the sport.” Rogan pinpointed Nevada State Athletic Commission Executive Director Keith Kizer as the man turning a blind eye to a problem in dire need of fixing.

Kizer, however, does not see it that way. According to the NSAC head, at such a high level of competition, there are bound to be close fights, and with those close fights come dissenting opinions. Even Garcia-Phan -- which Kizer himself scored 30-27 in favor of Phan -- may fall under this philosophy.

“It’s not a problem that fans are so passionate in arguing for or against a decision. In fact, I think that’s a good thing. But just because some people get on a message board, that doesn’t mean there’s an actual epidemic, either,” said Kizer. “Several [members of the media] gave either the first or third rounds to Leonard Garcia. I still don’t see that, but I don't want to discount those [points of view].”

The NSAC head isn’t the only one with an explanation for the outcry over the decisions in 2010. Longtime judge and referee Nelson “Doc” Hamilton -- who scored the Griffin-Lentz and Garcia-Phan bouts in favor of Griffin and Garcia, respectively -- believes much of the issue stems from the exposure that the sport now receives.

“The sport has grown so big, and we have so much more widespread coverage than we used to have. [This includes] Yahoo, Sports Illustrated, ESPN and the L.A. Times,” said Hamilton. “I think there was always controversy in regard to judging certain fights. Even 10 years ago, [there were disagreements], it's just that there was no light shined on it.”

File Photo

Garcia (above) won two close bouts.
One point on which both men agree is that much fan criticism comes in the form of personal attacks, which only weakens the disgruntled party’s argument. Also noted is the frequency with which complaints are made, creating a “fan who cried wolf” effect, according to Nick Lembo, chairman of the MMA Committee for the Association of Boxing Commissioners and legal counsel to the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board.

“I think that there is an issue with judging in the sport to a recognizable degree,” Lembo told Sherdog.com. “However, I do not agree that every so-called disputed decision is a blatant robbery. I think that rampant complaints about every razor-close, arguable fight weaken the argument for bouts where there is serious, legitimate questioning and concern over the scoring.”

The last and least-credible line of defense for the questionable performance of judges is one mostly purported by fans: unreliable decisions create more exciting fights, since fighters no longer want to risk their bouts going to the scorecards.

Phan has personally heard this reasoning dozens of times, particularly in relation to his bout with Garcia, and he’s developed a routine to deal with it.

“People come up to me and say, ‘Nam, you shouldn’t have left it in the hands of the judges, man,’” Phan told Sherdog.com “You know what I do? I give them the most sarcastic look and I say, ‘Wow, that’s such a great idea! In all my 10 years of fighting, why didn’t I think of that? Knock him out or submit him... that’s genius!’”

While it is clear that the system needs fixing -- if for no other reason than so that fighters like Phan do not have to crack jokes after losing fights they should have won -- the solution is somewhat murkier. Should state athletic commissions “clean house” and start anew, as Rogan suggested at the “TUF 12” finale?

This would prove difficult, at least in California, according to CSAC Executive Officer George Dodd, who noted that he feels his state employs some of the best judges in the sport. Dodd explained the process for removing a license not as a slight toward judges in California, but in hypothetical terms for educational purposes.

“When you have a license, in order for the state to take your license away, you’ve got to have cause. And it’s really hard to prove cause for removing a license. Does one bad match make you a bad judge? Where is that line?” Dodd asked. “I don't think anyone has been able to establish [a standard where] if a judge falls below a certain mark, then the commission is going to remove [his or her] license and provide extra training before the judge is put back in the system.”

But in Nevada, said Kizer, the rules are a bit different.

“Everybody’s license is a privilege [in Nevada]. It expires Dec. 31 every year, and if you’re not worthy of a renewal, then you don’t get renewed. There is no continuing investment in that license,” said Kizer. “At the end of the year, sometimes we have to say, ‘Thank you for your years of service. It’s nothing personal, but we’re not renewing your license because you don’t meet the standard anymore.’”

Perhaps judges simply need more tools in order perform their duties at the highest level. Technology is often a helpful means to that end, and small video monitors that judges may use at their discretion have been proposed so that officials can always have a good vantage point on a fight. Concerns over the use of monitors are numerous, however, as some feel that they may cause judges to ignore the live action right before their eyes.

“Monitors are a useful tool, but keep in mind that they will not always be available at local, smaller MMA events,” said Lembo. “There are times where your angle is not as good as the monitor, but there are also times where watching something live in front of you provides a better vantage point and feel for the action.”

Another point of view is that the system is at least partially to blame, as the “10-point must” method of scoring was taken directly from boxing and is therefore not the most effective way to judge an MMA bout. Among the subscribers of this theory is Hamilton, who has created an alternate system that he feels is a more exact tool for scoring MMA.

“Mixed Martial Arts Specific” scoring, or MMAS, has been erroneously labeled by many as the “half-point system.” Though it’s true that the method utilizes half-points for scoring (10-9.5 for a marginal victory in a round, 10-9 for a clear-cut round, etc.), the system is far more comprehensive than most realize.

The system seeks to redefine the judging criteria by valuing damage first, followed by effective striking and grappling, which are weighted equally. Cage or ring control is still a part of the criteria, but would take a back seat to the aforementioned qualities.

The referee’s role would also change under the MMAS system, as the in-cage official would notify the judges of near-submissions by raising his hand. There would also be a fourth judge sitting ringside to independently tally technical scores based on knockdowns, takedowns and dominant positions. In the case of a tie, these objective scores would be used to decide a winner.

“I didn’t just pull this out of my ear,” said Hamilton “Everything that I’ve got in the MMAS system has been used at some point by some other form of martial arts. All I did was adapt it to MMA. The referee calling submissions? That's not new. They did that in Shooto and Pancrase. I was a K-1 referee, and that’s where I got the half-point system.”

“Aside from boxing, can you name me another sport in which we have draws? Particularly in martial arts, but even the major sports have figured out ways to resolve ties. People don't want draws, period.”

MMAS scoring will be tested in California amateur bouts in 2011, and all judges training to preside over amateur contests will be trained in MMAS. Fights will be scored under Hamilton’s system as well as the 10-point must, and data will be gathered to see just how MMAS scoring differs from the status quo when verdicts are rendered.

While Hamilton has many supporters for his system, including Rogan and veteran referees John McCarthy and Herb Dean, the system also has its detractors. Kizer believes that the addition of half-points, referee “catches” and fourth judges may create a new list of problems with which to deal. Lembo is more optimistic regarding MMAS scoring, but says that the tool can only be as effective as the individual who is using it.

“I am very familiar with Doc’s system, and I think it’s great to test it in an amateur program. We need to be open to new ideas and ways to improve aspects of this very new sport,” said Lembo. “I think that the focus right now needs to be on utilizing judges who understand jiu-jitsu, muay Thai and wrestling, as well as just boxing. Any scoring system is only as good as the people we select to use as judges. In other words, you still need the best trained people to properly apply whatever system you choose to use.”

So, how can the mixed martial arts community ensure that all judges are properly trained in the complex, multifaceted sport of MMA? One solution might be to require all judges to pass a training course similar to McCarthy’s Certification of Officials for Mixed Martial Arts National Development (C.O.M.M.A.N.D.) program in California. For Lembo, however, nothing beats the real thing.

“Training programs are a tool, but they are not a cure-all. There is no substitute for actual experience,” said Lembo. “In any area, training course proficiency does not always equate to proficiency under live situations. There is no substitute for experience gained in commission regulated amateur MMA events.”

Perhaps, then, a combination of testing and live experience, coupled with thoughtful evaluation, might be the key to building a better judging system. A big question surrounding the issue of testing well-established judges is the respect, or lack thereof, that comes with such an evaluation. Some veteran MMA judges who have had their performances brought into question have scored over 100 bouts, and requiring them to take a test on rules and techniques of a sport which they have watched since its regulation could be construed as a slap in the face. Hamilton, for one, asserts that he would take no offense at such a requirement.

“It wouldn’t offend me at all. I don’t know everything,” he said. “I think I know a lot, and I think I do pretty well at what I do, but there is always something else to learn. And I’m willing to learn it.”

A comprehensive knowledge exam featuring both conventional written questions and hands-on demonstrations inside a mat room could serve as a compromise to satisfy fans subscribing to the “clean house” philosophy, while simultaneously aiding state athletic commission. Both Dodd and Kizer were open to the idea of a test, if one could be created and administered, though they each reiterated Lembo’s point regarding in-ring experience.

One thing is certain: however and whenever judging reform comes about, it is time for the MMA fanbase, media and commission to take the issue seriously. There will always be professional disagreements between these groups, but as the sport evolves, so too must those who govern, cover and follow it. In allowing for new ideas and compromise, perhaps a nationwide method might be determined to produce a better-equipped and more prepared network of judges.

“The most competent people in the world, as far as I’m concerned, are the military. Those people have got it down. They train you, they test you, they hold your feet to the fire. They know that if somebody screws up, it could be somebody’s life,” said Hamilton. “Here, it’s the same thing, but you’re messing with somebody’s pocketbook if you’re a judge, or, if you’re a referee, it’s somebody’s life.”
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