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Even in the often heated realm of boxing judging controversies, the reaction to Adalaide Byrd’s scorecard for Gennady “GGG” Golovkin-Saul “Canelo” Alvarez on Saturday was noteworthy for its fevered pitch and tone. Long criticized for her scoring in MMA, as well, Byrd was lambasted by a host of voices. What was particularly noteworthy was that many prominent figures went beyond simply deeming her incompetent and openly speculated about the very serious charge of corruption. The furor forced the usually protective Nevada Athletic Commission to take Byrd off upcoming shows. The situation had to be quickly addressed.
To be sure, Byrd’s scorecard giving Alvarez 10 rounds and Golovkin two was highly dubious. However, the rage at that scorecard went beyond just Byrd and her judging history. It was a collective scream at a sport where it feels all too often the wrong person is declared the winner. For many close to that sport, there is a lack of faith that boxing’s arbiters are committed to ensuring fair competition.
It’s natural to lament the flaws present in any sport, and MMA is not without its flaws. However, Saturday was another example of why MMA fans should be grateful that their sport lends itself to less judging controversy than its cousin. There are of course bad decisions in MMA. Hardcore fans can point to a few that drove them up the wall the most. Moreover, with so many major MMA shows and so many fights on each show, the good decisions are taken for granted and the bad ones stick out in the memory. However, on a percentage basis, controversial decisions in MMA are much more infrequent than in boxing.
There’s also the matter of when the worst decisions occur. The corruption charge comes up frequently in boxing because bad decisions seem to come up most often with superstar fighters with glossy records and big drawing power. By contrast, in MMA, the most dubious fights historically are bouts like Leonard Garcia-Nam Phan (scored incorrectly by Byrd), Nick Ring-Riki Fukuda or Diego Sanchez-Martin Kampmann. When main events like Carlos Condit-Robbie Lawler or Georges St. Pierre-Johny Hendricks are scored controversially, there are few serious voices suggesting it’s because the sport is corrupt. They just disagree with the judges’ conclusions.
The difference when it comes to scoring controversies between MMA and boxing isn’t that the judges themselves are better. In many cases, they’re the same people. If anything, the number of boxing judges that transitioned to mixed martial arts without a background in grappling should lead to worse scoring in MMA than boxing. The key is something that’s often overlooked: MMA is simply an easier sport to score. That’s perhaps a counterintuitive observation because of the number of things one needs to understand in MMA, but that’s actually at the heart of why it’s easier to get the score right.
In boxing, kickboxing and other combat sports, a more limited set of offensive options means fewer ways to differentiate one’s self in a round. Take Golovkin-Alvarez as an example. CompuBox counted total punches landed by round to be 15-10, 14-12, 15-13, 18-13, 18-14, 16-15, 16-12, 21-11, 24-13, 23-18, 17-13 and 23-23. When the only method of attack is to punch and the difference in punches is five or less in every round except for two, it becomes much easier to turn in a bad scorecard. By contrast, in MMA a fighter can take over with wrestling, submissions, knees from the clinch, kicks from distance and so forth.
MMA’s greater variety of attacks also means rounds are a lot less likely to look the same. This is a good thing because a series of rounds that look the same can create problems. If a judge simply finds one fighter’s method of attack to be more effective and the fighters are doing the same thing round after round, there’s a tendency to keep scoring for the same person. Fans see a wide score and are outraged, but it’s often a similar mistake compounded over time rather than a series of different mistakes. There’s also a concern on the other side. Judges are aware of this issue and can give rounds to the other fighter simply because he’s doing better than he was in previous rounds. There’s a whole psychology at play that isn’t when rounds are dissimilar.
Close rounds in MMA are also much more likely to be defined by easily understood differences in taste. If one fighter gets the better of the striking on the feet but the other gets a takedown and threatens with ground-and-pound plus submissions, it’s much easier to respect a judge who values one over the other. The most common pattern in bad MMA judging historically has been when one fighter is moving forward aggressively and the judge seems to miss that the other is landing much more effectively with counters. It can cause bad judging, but it does not occur all that frequently.
A final trump card that MMA has protecting against bad decisions is the length of the rounds. A longer five-minute round means more opportunities for one fighter to distinguish himself from his opponent. There aren’t all that many rounds where all major stats are close to tied. The combination of longer rounds and a fewer number of them also means fighters rarely take rounds off and turn in low-action stanzas that are hard to score.
This isn’t to say that MMA doesn’t have its fair share of bad judges. Luckily for us, the system is set up in a way that there aren’t all that many opportunities for them to do much damage. We are frustrated when a fighter is deprived of a victory we feel he has earned, but for a variety of reasons, it’s unlikely the fury and indignation that greeted Golovkin-Alvarez is something we’ll have to visit anytime soon in MMA.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.
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