Following 25 grueling minutes (for spectators) on Friday, the Bellator MMA middleweight title fight between Rafael Carvalho and Melvin Manhoef went to a judges’ decision. The champion Carvalho, who had done next to nothing to win the fight, was declared the winner via split decision on 48-47, 47-48 and 48-47 scorecards. Announcers Jimmy Smith and Sean Grande were apoplectic. Message boards exploded in anger. Even referee John McCarthy seemed disgusted. It was greeted an all-time embarrassment of a decision.
Hold your horses. The upset and tumult might be better off pointed in another direction or saved for another occasion.
The 18th century English judge William Blackstone is known for his principle that it is better to let 10 guilty men free than to imprison one innocent. The view, widely held, is that it is far worse for an injustice to be perpetrated on someone who deserved better than to let someone go free when they merit punishment. The concept is of course intended for the criminal law, but the notion also applies surprisingly well to MMA judging.
The principal reason there was such aggravation over Carvalho winning is that he deserved to win so little. He got in precious little offense and the fight consisted of long periods where nothing of note happened. It was like an audition for Sherdog’s All-Pacifist Team. However, it wasn’t like Manhoef turned in a distinguished performance. He was likewise passive, plodding and ineffective. It was a fight where both men deserved to lose.
In rounds where there is very little action, strange scorecards tend to surface. There just isn’t that much to differentiate the fighters. As fighters engage more, there’s more to evaluate and class tends to show. Many of the most controversial decisions of all-time were inactive fights where the judges didn’t have much with which to work. The losers of such decisions over time tend to have their performances elevated in the public perception because of the feeling that the winner didn’t deserve to get his hand raised.
UFC President Dana White always admonishes fighters that they shouldn’t let fights go to a decision. In general, it’s a rather weak argument. If you give it everything you have to finish a fight, judges should be competent enough to recognize you were the superior fighter even if you can’t get a knockout or submission. It’s not fair to fighters to suggest that they don’t deserve to have their reward when they turn in great performances.
That’s not to say White is without a point. Where his idea does have merit is fights where the competitors don’t leave it all in the cage. If you don’t engage with your opponent for long stretches of time, that’s when you are truly leaving yourself at the mercy of the judges. You may be a better fighter, but the judges haven’t been provided enough data to prove that definitively. White’s suggestion is best applied to fights exactly like Manhoef-Carvalho at Bellator 155. The fight was decided by the first round, as bad a round of mixed martial arts as there has been in a major MMA promotion all year. No one has the right to be outraged about the scoring of that catastrophe.
Carvalho didn’t do much to merit retaining his championship. However, Blackstone would likely argue our attention is better focused away from fighters like Carvalho who receive gifts and towards fighters who turned in excellent performances only to have those victories thieved from them. With so many fights these days, there are plenty of questionable decisions. The focus is best directed towards rewarding the innocent, not punishing the guilty.
When there’s discussion about the worst MMA decision of all-time, Ricco Rodriguez-Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira will often get brought up. Rodriguez was an Ultimate Fighting Championship fighter competing on a Pride Fighting Championships card against a Pride fighter, so when Nogueira was granted the decision, it was greeted with cries of bias. This isn’t to say it was a good decision, but it’s a strange choice for outrage so many years later.
Rodriguez-Nogueira was an awful fight. Rodriguez primarily just held down Nogueira and didn’t let his offense go because of the threat of the Brazilian’s submissions from the bottom. If Rodriguez had won the decision, it would be completely forgotten now. When talking about MMA robberies, let’s remember first fights where the loser turned in a great performance and deserved to win.
Martin Kampmann brutalized Diego Sanchez in Louisville with vicious and precise striking, only to see Sanchez have his hand raised. Nam Phan boxed up Leonard Garcia, landing over double the strikes to the head, only to be robbed. Evan Dunham’s would-be upset win over Sean Sherk should have been the breakthrough performance of his career. Instead, Sherk was declared the victor. Those are the sorts of fights that stand out in my mind when thinking of horrible decisions, not lackluster stalemates where one fighter did a little bit more.
Manhoef may have been slightly less awful than Carvalho, but let’s save our outrage for someone more deserving of our collective sympathy.