Bad Beat: The Business Effects of Judging in MMA

By Patrick Auger May 21, 2020


Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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The Ultimate Fighting Championship on May 16 closed out its three-show extravaganza in Jacksonville, Florida, with UFC on ESPN 8—an event that saw Alistair Overeem face off against Walt Harris in a back-and-forth heavyweight headliner. “The Demolition Man” managed to secure a second-round TKO over Harris, but the victory was bittersweet given the circumstances surrounding the latter’s return. The rest of the main card saw a wave of judges’ decisions, something not uncommon in the world of MMA. What was rather unusual, however, was just how controversial those scorecards ended up being among fans, pundits and the fighters themselves.

UFC on ESPN 8 saw Dan Ige defeat Edson Barboza and Claudia Gadelha get past Angela Hill, both by contentious split decision. According to MMADecisions.com, only two of the 18 media members who were sampled scored the fight for Ige, with UFC President Dana White also stating that he thought Barboza had won. In Hill’s case, 13 of 17 pundits scored the Gadelha fight in her favor, and several fighters felt the 35-year-old should have gotten the nod. Hill and Barboza weren’t the only ones displeased with their results, either. Marlon Vera went on a social media tirade tirade to decry his loss to Yadong Song, and although the media was closer to a 50/50 split regarding the “Fight of the Night” battle, many athletes believed “Chito” won the match.

Given that the same three judges were also present for UFC 249 and UFC Fight Night 171, other bouts throughout the week drew similar scrutiny, though none were as divisive as the ones listed above. That’s not to say that these bouts weren’t close contests, with the usual voices across the MMA landscape stating that none of the decisions “were robberies” and claiming they could have gone either way. Though one could go down the proverbial rabbit hole of flaws in the MMA judging system, from state athletic commissions appointing judges with no experience in the sport to inherent conflicts of interest, at the end of the day, there is usually one winner and one loser decided by the panel of officials during any given contest. An athlete’s best defense against bad judging is to finish the fight.

With that being said, decisions will inevitably continue to happen in mixed martial arts, and with them come real consequences. Poorly scored bouts not only have immediate short-term financial ramifications for a fighter but also have a negative effect on their long-term earning power. Outside of impacts on an athlete’s compensation, poor judging can also create long-lasting repercussions for a competitor’s legacy.

Nearly every fighter’s pay within every MMA promotion is based on a show-win system, meaning that half of an athlete’s pay is provided for making weight and showing up to fight, while the other half is only provided if he or she wins a particular bout. Barboza, for example, was given a disclosed $79,000 for showing up and making weight and would have earned an additional $79,000 had he been given the decision win against Ige. While making nearly $80,000 for one match is nothing at which to scoff, after paying various fees to managers, agents, coaches and Uncle Sam, the reality is that the former Ring of Combat champion’s contentious loss may have been the difference between barely paying the bills and being comfortable for the rest of the year. Although Barboza has fought twice on average over the past four years, thus giving him another opportunity to compete and add to his yearly salary, there is no telling if that will be possible during the COVID-19 pandemic; the cancellation of several cards and uncertainty surrounding the situation has created a backlog of combatants. It’s certainly within the realm of possibility that Barboza has fought for the last time in 2020, which may put him in a less-than-ideal position.

A loss due to the judges’ scorecards also tends to hurt a competitor’s earnings down the road. It is a rare scenario in which a defeat doesn’t drop an athlete’s standing somewhat in the divisional rankings, forcing them to face a lower-ranked opponent or preventing them from rising to the status of title contender. Analysis of combatant earnings has long held that higher-ranked fighters have more earning potential, resulting in those coming off of a loss needing at least one win just to get back to their original position in their weight-class hierarchy. Though there are exceptions to this rule, the majority of fighters must deal with this setback should they find themselves with a loss on their record due to a poor decision.

Legacy isn’t immune to the scoring officials’ whims, either. When discussions emerge regarding the Greatest of All-Time in MMA or the dominance of particular champions—a factor that usually correlates to their crossover marketability—many forget the specifics of an athlete’s record, simply seeing absolute wins or losses. Would George St. Pierre still be in the G.O.A.T. conversation had Johnny Hendricks’ name been read at UFC 167, or would Amanda Nunes still lead the women’s G.O.A.T. discussion if Valentina Shevchenko had won at UFC 215? The positive and negative impacts to legacy based on judging can be demonstrated throughout the history of the sport.

Regardless of your opinion on these questions, there seems to be a clear consensus that judging in MMA needs to change. While there are debates on whether that should include fan and media input or simply bringing in former elite fighters instead of state employees, the UFC’s most recent events have put a spotlight on the need for some type of reform, and the financial impacts to fighters should be reason enough to support the notion. Although abolishing the show-win system would alleviate the short-term effects of bad judging, the long-term effects on finances and legacy need to be focused on officials and their scores. Whether or not MMA judging reform happens anytime soon, however, is anybody’s guess. Advertisement

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