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The perception in some MMA circles has for years been that the sport is plagued by terrible judging problems. It’s sometimes even cited as one of the biggest problems with the sport. Officiating and scoring are of course criticized in all sports, but the problem of scoring is perceived to be particularly acute in MMA—a sport where the impact of judging is outsized. Unlike in most other sports where officials may determine whether points have been scored, in MMA, the judges directly determine winners and losers. Moreover, MMA fighter pay is more directly tied to victory or defeat than it is in other sports. As such, the stakes are high and the importance of good judging paramount.
Historically, there has been good reason to be dubious of MMA scoring. In the early days of MMA scoring, many of the United States judges were boxing judges who didn’t understand the basics of MMA, let alone the intricacies. That was reflected at times in the scoring, such as an infamous bout between Matt Hughes and Renato Verissimo in which the former spent most of the first round barely surviving a triangle choke, only to have longtime boxing judges score the round and the fight for him, presumably because he was on top.
Things were even worse in Japan, where the promotions picked the judges and the judges knew well when one fighter was supposed to win and the other was supposed to lose. There were plenty of dubious decisions in Pride Fighting Championships, and they almost without exception went for the promotional favorites. That wasn’t a matter of certain aspects of the game being undervalued but more boxing style chicanery out in the open.
With this history, there’s a culture of MMA fans, fighters and media screaming loud and long about disputed judges’ decisions. We all have particular fights that stick in our craw. For some, it’s Mauricio Rua-Lyoto Machida 1. For others, it’s Michael Bisping-Matt Hamill. Personally, it still rankles me over a decade later that anyone would defend the decision in Martin Kampmann-Diego Sanchez; and the acrimony over Nam Phan-Leonard Garcia 1 was pretty much universal.
On top of that past history, complaints about scoring are also spurred on by the pure volume of major fights. From the foundation of the Ultimate Fighting Championship in 1993 through 2005, the company put on 528 total fights. In 2019 alone, it put on 516. On top of that, fights are going to decisions at much higher rates. There were 113 decisions in the 1993-2005 period compared to 278 in 2019. That’s not counting Bellator MMA, the Professional Fighters League, Combate Global, One Championship and all the other companies in the MMA landscape.
Confirmation bias is a powerful thing, and when you’ve got the notion in your head that MMA judges are a bunch of ignorant buffoons, there’s no shortage of close fights where the judging can be lampooned. In truth, the worst of the earlier generation of MMA judges has been largely—although not entirely—weeded out, and newer judges are doing a better job. Sherdog’s annual “Robbery of the Year” story the past five years has hardly featured the cavalcade of outrage that came before and the last two years featured officiating mistakes rather than bad judging.
The latest example of misplaced invective came on Friday in London, where Michael Page was declared the winner of his Bellator 267 rematch against Douglas Lima via split decision. While some acknowledged the fight as the close battle that it was, others ripped the scorecards as another example of MMA’s judging problem. It didn’t help that the fight featured three traits common to heavily criticized decisions.
The first issue facing the Page-Lima decision was that the two fighters fought very different fights tactically and thus scored in contrasting ways. Lima secured a couple of takedowns, controlled MVP on the ground and landed more. Page landed harder shots, looked more comfortable on the feet and managed to keep the fight there for long stretches. The fight thus turned on what the judges valued more, and it’s easier to find different opinions when comparing apples and oranges.
In addition to the differing approaches of the two fighters, it was also a low-output fight. This is a frequent commonality when it comes to controversial decisions. The less that happens in a fight, the more likely it is that one particular strike, takedown or submission attempt is going to stand out. It also makes minority scorecards more justifiable. Even if the vast majority of observers think the fighter outlanding his opponent 10-7 won the round, those in the minority are going to tend to stand on much firmer ground than in the case of the fighter who landed 43 strikes to his opponent’s 21.
The final factor that can compound outrage in fights like Page-Lima is the perception of hometown bias. MVP was fighting in his hometown of London so of course he got the decision, the thinking goes. There certainly are examples of bad hometown scoring over the years, but the narrative of the hometown decision looms larger than the actual bias for judges who are selected from different regions. Page-Lima is instructive in that regard: The British judge scored it for Lima, while the two non-British judges scored it for Page.
The story of the British fighter getting the hometown decision from idiot judges despite getting taken down and outlanded is an easy narrative; and it’s certainly not as if Lima didn’t have a strong claim to the win. Page eking out a close win in a low-output fight because two judges valued a few big shots more than Lima’s control doesn’t make for as juicy a story, but it’s also more consistent with the sorts of contested MMA decisions we’re more apt to get in 2021.
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