Critiquing the Judging Criteria Proposed by Nelson 'Doc' Hamilton

MONTREAL- MAY 8: Mauricio "Shogun" Rua (L) holds on to Lyoto Machida in their light heavyweight bout at UFC 113 at Bell Centre on May 8, 2010 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)

Chael Sonnen's appeal hearing before the California State Athletic Commission overshadowed a piece by Josh Gross which provided details about the proposed changes to the judging prodcedures for MMA in the state of California. The proposal - written by longtime official Nelson "Doc" Hamilton - would institute half-point scoring gradients to the ten-point must system, the introduction and prominence of damage to the judging criteria, an advantage point system in the event of draws, and specific instructions for judges to identify near submissions.

The CSAC plans to test the proposed rules - deemed Mixed Martial Arts Specific Scoring (MMAS) - through CAMO, a non-profit corporation delegated by the commission to regulate amateur bouts in the state of California. Fights will be scored under both the current judging criteria under the Unified Rules and the MMAS criteria in order to compare the effectiveness of each system.

I think Nelson's proposal has good intentions, but falls short in execution. Let's run through the list.

1. Half-point scoring

The proposed criteria would add half-point gradients to the current ten-point must system. According to Gross:

A close period yields a tally of 10-9.5. A clear winner, 10-9. Rounds delivering damage or domination, 10-8.5. Damage and domination will be scored 10-8.

Introducing non-integers creates an unnecessary and confusing dynamic to round scoring. The same result could be reached by instructing judges to more fully utilize the scoring options provided by the ten-point must system. A "close period" becomes a 10-9. A "clear winner," 10-8. Etc.

2. The reorganization of the judging criteria

The current judging criteria requires judges to score based on effective striking, effective grappling, cage control, and effective aggression. The MMAS proposal would introduce damage as the main criterion, followed by an equal weighting of effective striking and grappling. Cage control would remain as a part of the criteria.

I agree with the concept of "damage" being the most important item in the criteria. However, Hamilton's proposal defines damage as "any visible sign of debilitation" and lists the following as examples:

  • A cut or bruise
  • Appearing stunned from a blow to the head or body slam
  • Wincing from a body blow
  • Ceasing forward movement, becoming defensive or hastily retreating after being struck
  • Staggering or favoring a leg that has been kicked
  • Debilitating results from the efforts required to escape wrestling holds or submission attempts

Two things stand out to me. 1) A fighter who doesn't cut or bruise easily, like B.J. Penn, has a tremendous advantage under this definition. 2) Gassing out could be considered "any visible sign of debilitation" according to the final example.

In addition, the judging criteria continues to include "cage control." The problem with "cage control" is that there is no consensus on what the term actually implies. In addition, there is no metric available to quantify "cage control," and the concept is left up to the subjectivity of each judge.

3. Advantage point system

In the event of a draw - an outcome more likely with increased variance of round scores, the MMAS proposal includes a provision to decide a winner based on an objective point total tallied by a fourth official at ringside. Again, according to Gross:

A flash knockdown would be registered as one point. As would a takedown into the guard or a sweep and escape from the bottom. A takedown into side-control would be worth two, as would be a guard pass. Dominant positions such as mount and back control with hooks or a body triangle: three points. And a full-fledged knockdown tallies four.

I have two issues with this.

First, Hamilton believes that an ultimate winner must be decided:

"That's how you do it in martial arts. There are no draws. Somebody wins, somebody loses. Even in Olympic judo or wrestling, if everything is even down the line, the judges get together, confer and someone gets their hand raised. Period. Well, I don't see why we should be any different."

I don't understand the overwhelming desire to determine a winner. If a fight is even, it's a draw. There's too much riding on the line for fighters to insist that a winner MUST be chosen at all costs. That other combat sports judge a certain way is no reason that MMA should follow suit.

Second, how did Hamilton reach these point values? They seem completely arbitrary. For instance, why is side-control worth twice as much as a flash knockdown and half as much as a "full-fledged" knockdown?

4. Identification of near-submissions

From the proposed rules:

A near-submission is to grappling what a knockdown is to effective striking, and should carry the same weight in scoring.

And what exactly is a "near-submission?"

When a submission is serious and threatening with the potential to end the contest but is ultimately unsuccessful, it is a near-submission.

A near-submission is determined by the referee who then signals to the judges by "raising one arm straight overhead and holding it until the fighter taps-out or until the submission is terminated."

I don't think I agree with any of the wording here. For starters, what leads Hamilton to believe that a near-submission is of equal value to a knockdown?

Second, successful grappling is not dependent on attempting of submission holds. A near-submission is often useless because you often 1) did not correctly apply the hold and 2) find yourself in a disadvantaged position if the opponent defends and escapes.

Third, the guidelines for determining a "near-submission" are vague. Is a kimura from guard a "near-submission" once the attacking fighter locks both hands in the figure-four grip? Or once the defending arm clears the hip? At what point of an omoplata is necessary to be considered a "near-submission?"

Overview

The longer I think about the subject, the more I believe that the simpler the judging, the better. Outside of attempting to create some sort of point system, the judging criteria will always be subject to interpretation. I believe that most fans with a solid grasp of the ten-point must system and a serious understanding of the sport can score a bout correctly (or at least defensibly) without having to consider outmoded concepts such as "effective aggression" and "cage control." It's not exactly "I know it when I see it," but it's also not an idea that I can fully articulate either.

The problems with judging in MMA is deeper than the ten-point must sytem. It includes the paradoxal complexity/ambiguity of the current criteria, the lack of knowledge about the sport of MMA possessed by most judges, the lack of accountability for said judges, the three round structure of the majority of bouts, judges not having the option to watch from a television monitor, etc.

Hamilton's proposal leaves me shrugging my shoulders. It may look better cosmetically in some areas compared to the current criteria in the Unified Rules, but I'm unconvinced that it will provide a more effective system.

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