UFC 118 Preview: Fight Watch: B.J. Penn vs Frankie Edgar and the Accountability of Judges

Photography by Josh Hedges. Copyright Zuffa, LLC.

"He who rejects change is the architect of decay. The only human institution which rejects progress is the cemetery." - Harold Wilson

Fight Watch is a new semi-regular feature that highlights issues plaguing the sport of mixed martial arts and what should be done to change them.

UFC 112 was a weird event. It took place in the United Arab Emirates, home of Zuffa's new minority business partner Flash Entertainment, in an outdoor stadium smack dab in the middle of a blazing desert. Demian Maia was inserted into the main event for the middleweight title after Vitor Belfort pulled out with an injury. Anderson Silva went a little crazy. And the little lightweight that could, Frankie Edgar, upset the 155-pound monolith B.J. Penn.

Or did he? Edgar left Abu Dhabi with the belt following a unanimous decision victory, featuring scorecards of 50-45, 49-46, and 48-47 in his favor. Yet, most fans and media scored the fight for Penn, in addition to the statistical analysis provided by FightMetric. What did the judges at ringside see differently from those scoring in the climate-controlled comfort of their own homes or local pubs?

Douglas Crosby, owner of the bizarre 50-45 Edgar card, explained himself in an equally bizarre thread that he started over at the Underground Forums. Amidst a stream of nigh incoherent rambling that would have left Hunter Thompson scratching his head, Crosby revealed the reasoning behind his scorecard:

It is a Judge's obligation to interpret the fight and use the criteria as guidelines. But a fight is an observed event that does require interpretation, observation, wisdom. And, in my considered opinion, Edgar dictated the tone of the fight, successfully implemented and executed a strategy, landed better strikes, and basically outworked Penn.

While I'm tempted to rip apart Crosby's explanation (I disagree to some extent with each and everyone one of his arguments), I must instead raise the following question: Why aren't judges required to provide this sort of explanation, by round, along with their scores?

We don't need something on the level of an opinion of the Court. Just a simple explanation for the scoring of the round. Hell, it doesn't even have to be a complete sentence. "10-9 Edgar. Controlled the action, landed more strikes."

Because, right now, there's very little in the way to hold judges accountable for their performance. What did Andy Roberts see that led him to score a 49-46 fight for Edgar? I have no idea because he didn't find it necessary to drop peyote and report his visions on a message board.

Logistically, this shouldn't be a problem for a properly trained official. When I'm concentrating on scoring a fight, I have what I call a "running total" of the action in my head. I imagine it like a momentum meter I've seen in some college football video games. I know as soon as the bell sounds to end a round how I score the action. It would take me another 10-15 seconds to scribble an explanation behind my process, leaving me plenty of time to ogle women in the audience during the sixty second break in between rounds.

Controversial decisions will always be an issue for sports that decide contests with a panel of judges. This is exacerbated in MMA by an explosion of events, a narrowing talent gap, and the near exclusive use of three round fights. Commissions must be willing to make changes to the judging process (and we'll have more on that going forward), and demanding accountability from trained officials is a necessary step.

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