Round Table: Staff Suggestions For Improving Scoring And Judging In MMA

Round Table artwork (?) by Dallas Winston

We've seen MMA evolve at a rapid rate since its inception yet we're still bound by the unified scoring criteria that was written over a decade ago. Judging controversy is an ever-lurking beast. Dana White proclaimed that reffing and judging is "one of the big problems" in MMA and requires attention in his Presidential Address following UFC 143. The NSAC will boldly host an open forum to entertain suggestions from the public on improving their rules and regulations.

My suggestion is to eliminate control, aggression and defense while updating the definitions for effective striking and grappling. The question is two-fold: how should the descriptions for grappling and striking be revised and improved? What are your personal suggestions to improve the existing the scoring criteria?

(Warning: this is a lengthy, detailed and in-depth discussion. Prepare yourself accordingly.)

Kid Nate: A criteria for "fighting to finish" should be added. I've got nothing against smart game plans but I loathe point fighting. I have nothing against a slow, methodical strategy if the goal is to dominate and win but I can't stand the hit and run, run up the score style of fighting that Jackson seems to be encouraging his fighters to adopt. Even lay and pray is much preferable to point fighting because it shows a clear dominance of one fighter by another.

I also hate the 10 point must and think it was never a good fit for 3 round MMA fights. There has to be a way for the judges to express who they thought won the fight as a whole and weigh that in.

Tim Burke: My personal suggestion is to NOT adopt the half-point scoring criteria. It doesn't change anything to me at all.

Brent Brookhouse: Nate and I have never been close to the same page when it comes to this stuff. As soon as you start determining that things like "point fighting" should be punished, you're moving back away from this being a sport, and I really hate that idea. It takes a lot of skill to execute a gameplan like, say, Carlos Condit utilized against Nick Diaz. It takes being aware of spacing, cage positioning, timing, etc. I fall into the camp where people tend to go with lay and pray...if you can't stop it, that's your own fault. Diaz chased Condit, he didn't cut him off and that's a fault of MMA having a real problem with fighters understanding footwork and movement in terms of owning the cage.

I'm a big fan of the 10-point must as, again, I think it provides us with a better sense of "sport." If a fighter has a lead after two rounds, he shouldn't lose that lead in the third without a major effort from the other fighter to earn a 10-8 round and a draw. What needs to happen is what I've said for years. Judges need to be held accountable. There should be more oversight that sees each fight reviewed and any judges who turn in questionable scores be brought in and questioned about the logic and reasoning behind their decisions. If a judge has multiple fights where his scores are not able to be logically defended within a revised and more clearly defined judging criteria, he should be suspended. That oversight, combined with an increased search for competent judges and a better training program should create a more stable judging pool within a year.

Leland Roling: Brent's logic has been my own logic for years. The biggest problem with oversight, however, has been the ineptitude of those reviewing scorecards and asking the questions to judges. Nevada is the perfect example. Kizer is the sole reviewer, and we've seen on multiple occasions that he has agreed with a completely ridiculous outcome, thus eliminating the judge in question from any punishment. Only time will eliminate that problem as the system is heavily political. There's a reason why commissioners sitting on the board have ties to things that have nothing to do with combat sports.

10-point-must works, and you can look no further than Jimmo vs. Sokoudjou as a prime example of the half-point system failing in epic fashion. Interpretations of the scoring criteria are the major fault here. And the reality is that the only fix in the foreseeable future is people moving into those judging roles having lengthy experience watching MMA fights and understanding what matters when it comes to winning a round of action.

How do you go about improving the scoring criteria? There isn't any way you can create a criteria that is objective, so the goal, I assume, is to try to minimize the wiggle room for differing interpretation. That's the root of the criteria discussion, and it's impossible to solve without judges who understand what's going on.

Leland's comments continue after the break.

Possible Changes

Striking: The word effective can be interpreted in a million different ways, so many ways that judges, for the most part, interpret it today as who landed more strikes. Bzzz... wrong. This isn't a change so much as it is a guideline. Effective needs to be defined and emphasized in the rules, i.e. Effective doesn't mean more landing strikes.

Furthermore, there is an emphasis currently on efficient and effective. How exactly is one supposed to weigh one over the other? If I light up my opponent with 20 jabs for four minutes, then he lands an overhand that downs me for a second, who wins the clash between 20 clean strikes versus one massive land and some glancing shots? Again, it's subjective, and judges vary greatly in how they handle these situations.

According to the 2008 NSAC Scoring Criteria, landing heavier blows with efficiency should get more credit. If the striking power between the fighters was equal, total number landed is used. Total number of strikes landed should be a sufficient quantity favoring a fighter to earn a winning round.

See all the problems here? What exactly constitutes efficiency? Over 50%? How does one know if the striking power was equal? What if one fighter reacts differently than another to strikes? Clay Guida's hair flies in the air after each land, guess he's screwed, huh?

Grappling: Cleaner takedowns get more points according to the criteria. Who cares. If you can get a fighter down and actively more to a dominant position or land, it should score on both clean strikes and effective grappling. This wouldn't pertain to slams though, since they can do both in one instant. I think they hold a little more weight if the aggressor can remain effective.

Judges still don't recognize fighters on their back effectively throwing elbows or working for submissions, and I think a huge culprit to favored scoring of the top controlling fighters is the definition of clean, effective strikes on the ground. Sorry, but short punches while chest-to-chest with an opponent holding down your posture are worthless and shouldn't be scored heavily unless those strikes were 90% of the offense in the fight.

Guard to mount is specifically stated in the scoring criteria as effective grappling. This is outdated. There are plenty of cases and reasons to suggest that side control has more benefits. But the criteria shouldn't favor or name any transition specifically.

"A clean reversal is equal to a clean takedown" - I'm willing to bet a handful of judges understand this concept.

Aggression, Octagon Control, Defense: Who gives a shit. Octagon Control? What exactly is Octagon Control? The fighter who dictates the pace, place, and position of the fight, i.e. a striker who defends takedown attempts and effectively strikes is considered Octagon Control. Conversely, a grappler who can get takedowns to ground fight and create submissions, dominant transitions, or clean striking opportunities. In other words, who is more effective? Again, there isn't any suggestion of which is more weighted, but I wouldn't expect there to be. If there was, the more weighted would likely be the more emphasized by training camps. I'm sure Dana White would love for it to say striking > grappling.

Aggression is interesting because it comes into play often when fights are at a stalemate. I think there is some credence to its inclusion in the criteria in cases in which a fighter is clearly attempting to counter and having little success. But I don't think it should be weighed as heavily as it is today.

Defense is worthless. If you can't defend, the other fighter is scoring, amassing points on their side of the scorecard.

Those are just thoughts off the top of my head. Overall, most of this can't be fixed because you can't truly define effective and efficient in a tangible way. Efficiency could be calculated on the fly and shown to judges, but we all know how bad Compustrike is. Effectiveness is completely subjective.

Brent Brookhouse: To expand on Leland's thoughts, I really think a takedown should not count unless you are able to A) land a few meaningful strikes OR B) advance position OR C) control the opponent for a sustained amount of time. Taking someone down for 10 seconds, having them get to their hip, create space and immediately get back to their feet is not effective and should not be scored as such.

TP Grant: Oh boy, where to start with this ... Let me first say that I don't think 10-must system is broken or a bad fit for MMA. I think most of our problems are with judges and not the system. That said I think certain parts of judging criteria need to be amended.

I fall in with Brent as I'm not in favor of adding "damage" or "intent to finish the fight" as criteria. Mainly because how the hell can you score that? Is damage the face test? Whoever looks more jacked up at the end of the round is the most damaged isn't a real way to score a fight. There are fighters like BJ Penn that just do not show damage and paper skinned that get cut easily. And 'intent to finish' is even more difficult. With the exception of a very few, I don't think there are many MMA fighters that go into a match not trying to score a KO or Submission victory. Sometimes it works out, other times it doesn't. I think all this addition would do is encourage more wild haymaker fights.

I think Octagon Control needs to be redefined at the fighter who is dictating the fight. Right now it seems far to many judges simply see the man in the center of the Octagon or the one moving forward as 'being in control', rather it should be which fighter is putting himself in the best position to inflict effective offense. Doesn't matter if the fighter is moving backwards, forwards, side-to-side or shooting for takedowns, if he is setting up effective offense he is in control of the fight.

In terms of grappling I think non-dominate positions (i.e. guard, half guard) should be defined as neutral or near-neutral positions. You are given a round simply for being on top in one of these positions, you must either effectively pass guard or land offense from that position. In short, you must out work the fighter on the bottom. If your attempts to pass guard are stuffed and your not striking because the bottom man is constantly threatening with sweeps or submissions the round should belong to the bottom fighter.

Dallas Winston: Brent, your last point reinforces my suggestion to do away with the lesser criteria. What you're saying is that all indirect accomplishments (takedowns, control, aggression, etc.) need to be "effective" in order to score. The word "effective," however, can be defined as something that leads to effective striking or grappling.

This idea is received poorly, but I think takedowns should be eliminated from the effective grappling category. Does anyone care about a takedown resulting in no offense or one that is immediately countered? Right now a takedown that leads to absolutely nothing scores for grappling, control and aggression, which gives it an enormous value. A takedown merely shifts the phase of combat from free-movement (standing) to grappling. The effective striking and grappling that ensues is what should be scored -- not the act of forcing the grappling phase in itself.

Tim Burke: This is gonna be the longest roundtable ever.

TP Grant: Dallas, the takedown should be scored, but it is wildly over-valued right now. It is effective grappling but one takedown shouldn't out-weigh 4 minutes of losing.

Dallas Winston: Why should a takedown be scored alone? If no offense ensues or the defender gets back to his feet, then the takedown lends absolutely no advantage. Landing effective strikes, advancing position or threatening with submissions signify that the takedown was effective, so why not just score what is unquestionably effective? And Tom, part of my emphasis to redefine effective grappling will deem the guard as neutral, half-guard showing a very minor intent to pass, and side-control, mount and back-mount assessed as dominant positions.

TP Grant: You have my 100% support for that. As for a takedown, I just feel it should be rolled into grappling and control, so I think we agree?

Dallas Winston: No, because I want to eliminate everything but striking and grappling, including control. A takedown epitomizes control because it forces an opponent to a different phase of combat. Having control over where the action takes place doesn't win the fight -- it merely implies an advantage -- whereas effective striking and grappling wins fights and proves superiority.

Leland Roling: So, how would you define a fighter who is actively evading his opponent while landing minimally? I understand your point, and I would get rid of control. But aggression has a place in a very narrow instance, although I'd change Aggression to Common Sense. If Fighter A is running down a guy who is visibly avoiding the confrontation while barely landing more blows, Common Sense would suggest Fighter A wins even if Fighter B landed a few more clean strikes that, from all accounts, weren't effective in stopping his forward progress.

Dallas Winston: Right now, we are becoming careful to note the "effective" aspect of aggression. A fighter that moves forward and connects is being effectively aggressive, but he is not when his opponent counter-strikes more effectively. That means whoever is being the most effective striker, regardless of direction, is winning, so my point is to cut to the chase by only scoring the effective striking. The debates that ensued from Diego Sanchez vs. Martin Kampmann are a prime example.

Currently, I think a problem is that the lower criteria are fleshed out as separate aspects and then reapplied to the total sum of effective striking/grappling. This makes them an ever-present animal with a strong voice instead of having a more subtle influence to arrive at the total sum as they're intended. In other words, control and aggression don't win fights and are just clouding the issue now. Effective striking and grappling wins fights and proves superiority without a doubt, so I say we dissolve control and aggression and just expand effective striking and grappling.

Leland Roling: I actually don't think your final point is reality. I think judges turn to lower criteria when they truly believe there wasn't a clear winner in effectiveness, and again... that's a subjective conclusion. I don't think it's seen as separate and can somehow overcome the overall result of the round. When it has done that, those judges are simply idiots who are obviously interpreting the criteria wrong and not in a common sense manner. I think, overall, that's an exception rather than something that happens very often.

KJ Gould: The more complicated you make scoring, the more it will trip up judges trying to utilize it - the more things that can go wrong invariably will go wrong.

Scoring needs to be simplified, and if we're stuck with the 10 point must system examples need to be given of what justifies 10-10, 10-9, 10-8 and even 10-7 rounds. For example, rounds that are close are 10-10's, rounds that were mostly dictated by one fighter over the other is a 10-9. The notion of Control and Aggression to decide a round that could conceivably be a 10-10 draw needs to go. Out of people who like draws the least, it's likely the fighters and there'll be less belief or bad information from a corner telling their guy won a close round.

10-8's have a few different scenarios for consideration. 1) they can be considered if a round is one sided with virtually no form of offense by the fighter on the receiving end i.e. they're just a punching bag, 2) a round that features a fighter close to finishing the other after a knockdown should be 10-8 if no offensive come back is made, only survival, 3) A fighter on his way to a 10-9 round if the opponent is clearly locked in a submission or clearly knocked down and saved by the bell.

10-7's follow similar criteria to 10-8, only the instances occur more than once in that one round with the opponent somehow able to survive and avoid the finish.

Use of these scored rounds ought to be encouraged. By far it seems easier to score a 10-8 in Boxing than it is in MMA, and that's something that has to be addressed.

Effective Striking and Grappling has everything to do with the purpose of finishing a fight - and not stalling or neutralizing a fight - and as mentioned 20 jabs should not trump a single shot that floors an opponent and has them in clear cut danger.

Referees might need to consider stalling to count as timidity, which is already deemed a foul in most MMA state rule sets. 1st instance warning, 2nd instance point deduction.

As for fouls that involve groinshots, back of the head shots and eye pokes, fighters should know by now to not have their hands open when measuring distance, and that inside legkicks and shots to the head have to be done methodically to avoid them rising up or hitting the wrong area. Fighters are warned about these fouls before the fight backstage when their minds are clear and their adrenaline is normal. 1st instance warning, 2nd instance 2 point deduction.

In any foul or potential foul case, the referee has to be as loud and vocal as possible. Fighters going berserk and hitting as many times as possible without taking care of where they're aiming should not be tolerated.

Referees also need to continually keep themselves informed of the latest offensive strategies in an MMA fight so as not to stand up or break apart fighters too early when they are in fact working. Fighters should never be separated when one fighter either has double underhooks or a double collar tie (Thai Plum) against the fence, and a fight should never be stood up if a fighter as Top side control, mount or back control.

Leland, if there isn't a clear winner in effective grappling or striking, then the round is a draw. The less decisions judges need to make, the better - particularly with some of the geriatrics with zero relevant past experience who are constantly being brought back to judge.

Scorecards absolutely need to be presented at the end of each round and on the display. It greatly benefits the fighters causing at least one to push the action and look for a finish if there's a fear the opponent will coast the last round. The opponent also can't coast if it appears he's being timid and avoiding the fight to run the clock down, as that could cost him a point.

Brent Brookhouse: The idea of "close rounds" being 10-10 bothers me SO deeply. Judges SHOULD be making the call in almost every case that someone won a round. 10-10 rounds should remain rare. Judging isn't easy, clearly defined criteria should allow for judges to award close rounds to a deserving winner.

KJ Gould: Judges are incapable and incompetent, and are a necessary evil to legitimize a fight as a sporting activity.

Leland Roling:

Leland, if there isn't a clear winner in effective grappling or striking, then the round is a draw. The less decisions judges need to make, the better - particularly with some of the geriatrics with zero relevant past experience who are constantly being brought back to judge.

I disagree. If a fighter is actively seeking out a finish and simply can't run down a guy who is clearly evading action, that fighter should be rewarded the round if there wasn't a definitively amount of effective grappling or striking. This is obviously an extreme case, and it is common sense in my opinion. Why would you award a fighter who is trying to avoid a fight with a draw round? Be aware, I'm not talking about Condit-Diaz.

If both fighters are engaging and it's close, a draw round is sufficient.

Judging isn't easy, clearly defined criteria should allow for judges to award close rounds to a deserving winner.

Yeah right. Criteria would still be open to interpretation, and we haven't even touched on the physical limitations of sitting on one side of the cage and being unable to see the other side. Even with small monitors, it's clear some judges don't have the capacity to keep up with the pace of quicker, lighter weight bouts or focus on the strikes landing.

Brent Brookhouse: Close is not even. That's my problem. MMA fans are always so terrified of having to score close rounds for one fighter or the other. Saying that you're scared they'll get close rounds wong because judges suck isn't fixing judging criteria. It's the exact opposite. If it's a problem with the judges involved, the fix is weeding them out, not making the sport worse because of them.

KJ Gould: Since commissioners like Keith Kizer do a sweet pile of nothing to weed out notoriously bad judges - and instead keep bringing them back - the less decision making these judges have to do the better.

We have weight classes, rounds, time limits, referees and doctors that make it enough of a sport and less of a fight as it is. If the threat of draws forces at least one fighter to actually #gasp# make it a fight, the sport benefits as a whole. If a fighter can lose a round from disengaging the fight and timidity, it's less likely to happen.

To truly take it out of the hands of the judges, fighters have to be put in a position where coasting is not an option.

Brent Brookhouse: But the discussion here isn't about mitigating the moronic nonsense that plagues the sport...it's about fixing it. Yeah, Kizer doesn't do enough right now, so my solution is to get more involved, get better judges, hold them accountable for their decisions. Not run from making difficult decisions. Fixing judging means making it as good as it can be, not trying to make it matter less. Decisions are always going to be important and accepting draws when we should be able to determine winners is flat out unhealthy.

TP Grant: While I feel 10-10 rounds should be used rarely, I feel 10-8 rounds need to be more common and even 10-7 rounds used occasionally. Right now in Judging in MMA there is no distinction between victorious rounds, and that is absurd. Through the eyes of the scoring system the final round of Diaz vs Penn and the final round of Gerald Harris vs Falcao were won by the same margin. That needs to change.

Josh Nason: To me, a 10-7 round means you've been finished.

Ben Thapa: To me, a 10-7 round means there is no finish. If there's a finish, then the round is over and not scored. Are you being facetious here?

TP Grant: So the first round of Edgar/Maynard II or one of the rounds were GSP almost tapped Dan Hardy doesn't deserve special scoring above and beyond a simple 10-8?

KJ Gould: More 10-10 rounds should be used, because as others have stated there's too much variance in 10-9 rounds as it is. Round 5 for Diaz against Condit was a clear 10-9, and to me 3 & 4 were clear 10-9's for Condit, yet the first two rounds were scored 10-9's and weren't anywhere near as definite or clear and some will disagree on who should have got it 10-9. Since there was nothing in rounds 3-5 to warrant a 10-8, logically Rounds 1&2 ought to be scored 10-10's, still giving Condit the fight which I think is the right call to make.

Edgar vs Maynard II, Round 1, could arguably be a 10-7. I really couldn't remember GSP vs Hardy, but if he didn't get a few 10-8's he certainly should have. GSP didn't put a beating on Hardy though in addition to his submission attempts, so I'd find it hard to score anything he did as a 10-7.

Dallas Winston: 10-7's should be ultra-rare but can still fit one dimension beyond 10-8 as described. A 10-7 to me is a round where it's viable for the referee to stop the fight.

Brent -- my problem with selecting finite details to avoid 10-10 rounds is that it distorts the value when a fighter wins a clear 10-9. I don't get the hesitancy with 10-10 rounds. Sometimes, especially between two high-level fighters, five minutes of combat doesn't elicit a clear winner, and our interpretation of round scoring will never change that.

David Castillo: There's nothing I can add to this discussion that hasn't already been covered by everyone else, and in far more eloquent ways, but to me the biggest threat in trying to "emphasize damage" and discouraging point fighting, to respond to Nate's point is how it such a mentality encourages 'laziness'. What I mean by that is I want to see fighters evolve to adapt to point fighting, and lay and pray.

Trying to change behavior in the cage needs to be organic. It needs to come from the fighters themselves. Donald Cerrone is, or at least, was a great example of a talented fighter with a deficiency that he worked hard to improve on. He became a much more dangerous fighter as a result of being able to defend the takedown. I don't want to see refs like Dan Miragliotta stand up fighters after 30 seconds on the ground or in the clinch just because impatient viewers become vocal. And this goes back to the central point, which is accountability on the part of the judges and refs.

A quick point on the issue of the 10 point must system: it's fine, but I think this only looks like a problem because 3 rounds is simply not enough. In a perfect world, 5 rounds would be mandatory for every professional fight. Yes, five rounds of Einemo/Russow would kill the sport, but that's why you don't put crap like that on a main card. Leave it to the professionals, like Bendo, Edgar, Diaz, Shogun, etc.

KJ Gould: I seem to remember a few years ago Dana White wanting all fights 5 rounds, and title fights to be 7. MMA title fights would be 35 minutes to Boxing's 36.

TP Grant: I'm starting to think that wouldn't be a terrible idea. Fewer fights per card, longer fights and thus the UFC isn't spread so thin with the sheer number of cards and hell I think MMA fighters are at the point were most fights need more than 3 rounds to be settled.

David Castillo: I just think we've been robbed of too much awesome: Guida/Henderson, Griffin/Edgar, Condit/Ellenberger, a crapload of flyweight fights in the future, etc.

KJ Gould: 3 rounds for prelims, 5 rounds for main card fights, 7 rounds for title fights. I'd be OK with that, and it might force the UFC not to put crap on a main card while burying genuine talent on the undercard.

Fraser Coffeen: I am late to the party, so will just add this: I continue to pound my drum in favor of open scoring. It's a K-1 concept, and it's great - at the end of every round, you show the audience and the fighters to official judges' scores so far. Part of the big problem here is that we are asking fighters to guess how judges are interpreting the rules and how they are weighing the action. Why? Why should fighters and corners have to make these assumptions? Why not just tell them during the fight when they have the ability to do something about it?

I see it as something like this - imagine an NBA game where you shoot with your foot right up against the 3 point line. Instead of immediately seeing if it was 3 or 2, the score is kept a secret and you just have to guess. That makes no sense, yes? So why does it make any more sense to keep the scores secret in an MMA fight? Open scoring helps fighters know what judges are looking for in this particular fight, and that is key. I can't see any reason not to do it.

Dallas Winston: I missed this comment from Leland earlier:

"I disagree. If a fighter is actively seeking out a finish and simply can't run down a guy who is clearly evading action, that fighter should be rewarded the round if there wasn't a definitively amount of effective grappling or striking. This is obviously an extreme case, and it is common sense in my opinion. Why would you award a fighter who is trying to avoid a fight with a draw round? Be aware, I'm not talking about Condit-Diaz.

If both fighters are engaging and it's close, a draw round is sufficient."

This is an excellent point and an aspect I didn't address. Aggression, control and defense will always bear some significance, but the present hierarchy and the way it's interpreted give them too much clout. Using aggression as an example, I'd prefer to include more subtle verbiage under effective striking such as "initiating engagements with more offensive success" rather than the blunt "moving forward and landing a strike or takedown." Moving forward is far from the sole qualifier for effective aggression, nor the only. I think that borrowing Pride FC's simple "effort to finish the fight" is a legitimate option.

The other idea I failed to mention is breaking down the scoring to fit the three phases of combat, with a list of values that are specific to free-movement (striking), clinching and grappling. I like the thought of tailoring the criteria to the three phases because the goals and dynamics of striking and grappling change in each phase.

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