I had the chance to read Coach Riordan's recent piece on scoring takedowns and MMA, and later Sensei Scott's on the Pyle-Story fight, and the very vigorous comments section made me think harder about some ideas I had on judging. I wanted to take the chance to write them out, and hopefully some of the people who were in the original discussion will join in here as well.
My basic philosophy in looking at judging is that I'm more pragmatic than idealistic. Pragmatic here means- I start with the kind of outcomes I want to see in fights (action rewarded and stalling penalized, or at least not rewarded), and then I work backwards to see what kind of rules would produce those outcomes. I don't think there's anything wrong with that, and in fact it's how rule changes work in most major sports- the NFL made a conscious decision that a passing-oriented game is more fan friendly, and altered the rules to make it so. The idealistic approach starts with very general, rhetorical statements, and then proceeds forward regardless of how they actually impact the sport we view. A great example is- 'a takedown requires athletic skill and forces the opponent to do something they don't want, hence we should reward it with points'. This is a rhetorical argument, and sounds reasonable devoid of context- but in practice, given that top control is also already rewarded, you incentivize dull wrestling-based game plans that are light on damage and heavy on control. You get more 'takedown to steal the round' situations, and the double counting of takedowns and then control. I enjoy watching wrestling, but I would like to keep MMA a separate sport, and so I'd like to incentivize gameplans that involve trying to finish the opponent.
That's the basic philosophy I looking at rules- what kind of athlete behavior will this encourage or discourage? What kind of sport will I watch as a result of these rules? That's my basic starting point going into this, and an important point to make I think. Let me tackle two judging controversies based on that:
'Submission attempts off your back should win you the round'- Here I'm basically piggybacking on what Sensei Scott said in his piece. While it is possible for the top player to be so threatened by sub attempts that they can only defend and hang on for dear life (i.e. me whenever I attempt jiu-jitsu), in high-level MMA this is vastly overplayed and unrealistic. Rewarding the guard player for simply throwing their legs up in the air is MMA hipsterism at it's finest- 'the guy who failed to complete one submission totally won the round- the judges don't appreciate MMA on the same level that I do', etc.
You can't really reward fighters for submission 'attempts' any more than Leonard Garcia should be rewarded for his striking 'attempts'. While I agree that a partially locked submission is threatening in a way that a missed punch is not, the issue goes back to my 'pragmatic vs. idealistic' starting point. Yes, in an ideal world, judges would reward fighters for partially locked submissions that come close to tapping an opponent- but even with highly competent judges, how close a submission is is extremely subjective. I once heard Kenny Florian comment that 'only the person in the submission knows how tight it is', and even with highly competent judges, interpreting someone else's joint strength and pain level from twenty feet away is the most subjective goddamn thing I've ever heard of. Seriously. Yes, there are extremes on both ends (the Rousey-Tate armbar pre-snap, for example), but here's the point- judging rules have to cover thousands of possible situations within a massive range. There need to be clean, simple rules that can be consistently and uniformly applied. Guard is meant to be neutral, and rewarding the bottom player for passive attempts that are usually unsuccessful is impractical and silly. I can't think of another sport on Earth that rewards repeated, unsuccessful attempts to perform an athletic move, and I'm not sure why we need to start with MMA.
'Takedowns should be rewarded because they require skill'- I know I addressed this above, but I just want to add one more thought- not everything an athlete does in competition needs to be rewarded with specific points. When a linebacker makes a big, bone-crushing tackle in the backfield, this does not add any points to the scoreboard. Neither does a beautiful completion which marchs the team thirty yards down the field. No one needs to be incentivized to block a layup in basketball, or steal the ball in soccer, or make a diving catch for a popup ball in baseball, or..... You get the point. Athletes are capable of making beautiful, challenging, grueling displays of athleticism in sports without getting a specific point on the board, like a doggy treat for a good performance.They do these things because they advance the basic goal of the sport- they move one closer or further away to scoring. When damage is in it's proper place as the sole deciding factor and stated goal of the sport, rewarding takedowns in isolation is confusing the ends with the means.
I would shift judging MMA towards specific, almost quantifiable goals like damage, and away from the need to judge every split second of the contest and decide who's winning. Again, football is scored by arriving in the end zone- not for the 90% of the game leading up to it, not by whose plays were better getting up to that point. The stated goal of an MMA contest should be a finish, and takedowns should be a means to that end- not the end. Reward the goal, not the individual steps of the process.