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How MMA Judging Distorts the Fights We See

MMA judge Cecil Peoples weighs his options. Photo via MMA Predictions.
MMA judge Cecil Peoples weighs his options. Photo via MMA Predictions.

When the Ultimate Fighting Championship was originally conceived, the public mission statement was something like this: "let's get the toughest fighters in the world, from all possible fighting styles and let them fight to the finish in a rules free environment so we can see what is really the best way to fight."

No one conceived of the modern sport which sometimes works more like this: "let's get two highly trained athletes in a cage and see who can 'score the most points' and avoid fighting until time expires." 

Bloody Elbow's Leland Roling summed up the problem with MMA judging last week:

Ever work for a company or employer that is stuck in their old ways, or perhaps they aren't open to amending the current practices for fear of breaking the current system, a system that is outdated and obsolete? That's what I believe is the major problem with MMA judging today. The old guard remains in place, using their poor methodology of judging on a basis of an even worse interpretation of the current set of criteria.

Referee "Big" John McCarthy talks about how the rules evolved and how bad judging is distorting the way fighters fight (transcribed by Fight Opinion, emphasis mine):

...the judging standards for MMA now are the same ones that Jeff Blatnick and I put in place before UFC 22. Well, the sport's evolved a lot and even back then when we put that in, we had put certain things that they had to take out because it was a lot of political pressure against the sport at the time and the owner of it, one of the things we had was damage, the amount of damage one fighter does to another was an important aspect of it and he absolutely took it out, he said I can't do that, we have enough problems, do you want me to in writing to say that what the things judges are looking for damage?

So, there's things that need to come about. There needs to be a change, even the criteria we have right now effective striking, effective grappling, aggressiveness, and then ring or cage control. That's the elements the judges are supposed to look at and grade the fighters and base his opinion on those elements and there's some things that need to be changed. Damage is one of those things.

But it can't be just damage and a lot of times when we talk about damage, people get the idea of well a way guy is lumped up or something like that. Well, that means striking and there has to be also the damage of what submissions do because with MMA there's so many elements to it.

We don't want to be telling the fighter how they have to fight. That would wreck the sport and it's wrong and it's what a lot of judges are actually kinda doing by the way they're judging the fights now, they're not giving credit to certain things. They're giving a lot of credits for takedowns when the takedown doesn't lead to anything or they're giving credit to a guy who's punching but is actually having to defend most of the time to a guy who's doing submission, so the big thing is we need to hone things in and make it to where the fighters know exactly what they need to do in the fight and the judges know exactly what the fighters should be doing and so when those fighters are going about that fight and they're trying for submissions, they're getting credit for it. When they're doing good strikes and doing damage with the strikes, well then they're getting credit for it. They're not just getting credit because they're in position of being on top or someone or something like that which happens sometimes in our sport.

Josh Gross comments:

I think it will get better in time, though my major concern right now is judges being taught to score a certain way that, in the long run, will influence how MMA is fought. If certain tactics are more likely to produce a winning decision, fighters will tend to use those tactics.

When I watch a fight, I ask myself a simple question at the end of each round: Which person would I have rather been? The vast majority of the time, the answer to that question dovetails with the winner of a round.

Wrestling isn't any more valuable than striking or submissions. Not in my book, at least. Because a fighter scores a takedown doesn't automatically mean he or she should gain an advantage. What's done afterward matters. Did the fighter on the bottom reverse or stand within, say, 20 seconds of the takedown? Did the fighter on top do any damage with the position? Who is attacking? Is the person on the bottom outworking the fighter on top? Is the fighter on the bottom looking for submissions? There are a million things to watch for, which means it's incumbent on state regulators to license judges who know what they're watching.

What I've seen in my decade and a half of obsessing over this sport is the evolution of a rule set that originated in compromise with regulators who were completely ignorant of the sport and has now become inviolate as if it were holy writ passed down from the MMA gods at the dawn of time.

The longer we go with judges who don't understand the sport deciding who wins fights, the more distorted the sport becomes and the further it gets from its original appeal: seeing what happens when two highly trained martial artists are given the biggest possible canvas to show off their art. 

This isn't about whether or not wrestling is bad for MMA. Wrestlers have more than proven the effectiveness of their art in a real fight. It's about making sure that the rule set is such that take downs and point fighting on the feet are not so disproportionately rewarded that they drive out the higher risk, higher reward techniques of submissions and going for the knock out.