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How MMA scoring works: The Bendo edition

MMA judging is a fickle, often sad and terribly misguided mechanism, but even a broken clock is right twice a day. Henderson vs. Thomson was a case of improved judging, not worse and the criteria bear that out.

Esther Lin/MMA Fighting

So, it's time to take a good, hard look at judging criteria. In the wake of a decision such as this one, I find myself wondering, how am I so out of line with the expectations of the crowd (and why in the hell am I defending MMA judging)? But, for every contentious MMA scorecard somebody has to be the one to defend the indefensible, today that someone is me. My initial reaction to this fight was that it was 49-46, Henderson. Dissecting others' reactions, it appears that I need to re watch round 4 as that is the other round that continuously comes up in Thomson's favor, and my memory of it is fuzzy at best. To start this discussion, I present to you the unified rules of MMA. I have grabbed them from the ABC Boxing website.


The Committee maintains that the 10 point must system is still the preferred scoring method at this time. The 10 point must system is defined as follows:

All bouts will be evaluated and scored by three judges. The 10-Point Must System will be the standard system of scoring a bout. Under the 10-Point Must Scoring System, 10 points must be awarded to the winner of the round and nine points or less must be awarded to the loser, except for an even round, which is scored (10-10).

Judges shall evaluate mixed martial arts techniques, such as effective striking, effective grappling, control of the fighting area, effective aggressiveness and defense. Evaluations shall be made in the order in which the techniques appear, giving the most weight in scoring to effective striking, effective grappling, control of the fighting area and effective aggressiveness and defense. Effective striking is judged by determining the number of legal strikes landed by a contestant and the significance of such legal strikes.

Effective grappling is judged by considering the amount of successful executions of a legal takedown and reversals. Examples of factors to consider are take downs from standing position to mount position, passing the guard to mount position, and bottom position fighters using an active, threatening guard.

Fighting area control is judged by determining who is dictating the pace, location and position of the bout. Examples of factors to consider are countering a grappler's attempt at takedown by remaining standing and legally striking; taking down an opponent to force a ground fight; creating threatening submission attempts, passing the guard to achieve mount, and creating striking opportunities.

Effective aggressiveness means moving forward and landing a legal strike or takedown.

Effective defense means avoiding being struck, taken down or reversed while countering with offensive attacks.

The following objective scoring criteria shall be utilized by the judges when scoring a round;

1. A round is to be scored as a 10-10 Round when both contestants appear to be fighting evenly and neither contestant shows dominance in a round;

2. A round is to be scored as a 10-9 Round when a contestant wins by a close margin, landing the greater number of effective legal strikes, grappling and other maneuvers;

3. A round is to be scored as a 10-8 Round when a contestant overwhelmingly dominates by striking or grappling in a round.

4. A round is to be scored as a 10-7 Round when a contestant totally dominates by striking or grappling in a round.

Now I've highlighted a couple points for alacrity's sake. I do want to keep this moving along and all. The point being that not only is striking considered to be a more important criteria than grappling, but that there is a lot of weight in grappling given to the ability to get out of bad situations, defending takedowns, reversing positions, and defending submission attempts. This is not a stance I particularly am interested in defending (I honestly think that defense should have little to do with scoring criteria, rather it's application toward effective offense should be considered...) but these aren't my rules, they are just The Rules. What this means is that there's a lot of potential for a judge to give very little weight to a grappling position that results in very little other offense (strikes/submissions).

I don't have a copy of the fight to re watch, at the moment, so I'm cribbing IWillPartyHard's notes on the fight from Anton Tabuena's excellent article. I'm only using his demarcations of time, but by his notes: Thomson had control from 4:16 of Round 1 to 1:46 of Round 1, 2:32 to 1:57 of Round 2, 4:27 to 2:30 and the last 0:50 of Round 4 (for a total of almost 2:47 of grappling control), and no significant parts of Rounds 3 or 5.

Now the striking stats more or less speak for themselves (I'm using Fight Metric here because it lines up with what I saw). Henderson and Thomson were even in Round 1. Henderson had a clear advantage in Round 2, landing twice the number of significant strikes (11 to 6) and a little more than that in total strikes (18 to 7). In Round 3 the disparity was even more pronounced with Henderson landing 17 sig-strikes to Thomson's 2 and 30 total to Thomson's 2. Round 4, our most contentious round, saw Henderson land 6 sig-strikes to 2 for Thomson and 41 total to 8 for Thomson. It wasn't a big round for Henderson, but it was a busy striking round. And finally, Round 5 saw Henderson out land Thomson 11 to 8 in sig-strikes and 17 to 9 overall. I'm not saying there isn't some flex available in these numbers, no doubt Fight Metric isn't perfect, but this is a reasonable approximation of what I saw while watching.

The takeaway, given our above scoring criteria, is that there is a clear case to be made, purely in judging terms, for Henderson to win rounds 2, 3, and 5. I will need to re-watch round 4, but, at least on paper, there's a case to be made for that being something of a tossup round. Now that I've made that case, with what data was easily available, I want to sweep it all aside and focus on one thing with Henderson. That thing is constant motion and pressure.

This is a trait that Henderson shares with Frankie Edgar, and really most of the current champions, excepting perhaps Aldo and Barao. Henderson does something that I believe weighs heavily in the minds of the judges when he fights, and that is that he exerts a constant pressure, and the appearance of continuous forward progress. When Thomson takes his back he doesn't ride out the round with him there, he makes his way to his feet, peels him off, and keeps the dynamic of the fight moving. When his opponent stops striking he, by and large starts striking, or keeps striking. He is constantly creating offense and motion in whatever position he's in. Sometimes, at least in the eyes of the judges, fighting is the art of staying busy, and the busier you are the more likely you are to get a close round.

Eventually, this was hardly an impressive performance from Benson Henderson. It was fun, it was technical, but it was also a strong reminder that while he's competitive with the very best he's not dominant. He didn't lose this fight however, at least not by any meaningful criteria that I can see. It bears re-watching and no doubt I'll see new things the second time around, but I doubt Thomson winning will be one of them.

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