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Two top judges explain MMA’s new 10-8 scoring criteria

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Judges Rob Hinds and Michael Bell talk through the details of MMA’s new 10-8 round.

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The ABC’s new Unified Rules of MMA officially went into effect yesterday, and along with them a new criteria for judging MMA rounds. Other rule changes include a foul for pointing fingers at opponents’ eyes, allowing clavicle grabs and heel strikes to the kidney, and requiring that two palms or fists touch the canvas, or some combination, for a fighter to be considered grounded via their hands. Any body part touching the mat that isn’t the sole of a foot or a hand has always made and will continue to make a fighter grounded.

While most states should be adopting all the changes, MMA Fighting’s Marc Raimondi reported last week that New Jersey, Ohio, Missouri, Colorado, Virginia, Maryland and South Dakota will not adopt the new rules in full, with specific concern towards the new definition of a grounded fighter and allowing heel kicks to the kidneys.

The new judging standards are not controversial, but whether they will be implemented at the state level in time for events early in the 2017 calendar is still up in the air. As Raimondi noted, “The UFC’s first four events of 2017 are in Arizona, Colorado, Texas and New York. Arizona has yet to vote on the new rules, Colorado will not be passing them legislatively, Texas is scheduled to vote on them March 24, and New York will adopt them as of Jan. 1.”

The new judging criteria clarify that MMA rounds are evaluated on one, and only one, element: Effective Striking/Grappling. Aggression and cage control are absolutely meaningless unless the effective striking/grappling of the two fighters is 100% equal. In that rare occurrence, Effective Aggressiveness is a judge’s Plan B. And in the rarer case that Plan B is also 100% equal, Fighting Area Control is a judge’s Plan C.

While the wording of a 10-9 round changed, its spirit did not. A much more significant change was made to the criteria for a 10-8 round.

When the original Unified Rules were written in 2001, a 10-8 round was defined as when a fighter “overwhelmingly dominates.” In 2012, it was changed to “wins by a large margin.” While this seemed to relax the standards for giving a 10-8 score, it still wasn’t terribly clear when to apply it in practice. Judges were taught that a “large margin” is when one fighter has Dominance and Damage in a round, but the written rule itself was open to wide interpretation.

2012 Criteria for 10-8 Rounds

A round is to be scored as a 10-8 Round when a contestant wins by a large margin, by effective striking and or effective grappling that have great impact on the opponent.

In October 2015, the ABC’s MMA Rules Committee set out to change this. The newly effective Unified Rules judging criteria takes a major leap forward in providing detailed guidance as to what makes up a 10-8 round.

2017 Criteria for 10-8 Rounds

A 10-8 Round in MMA is where one fighter wins the round by a large margin.

A 10-8 round in MMA is not the most common score a judge will render, but it is absolutely essential to the evolution of the sport and the fairness to the fighters that judges understand and effectively utilize the score of 10-8. A score of 10-8 does not require a fighter to dominate their opponent for 5 minutes of a round. The score of 10-8 is utilized by the judge when the judge sees verifiable actions on the part of either fighter. Judges shall ALWAYS give a score of 10-8 when the judge has established that one fighter has dominated the action of the round, had duration of the domination and also impacted their opponent with either effective strikes or effective grappling maneuvers that have diminished the abilities of their opponent.

Judges must CONSIDER giving the score of 10-8 when a fighter shows dominance in the round even though no impactful scoring against the opponent was achieved. MMA is an offensive based sport. No scoring is given for defensive maneuvers. Using smart, tactically sound defensive maneuvers allows the fighter to stay in the fight and to be competitive. Dominance of a round can be seen in striking when the losing fighter continually attempts to defend, with no counters or reaction taken when openings present themselves. Dominance in the grappling phase can be seen by fighters taking DOMINANT POSITIONS in the fight and utilizing those positions to attempt fight ending submissions or attacks. If a fighter has little to no offensive output during a 5 minute round, it should be normal for the judge to consider awarding the losing fighter 8 points instead of 9.

Judges must CONSIDER giving the score of 10-8 when a fighter IMPACTS their opponent significantly in a round even though they do not dominate the action. Effectiveness in striking or grappling which leads to a diminishing of a fighter’s energy, confidence, abilities and spirit. All of these come as a direct result of negative impact. When a fighter is hurt with strikes, showing a lack of control or ability, these can be defining moments in the fight. If a judge sees that a fighter has been significantly damaged in the round the judge should CONSIDER the score of 10-8.

Impact

A judge shall assess if a fighter impacts their opponent significantly in the round, even though they may not have dominated the action. Impact includes visible evidence such as swelling and lacerations. Impact shall also be assessed when a fighter’s actions, using striking and/or grappling, lead to a diminishing of their opponents’ energy, confidence, abilities and spirit. All of these come as a direct result of impact. When a fighter is impacted with strikes, by lack of control and/or ability, this can create defining moments in the round and shall be assessed with great value.

Dominance

As MMA is an offensive based sport, dominance of a round can be seen in striking when the losing fighter is forced to continually defend, with no counters or reaction taken when openings present themselves. Dominance in the grappling phase can be seen by fighters taking dominant positions in the fight and utilizing those positions to attempt fight ending submissions or attacks. Merely holding a dominant position(s) shall not be a primary factor in assessing dominance. What the fighter does with those positions is what must be assessed.

Duration

Duration is defined by the time spent by one fighter effectively attacking, controlling and impacting their opponent; while the opponent offers little to no offensive output. A judge shall assess duration by recognizing the relative time in a round when one fighter takes and maintains full control of the effective offense. This can be assessed both standing and grounded.

Yet even this much-improved 10-8 description isn’t crystal clear.

In an attempt to improve clarity about 10-8 scores under the new Unified Rules, judges Rob Hinds and Michael Bell agreed to be interviewed.

Hinds is a former NHB/MMA fighter and coach, an NHB/MMA official since 1994, an ABC-approved MMA referee and judge trainer since 2010, and an ABC MMA Rules & Regulations Committee member since 2014. He was a member of the committee that recommended the new judging criteria to ABC membership.

Bell is a BJJ purple belt and one of the first graduates of John McCarthy's COMMAND course. He’s been a licensed MMA referee and judge since 2010 and is a name to watch out for in the future.

Bloody Elbow: Thank you gentlemen for taking the time to provide fans, industry insiders, and possibly even other officials guidance on what the new judging criteria mean for the 10-8 score in MMA.

Rob Hinds: It’s my pleasure. Thank you for all the dedication and attention to ensure that the public is properly educated on the changes.

Michael Bell: Thank you very much for having Rob and myself, and for your effort in getting the information out about the changes in judging criteria for MMA.

BE: Can we officially close the book on the days when a fighter needs to beat the hell out of the opponent for virtually the entire round to earn a score of 10-8?

Hinds: Yes, I certainly hope so! The days of “beating the hell” out of an opponent to earn a 10-8 are over, or at least should be. This previous way of thinking has already passed for quite some time for a small number of officials and regulatory bodies that keep up on the sports evolution.

It is an ongoing process to evolve and educate officials and regulatory bodies on the process of correct round assessments using current standards. That’s why finally getting the standards revamped and approved in writing was so important.

Bell: We should close the book on that. The education process will be continuing, but there does not need to be a fighter beating the hell out of another fighter to render a 10-8. We just need to determine what is a “large margin” of winning each round. The factors described in the update to the scoring in the Unified Rules helps simplify the process.

BE: Impact is just a politically-correct way of talking about damage. A new concept to the 2017 judging standards is Duration. Can you explain what Duration means to you? I’m tempted to think of it as the percentage of the round where one fighter had Dominance; i.e., kept the opponent on the defensive with no offensive actions.

Bell: That would be an accurate assessment. We give credit to offense, and if a fighter kept his opponent on the defensive with effective offense for a significant portion of the round, then that is considered Duration. Obviously, Duration is one of the factors to consider in scoring a 10-8 round. The judge has to analyze what was done during the other parts of the round to make their decision for that round.

Hinds: Correct. Impact = Damage

What duration means to me personally is not important and should never come into play. None of this is my opinion. Here are the facts of what duration means when assessing rounds:

When deciding between a 10-9 or 10-8 round, the duration of dominance or damage may come into play.

For example, if we have a fighter that has their opponent in mount position (a dominant position) and is continually threatening with effective submissions and/or effective strikes, with little to no offensive output by the opponent, the amount of time spent in that scenario will help to weigh a 10-9 versus a 10-8 round. This was a dominating round that may not have had much damage associated with it; however, the amount of time of dominance would help lead a judge to a proper assessment.

Another example would be a fighter that hurts/damages their opponent in one brief exchange in the round, but the rest of the round was non-dominant or competitive, a judge would need to consider, “Was the amount damage in that short period of time enough to justify a 10-8 round?” Again this is where time or duration plays a role in assessment.

With regard to time in the round where on fighter had Dominance, you are on the right track; however, it is not a set percentage or set amount of time. It is the result(s) of the action(s) within that time frame that assists in making an assessment. The lack of offensive output by the defending fighter also comes into play when assessing a round.

BE: Effectiveness and Dominance through grappling still seem to be widely misunderstood concepts. What are judges looking for when assigning credit to grappling?

Hinds: Agreed. The main reason for the misunderstanding is that people continue to evaluate actions instead of results. In a grappling scenario, positioning means the least when making an evaluation. This is a very hard concept for most to understand; especially when it comes to grappling artists that are used to “gaining points” for positional advantages.

All must keep in mind: It’s what is being accomplished to progress/finish the fight in that position as opposed to the position itself.

Example: A fighter with their opponent’s back (dominant position) that is doing nothing but holding a seat belt grip is going to weigh less than a fighter that is on bottom in full closed guard (neutral position) hurting his/her opponent with elbows and solid, (near) fight ending threatening submission attempts.

Judges should be always looking at the result of an action, not the action itself.

Judges should be looking for the same things in grappling that they look for in striking. Damage. The opportunity to finish the fight.

They should be evaluating (near) fight ending sequences such as: tight effective submissions, positions and transitions that have clearly diminished their opponent’s ability to compete, slams that have affected their opponents output and positional dominance that has rendered their opponent solely defensive with little to no offensive output.

Just hold a position has some weight, but not as much as people think when assessing an effective grappling round.

Bell: When assigning credit to grappling, achieving position is just what it is: It's position. It's what you do with that position that earns credit in the eyes of judges. A common misconception is that “takedowns win the round.” While takedowns are a factor in scoring, it's the quality of the takedown that earns credit in the eyes of the judges. Did the takedown have amplitude and effect, or was it just a simple takedown and “a change in position.” We assign credit in grappling to fighters going for submissions that damage their opponent, as well as those where the defender had to work hard to escape the submission. We are looking for fighters to be offensive with their grappling, not just using it to attain position.

BE: What rounds come to mind when thinking of (1) a fighter who dominated a round through pure grappling and (2) a fighter who might’ve seemed to dominate through grappling, but really didn’t?

Bell: An example is Round 1 of Jacare vs. Francis Carmont. Jacare takes down Carmont a minute into the round and takes his back. He is attacking Carmont and trying to get him to expose an opening. He doesn't succeed in getting a rear-naked choke, but he does get his arm pretty deep at one point and keeps Carmont defensive the whole round.

An example of a round where it seems like a fighter is dominating through grappling but really didn't was Round 3 of Clay Guida vs. Tyson Griffin. Clay is on top for a majority of that round, but Tyson is really the busy one on the bottom. There is a misconception that being on top when in someone's guard means that the top fighter is winning. While it is the ideal position to be in, it does not mean that the bottom fighter cannot be offensive from that position.

Hinds: For #1, you can have your pick of most Ben Askren or Jon Fitch rounds. For #2, Round 2 of Jim Miller vs. Joe Lauzon (Dec. 29, 2012). Back and forth round of excellent grappling with no real dominance either way.

BE: The new judging standards describe situations where a judge shall score a 10-8 and situations where they can consider a 10-8.

Are the situations where a judge shall score a 10-8 essentially the same under the new and old criteria, or is there an important difference?

Hinds: There are similarities where a judge shall score a 10-8 round; however, we needed to be more clear in regards to what to assess and how much weight should be given to those assessment items.

The prioritized criteria and scoring system was not being used consistently the way it was intended.

The important difference again lies in assessing only results and the severity of/weight to give those results.

Bell: The interpretation of a "large margin" varied under the old criteria. As a result of this, 10-8 rounds were rarely being scored, because several judges were looking for all the factors combined in one round (Domination, Damage, and Duration). Those rounds should have been scored 10-8 in both the new and old criteria. The new criteria opens consideration up to rounds that may not have all those factors, and possibly only one of them.

BE: It seems like judges still have 10-8 discretion under the new standards in two ways: When a fighter has Dominance without much Impact, and when a fighter has Impact without much Dominance. In each case a judge is to consider giving a score of 10-8.

This seems to suggest that just one overwhelming factor can lead to a 10-8. If there’s a round where a fighter literally has zero offense, but not much damage is done, it could be a 10-8. Or if a round is a back-and-forth affair, but one fighter isn’t terribly damaged while the other has their brain rattled and is almost knocked out, that could be a 10-8 too.

Is this the sense in which we’ve heard that the standards for 10-8’s have been relaxed and we should see more of these from now on? In rounds where Dominance may be present with little Impact or Impact present with little Dominance, what’s a judge looking for to determine when they should not just consider a 10-8, but actually give a 10-8 score?

Bell: In rounds where dominance may be present, but there is no damage, judges are looking for the offense of one fighter being significant while the other one is not. Obviously, being in what we consider dominant positions helps (mount, back-mount, etc.), but we are also looking for that fighter to be offensive. Round 2 of Miesha Tate vs. Holly Holm is an example.

Holly didn't take any physical damage during that round, but she did nothing offensive during that round while Miesha was attacking Holly in her half-guard. One wouldn't consider being in someone's half-guard a dominate position, but Holly did nothing offensive while Miesha had her in half-guard. Miesha was posturing up and throwing elbows, and then took Holly's back for the last minute and threatened with the rear naked choke a few times. Offense is what we give credit to in MMA, so we have to score a round like that a 10-8, because Miesha deserves the credit with her offensive output.

In rounds where there is little Dominance, but there is Damage, judges are looking for how effective that damage was in relation to finishing the fight. Cuts and bruises are visible, but was the fighter significantly hurt? Are you watching what the fighter does after he/she is hurt because you feel that they are in trouble? Did the damage affect the fighter's ability to compete? A round that is an example of that is Joey Beltran vs. Brian Rogers at Bellator 136.

The round is relatively back and forth, as both fighters are exchanging in the stand-up. With about a minute left, Beltran hurts Rogers with punches. Rogers, who was previously exchanging with Beltran, is hurt and is trying to recover by backpedaling and trying to clinch with Beltran. Beltran recognizes Rogers is hurt and tries to finish him off. The referee even warns Rogers that he needs to fight and defend himself or he will stop it. Rogers was a different fighter for the last minute of that round, and the fight was close to being finished. We should be giving the credit of a 10-8 round when there is impact like that.

Hinds: This is where and why the 3rd “D” (Duration) comes into play. The 3-D’s: Damage (Impact). Dominance. Duration. In that order.

  • One of the D’s is more than likely a 10-9 round.
  • Two of the D’s a 10-8 shall be considered or scored.
  • All three of the D’s a 10-8 shall be scored. The door for a 10-7 round has been opened.

As for one overwhelming factor leading to a 10-8, that’s not exactly what it’s suggesting. It can be a consideration. That’s all. Your scenario of “zero offense, but not much damage done, it could be a 10-8” isn’t giving the picture of the entire round.

The bottom line of the scoring part of the discussion: Stick to the 3-D’s, their definitions and usage. It will help lead you to a solid assessment. People make the process way more difficult than it needs to be.

If judges are using the information correctly, we will see more 10-8 scores. It is about giving the fighter what they’ve earned, based on the criteria. Fighters are performing at a higher level than ever and are having some amazing success. Give them what they earn. That’s it.

Don’t give an opinion. Give an honest assessment based on the information put forth.

As for when a judge should consider a 10-8, this is where and why the 3rd ‘D’ (Duration) comes into play and should help the judge make the assessment, along with using the definitions within proper scoring.

BE: Since MMA fans have been hearing that we should see more 10-8 scores under the new judging criteria, can you give a brief breakdown of a round you would’ve scored 10-9 under the old standards and would now score 10-8 today?

Bell: Round 5 of Dan Henderson vs. Shogun Rua at UFC 139. That round was scored a 10-9 for Shogun at the time. Shogun was offensive pretty much the entire round. Shogun was tired, so he wasn't throwing any fight-ending strikes, but he had Henderson defending the whole round. Shogun had achieved mount and back mount, and was dominating Henderson. While the impact of the blows was not significant, Shogun’s dominance and duration of that round would probably score him a 10-8 with the new criteria.

BE: What should fans take away from the new 10-8 judging standards and remember to keep in mind when watching fights and reacting to the scores?

Bell: In regards to 10-8 rounds, it is in a lot of fans’ nature to look at a 10-8 as it was described above (beaten to hell the whole round). We can easily look at one of those rounds and say it deserves a 10-8. We need to look at the different types of rounds that can deserve a 10-8. There are rounds where there may not be physical damage, but it has something from the categories described (Domination, Duration, and Damage), then we have to consider scoring a 10-8 round. In boxing, it's easy to score 10-8 rounds because the goal is the knockdown. There are so many factors in MMA to look at, and we must give the proper credit to the fighter that is doing the things from the categories described above.

In regards to watching fights in general and reacting to scores, just remember that judges are looking for Effective Striking/Grappling as their primary assessment. This is the main factor of a fight. It’s only when this factor is even that we look at Aggression and Cage/Ring Control.

Hinds:

  1. You’re watching on TV or from the stands, not a judge’s chair.
  2. Your focus is elsewhere. A judge is fully focused for every second of every round.
  3. A judge’s opinion means nothing. We look for assessments based on the criteria provided.
  4. Judges assess results, not actions.
  5. Proper use the Judging Criteria, scoring definitions and 3-D’s to make an evaluation.
  6. This is fighting. Not jiu-jitsu. Not kickboxing. Not wrestling. There are no points scored. Defense is not assessed. Only offensive maneuvers with a result are considered.
  7. Effective Striking/Grappling is assessed. Effective Aggressiveness and Fighting Area Control are back up assessment plans and will very rarely be needed or used.
  8. Put yourself in the judge’s chair… Literally or figuratively.
  9. Officiating is a lot harder than it looks.
  10. Enjoy the fights!

BE: I can personally vouch for #9. Thank you both for taking the time to help our readers better understand the new 10-8 judging criteria and for the work you do to better our sport.

Follow Rob Hinds @hindsmmareferee and Mike Bell @Bellian. Paul is Bloody Elbow’s analytics and business writer and is a licensed MMA judge for the California Amateur Mixed Martial Arts Organization (CAMO). Follow him @MMAanalytics.