MMA judging seems to have a problem. Make that a ‘new’ problem, since score-keeping has long been decried as one of the outstanding weaknesses in the sport of mixed martial arts.
The latest wrinkle in the fabric of 10-9 mediocrity seems to be an inability to properly judge volume kickboxing. In recent years, as strikers have become better wrestlers – thus learning to stay upright longer – and wrestlers & grapplers have become better strikers, striking output has increased. It’s still not always pretty, but MMA has gradually shifted to a sport largely contested upright.
Scoring, however, seems to have lagged behind. The results of which can be seen in several recent fights that were almost entirely high volume striking contests. In rounds without knockdowns, clear damage, or significant injury, fighters have been out-landing opponents at as much as a 2-1 clip and still losing rounds.
Tim Means is the latest fighter to run up against the trend. He and Sergio Moraes combined to land 225 strikes over three rounds, 116 of them significant, 136 of them landed by Means. ‘The Dirty Bird’ ended up losing a spit decision, with two judges giving Moraes two rounds. And that’s left Means feeling like they owe him some money.
Rewatched my fight. Tony Weeks you and the other judge owe me $50,000. #ufcbelem— tim means (@MeansTim) February 6, 2018
Most fans and pundits were in agreement, that Means lost the first round, where he barely edged Moraes in volume and appeared to get stunned by several shots. But from there on, the stats tell a much more lopsided story. Means out-landed Moraes 43-to-30 in round 2, and 58-to-38 in round 3, with a knockdown scored as well. In rounds contested entirely at kickboxing range, scorecards for Moraes become hard to justify.
Similarly, in a bout between Ji Yeon Kim and Justine Kish, where the two women combined to throw 419 strikes, Kish took a split decision loss, despite out-landing Kim 23-14 in round 1, and 31-18 in round 2. Neither fighter completed a takedown or knocked down their opponent at any point in the bout.
Andre Fili vs. Dennis Bermudez ended in a similar result. And while Cris Cyborg vs. Holly Holm wound up with the right winner, it was notably marred by a pair of 48-47 scores, even though Cyborg out-landing Holm at a 2-1 clip (or more) in every single round of the fight.
Beyond the idea that MMA is only just becoming a volume striking sport, it’s unclear exactly why this problem seems to be cropping up. It’s certainly not due to a lack of familiarity among judges with striking. Tony Weeks – who Means called out above – is a notable boxing referee and judge as well. It could be that more action is simply an introduction to new levels of longstanding judging badness; a grim look at a future with more blatantly poor scorecards than ever before.
Of course, there’s an argument to be made that all strikes are not equal; that fighters like Ji Yeon and Moraes simply landed the better blows. But, in rounds without meaningful swings in momentum, dynamic moments of offense, or clear damage (beyond just bruises or a bloody nose), volume should be king.