It didn’t take long for the UFC commentary team to get around to discussing MMA judging on Saturday night in Las Vegas. Early on the UFC Vegas 28: Rozenstruik vs. Sakai undercard, during a featherweight fight between Sean Woodson and Youssef Zalal, former UFC champions Dominick Cruz and Michael Bisping found themselves in the midst of a lively discussion.
With about three minutes left in the contest, Cruz called the action, commending Woodson’s takedown defense: “He’s keeping Zalal on his heels and he’s stuffing the takedowns, it’s a much different fight by this third round than it was in the first.”
A simple enough statement, but one that prompted Bisping to ask a followup question. “It’s just interesting to know how the judges score it when somebody’s trying to take you down against the fence and you’re defending,” Bisping posited. “Because on one hand they may say they are controlling the octagon, they’re controlling the action. But, for my money, Woodson’s stopping him (Zalal) from achieving what he wants, which is getting the takedown.”
After some more back-and-forth, Bisping got back to an important point about scoring, “Well, at the end of the day, we’re trying to damage our opponent, it’s as simple as that.”
It wasn’t an unusual exchange, all things considered. Both men spoke with authority on the subject, and if someone were unfamiliar with the scoring criteria in an MMA fight, the conversation would have sounded perfectly reasonable. But it does bring up a couple key misconceptions that have much more direct answers.
First and most importantly, fans, commentators, and fighters (everyone, really) should get the idea that defense is a scoring criteria in MMA out of their heads. Just erase it.
Here’s what the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts say about defense and scoring:
“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.”
In other words, fighters are expected to defend strikes and submissions in MMA and they don’t score for doing what is expected of them. By those standards, a fighter stuffing takedowns isn’t getting credit from the judges for that move. Not getting taken down is its own reward, since it stops the initiating fighter from creating successful offense.
On the flip side, controlling the Octagon is very much a scoring criteria. Listed in the rules as “Fighting Area Control”:
“Fighting area control is assessed by determining who is dictating the pace, place and position of the match.” Fighting Area Control” shall only to be assessed if Effective Striking/Grappling and Effective Aggressiveness is 100% equal for both competitors. This will be assessed very rarely.”
To break that down, judges can only take controlling the Octagon into account when all other criteria – each considered separately – are unable to distinguish a winner between two fighters. To get to where a judge would consider “fighting area control,” the two fighters in the cage would have to be even in all the other criteria. As the rules state, that’s an exceptionally rare occurrance—one not even worth discussing in a fight that someone is ahead in effective grappling or striking or aggression.
That brings up another point that needs constant reiterating. Not all scoring criteria in an MMA fight are equal. Judges only consider the next criteria for scoring a fight down the list if they feel the superseding scoring criteria were a draw. As the rules state:
“Effective Striking/Grappling shall be considered the first priority of round assessments. Effective Aggressiveness is a ‘Plan B’ and should not be considered unless the judge does not see ANY advantage in the Effective Striking/Grappling realm. Cage/Ring Control (‘Plan C’) should only be needed when ALL other criteria are 100% even for both competitors. This will be an extremely rare occurrence.”
If a fighter is the more effective striker or grappler in a round, they win the round — end of story. Judges do not consider the other criteria in this case. Only if effective striking or grappling is even do they consider effective aggressiveness. Again, judges consider the criteria in order, not as a whole.
With that in mind, it’s time to reassess Zalal vs. Woodson. The stats from the fight showed Woodson landed 40 of 116 significant strikes and 104 of 204 total strikes while having two submission attempts. Zalal scored on 42 of 89 of his significant strikes and 55 of 112 total strikes while going two of 17 on his takedown attempts.
The scoring potential of failed takedown attempts almost certainly had much less to do with Woodson’s split decision win here than his busier total striking numbers and his aggressive grappling. Both of which would have been considered primary criteria in each round.
For Woodson, the victory was his second inside the Octagon, bouncing back after a loss to Julian Erosa last June. For Zalal the loss was his third straight decision setback.