The art of properly evaluating a fight is complicated, just as determining who won a school yard fight was before the teachers pulled the two fighters off each other.
What should we judge the winner on?
Is it the person who finishes the fight on top? Is it the person who is bloodier? Does inflicting enough force to an opponent's head to inspire the giraffe legs dance of the Brain Trauma Gods in your opponent matter more than a deep arm bar attempt? Or is it the opposite?
Of course, the sport itself comes down to the judging of three or five rounds using boxing's deeply flawed 10-point Must System.
Think about this issue: a fighter could lose the first four rounds by negligible 10-9 styles of rounds, then a dominant final round that almost knocks the opponent out and is the only action of the fight, and still lose! That almost happened in Tyron Woodley vs. Stephen "Wonderboy" Thompson 2, as Woodley won a split decision with his fifth round knockdown of Wonderboy being the only real action of the night.
According to MMADecisions.com, the take of writers on Woodley/Wonderboy 2 was five having Woodley as the winner, six as Thompson, three scoring it as a 48-48 draw, and five scoring it as a 47-47. In Wonderboy's match with Till, 22 of 25 writers believed Thompson won.
Just the other week we had the Israel Adesanya vs. Yoel Romero match with a controversial decision to some in a match-up that was just a weird fight. Romero was dancing around, not engaging, and looking to counter all night, while Adesanya stayed away from his knockout power, then pointed his way to a unanimous victory, working to chop Romero's legs out from under him in the process.
As I learned from temperamental Tyron Woodley, Adesanya now holds the record for the least amount of strikes thrown in a title fight. Breaking Woodley's record set against Damian Maia in 2017, another Woodley snoozer.
These are, to me, the most obvious examples of the difficulty of MMA scoring because, outside of the Maia fight, each fight paired an extremely skilled point style of striker with a knockout artist. The path to victory for one was via avoiding the knockout, while engaging in a high level of striking, hoping to win with points alone.
Other confusing match-ups might be the one like the Jon Jones versus Dominick Reyes fight where one guy won the first 12 and a half minutes, and the other won the second half, but when a ref gives four rounds to Jones, you know something is wrong with the system as there was no way he won either of the first two rounds.
There isn’t a structured point system and, really, who could really propose a system of points for the sport of individualized combat? The individualized round-by-round scoring system is a major issue though as one 10-9 is not equal to another 10-9, while 10-8s are rarely used.
And what would we think if we all knew one fighter won three of the five rounds and some judge got crazy and gave a great fifth round by his opponent a 10-7, just to make sure the fighter who had the best round won?
I mean, what is even considered "ethical" in this ritualized combat we love?
The main theory of an MMA fight, and a sort of sales point of the early UFCs was the brutality of it, the idea of “two men enter, one leaves,” even if that wasn’t the reality of the sport. Completely different styles and sizes were fighting, it was chaos, and the people loved it.
In MMA, the judging system reflects this chaos. After a brutal weekend in Houston, Texas, with judges whom announcers Joe Rogan and Dominick Cruz pointed out weren’t even watching large portions of certain fights before the main card, we had another moment of realization that the sport needs an objective metric of victory and defeat. We often talk about the fact that the judges don’t know what they’re scoring, but the fighters also don’t know how they’re trying to win.
The goal is a knockout or a submission, but you’re fighting someone who is relatively evenly matched up with you on a regular basis at such a high level, so those matches continue to rise in the number of decision finishes. UFC Secrets analyzed the years of fights from the UFC's origin in 1993 through early 2019. In the early days, almost every fight ended in a finish.
In 1996, 11.8% of fights ended in decisions. In 2018, 48.5% of fights ended in decisions. As the fighters get more capable of that various styles of fighting, the entire pie of what it takes to be successful, the more likely they are to be capable of fighting to a decision.
This makes getting the scoring system a much bigger deal. Consider that when the sport started and they incorporated boxing's must system, the sport didn't have to rely on it as much. But today, it's as much of a part of the sport as finishes themselves.
Consider this, in the early UFCs, Royce Gracie was dragging people into realms of fighting that they had no understanding of, thus he was submitting them at a high rate. Other elite fighters could do this to lesser fighters based on domination in their domain, bringing them into something they didn't understand.
Fighters today, and fighters coming up especially, are being bred as MMA fighters. Their original discipline or how they began to fight may have come from their base of wrestling or something else, then they incorporated other disciplines, but today's fighters learn from the last generation, a generation that went through gym wars to earn the knowledge of the specialized domain that stands alone on it's own: mixed martial arts.
MMA has now entered a domain where coaches have flows to finishes similar to how we learn Jiu Jitsu flows. It's become an evenly matched sport at the highest level, fights between people of comparable understanding of the discipline of MMA, so figuring out how it should be decided is critical for the sport to take a next step towards legitimacy.
This second graph from UFC Secrets represents the cumulative trend of decisions versus finishes. Each data point on the graph shows the total for that year and all previous years combined, so for UFC history through early-2019, with the rising number of fights in recent years, was at 44% of all fights in UFC history ending via decision.
So the number of decisions are going up, and will continue to do so. It's a problem that's not going away.
The problem with all of this resides in the insane number of variables that exist in the sport. Coming from writing about analytics and salary cap issues in football, one of the biggest issues in analysis of the sport is the 11-on-11 style of the sport, creating such a randomized set of variables in every potential situation that it's quite unlike the sport of baseball, which has already experienced it's analytics revolution that was detailed in Michael Lewis' Moneyball and Jonah Keri's The Extra 2%.
Mixed martial arts has so many variables that it's literally a combination of various, entirely different sports. Boxing, Muay Thai, Wrestling, and Jiu Jitsu are four different sports that individuals can be professional in, yet the sport of MMA combines them into one. This means that every fight could be a wildly different thing from another fight, which means entirely different standards for deciding who is a winner and who is a loser. It's so varied that two fighters in the same fight will often be fighting two entirely styles of paths to victory.
Think of when Jiu Jitsu master Damien Maia fights a striker. If Maia wins, it's going to look like a Jiu Jitsu match. If the striker wins, then we're talking about a Boxing or Muay Thai fight.
There is the added variable of what should constitute a win against certain opponents. What is the proper style of fight to produce a win considering what your opponent is capable of? Is forcing a wrestler into a striking match, where you win a closely contested battle and aren't taken down a victory? If that wrestler takes you down at the end of a round and doesn't do anything, how much does that weigh in a round you'd been winning stiking? How much of a distance do you have to create between your striking and his for a takedown to take the round? How much should a takedown with no damage matter?
The next steps in creating a scoring system is identifying the style of fighting and how the various variables within MMA can be judged as a metric of victory. It's a difficult task because victory and defeat can take many different forms, fights can look completely different.
Creating a scoring system that everyone understands is the next step in putting the UFC in the same category of respect as the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL in the eyes of the casual fans. It's what will separate it from boxing, and launch it into the conversation of turning that "Big 4 American Sports" into a Big 5.
While this article explored the issues behind judging fights, my next article on this topic will aim to find a solution to this issue. Hopefully I can add something to the conversation and play my small part in articulating a better way forward for the sport of MMA.
Zack Moore is a blue belt at 10th Planet Austin at Onnit Gym MMA under Curtis Hembroff. He is a certified NFL Agent, a writer for OverTheCap.com and the author of the book “Caponomics: Building Super Bowl Champions” (available on Amazon).
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