Some Ideas for Fixing UFC Judging

James Titchener / @mistertitchener

At UFC 247 on Saturday, Jon Jones defeated Dominick Reyes to retain his championship title. But the decision was controversial. Most in the media had Reyes winning the fight. Literally nobody had Jon winning four rounds for a score of 49–46. Oh, except for this schmuck Joe Soliz. The same Joe Soliz who gave Giles the first in a round where Krause dominated. The same Joe Soliz, who was either high, grossly incompetent or literally not watching the fight, gave Ewell a 30–27 win in a fight that almost everyone gave to Martinez.

My goal here is not to single out one bad judge. There were plenty of bad judges at UFC 247. My goal is to explore the question of why the president of one of the biggest sports organizations in the world’s default reaction to the consistent ineptitude of UFC judges is, “Well, you can’t leave it up to the judges.”

In what fucking sport would the president of the organization throw up their hands and basically say, “Yeah our judges suck, but you should have won so decisively that judges and scores don’t matter.” The UFC is as stacked now as it’s ever been. In a few weight divisions, the margin of skill difference between the champion and the next three or four guys is razor slim. Imagine if in Game 7 of the NBA finals, the scorekeeper took a nice long piss during the last two minutes of the fourth quarter. The clock is running, but no points within the last two minutes counted. The winning team who had the lead before the scorekeeper went to the john is confused but happy they won. The losing team and the fans are livid. NBA Twitter and Reddit are going nuts. Finally, the commissioner of the NBA gets in front of the media to clear things up and says, “Well, if the losing team wanted it, they should have been winning the game decisively. You can’t leave it up to the refs.”

If you know anything about the NBA, something like this happening is not within the realm of possibility. The level of scrutiny the NBA puts on their refs borders on insanity. So why is this obviously ridiculous example not far from the present state of the UFC. The fighters should be focused on one thing. Fighting. Knocking out or submitting the best fighters in the world is not easy. If that’s the only way that a fighter can expect to win a fight despite obviously landing the most damage, then there shouldn’t be scoring at all.

The Problem(s)

The Sports Commissions

In the NBA, the company bears the responsibility of poor officiating. They are solely responsible for hiring and firing their referees. NBA fans, players and teams are quick to outrage when it comes to bad calls. As a result, the NBA holds their referees accountable for their performance. Only the best referees get jobs. While scoring UFC fights is not nearly as objective as refereeing a basketball game (I’ll get to this problem later), the UFC does not hold their judges accountable. Because they can’t. They’re not their judges. The judges are selected by the state sports commission for legal reasons. And the state sports commission seems quick to throw in any local Joe Schmo they like.

So why wouldn’t the state sports commission only hire the very best? Here’s a better question, why would they? The commission has no incentive to judge competitions effectively and no disincentives to avoid making mistakes. As such, the judges face no repercussions either. The Texas Department of Licensing & Regulation released a statement regarding the judging during UFC 247 which could be summed up to say, “Judges and fans have differing opinions.” Nowhere is mention of the obvious mistakes their judges made or the repercussions that would follow.

Frankly, I’m not sure what the UFC can do about this. Using local sports commissions (who use local judges and local rules) allows the UFC to put their promotions around the world. While the UFC could probably change the rules, scoring and judging standards in a single state like Nevada, doing so globally is a bigger problem. But it’s clear something has to be done. Even if it’s changing the scoring and training judges, state by state, country by country, Dana and the UFC must be more proactive in solving this problem. “You can’t leave it up to the judges,” is a line that should never be uttered in reference to a major global sport.

The Scoring

Scoring a UFC fight is complicated. Ask ten fans how you’re supposed to score a UFC fight and they’ll give you ten different answers. Shit, ask ten judges how you’re supposed to score a UFC fight, and maybe a few will come close to describing what the criteria actually is. And being able to describe the criteria and actually use it effectively is another matter. From my own qualitative perspective, it seems that some judges put too much weight on takedowns that don’t have “immediate or cumulative impact with the potential to contribute towards the end of the match.” A fighter who is taken down but immediately moves back to their feet without taking any additional damage should not be impacted negatively on the scorecards. Judges also seem to give rounds to fighters that are aggressive and moving forward when these should rarely be a consideration according to the official scoring criteria. All of these biases seemed to impact the judging in the Jones v. Reyes fight.

UFC 247 has prompted a lot of discussion in the MMA community. Many are questioning the rules the UFC and commissions have in place. Some seem like no-brainers. A few (mostly my own) are a little out there, but I think this is as good of an opportunity as any to throw out some darts and see what sticks.

Open Scoring

Max Holloway on Twitter raised the question of open scoring, and I think it makes a lot of sense. In what other sport outside of MMA and boxing are the scores hidden until they end of the game? Wouldn’t revealing the scores by round allow fighters to effectively adjust their strategies by round? Maybe it creates scenarios where fighters that are up in the scorecards will dance around the cage and evade their opponent. Maybe it forces fighters who are down in the scorecards to go for broke in the final rounds. Maybe it creates fan excitement when fights are all tied up going into the 3rd and 5th rounds. The good news here is that Kansas will be experimenting with open scoring, so we’ll get to find out.

More Judges

This is a point Joe Rogan brings up often, “Why are there only three judges? Why not five or more?” More judges would make it less likely that one or two awful judges could ruin a decision. That being said, it doesn’t seem like there’s three good judges in many of these states (at least not that the commission is providing).

Judges Watch Fight on Monitors with Sound Off

Why put the judges ringside where they often have poor angles and could easily succumb to the reactions of the crowd? Could something like this eliminate the potential of bad judges altogether? Judges watching the fight on monitors can be anywhere. No need to travel. No need to use local judges (unless there is some licensing issue here).

Cumulative Damage

Limiting judges to giving 10, 9, 8 or 7 points to a fighter (not sure if 10–7 is actually ever used) seems arbitrary and doesn’t leave much room to differentiate between obviously dominant or weak rounds. Maybe it could if judges actually used the 10–8 or 10–7 more often.

Imagine a hypothetical five round fight pitting Joe Rogan against Dana White. Using his size, Dana secures takedowns at the beginning of the first four rounds and pins Joe to the mat without doing any damage at all. These four rounds are given Dana, but just barely. In the corner leading up to round five, Joe chugs some Caveman Coffee and proceeds to kick the living shit out of Dana. He knocks Dana to the floor repeatedly, but Dana barely survives due in large part to his massive head. Despite the overall damage done in this fight having been exclusively dished out by Joe, Dana wins the fight 48–46.

If the UFC is a sport to judge who is the best fighter, and the best fighter is the guy who can do the most damage while taking the least, scoring a fight in this way doesn’t make any fucking sense. What should matter is cumulative damage. Would scoring an NBA game by who won the most quarters make any sense? If no other sport scores like this, why the UFC?

The criteria for scoring seems fine (so long as the judges are properly educated on it). Using the 10-point scoring by round seems odd. Scoring by cumulative damage would be a big change, but it’s a scoring system that was once used by Pride. They also made the first round 10 minutes long. While brutal on the fighters, it did seem to lead to more knockouts and submissions.

Wrapping Up

I hope this is a problem that Dana and the UFC take seriously. The consequences for awarding the correct winners can’t be downplayed. Dom Reyes no doubt lost millions of dollars in career earnings (as did the fans who bet on him) for no reason other than the ineptitude of the judges.

So let’s do our part as fans and make some noise about this. Tweet @danawhite and let him know that bad judges have been plaguing this sport for too long. The consequences of the mistakes by judges fall to the fighters, their team, sportsbetters and the fans. It’s time judges and their commissions pay for their reliable mistakes.

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