The Hands of the Judges

Before an MMA bout, each fighter gives an interview in which he expresses the following sentiments: 1) That his opponent, though skilled, has the same chance in the fight as a baby wrestling a meth-added grizzly bear; 2) That he, as a fighter, possesses the ability to slap thunderbolt-powered vengeance on anyone within the Octagon up to and including Darth “Bruce Lee” Wolverine; and 3) That he will do everything in his power not to let the judges decide the match. The first two sound like the pleasant ravings of an alpha male who devotes all his time learning various ways to put grown men violently to sleep. The last sounds strangely paranoid, but even a cursory investigation shows it to be a valid concern. It’s not a secret that the judging in MMA is broken, with not one but two title bouts tainted by suspect scoring. What is a secret is how to fix it. Until now. Sit back, buckle your seatbelts and return your trays to their full upright position. This is your captain speaking.

The UFC uses what’s called a 10-point must system, in which the winner of a round gets 10 points and his opponent 9 or less, judged on a combination of “effective striking, grappling, aggression and Octagon control.” Effective striking is the easiest to judge: hinging on punches, kicks, knees and elbows that land and appear to do some damage. This can be misleading in the case of fighters with large amounts of scar tissue, but we can ignore that for the time being. Effective grappling is harder to judge. After all, a truly effective hold will cause the opponent to tap in agony or lose consciousness. Some judges take this to mean controlling the fight: pressing one’s opponent against the cage, taking him down to the mat, or just stopping the other guy from doing the same. Aggression is determined by which fighter advances and engages. Octagon control means the fighter that owns the most real estate, by taking the middle of the mat and holding it. These last two are in place to cut down on running away.

Once again, Captain Jack fails to control the Octagon.

Sounds pretty good so far. Giving the winner of the round a solid ceiling from which to measure his opponent is entirely reasonable. The problem comes with the fact that judges are loath to score a round anything other than 10-9. What if the margin for victory isn’t wafer-thin? 10-8 rounds are uncommon, and anything other than that exceedingly rare. Most fight fans, and probably many judges, are unaware that 10-10 rounds are legal, which can result in rounds that look like a draw being scored 10-9 anyway and tipping the fight. More to the point, why are there 10 points if only 3 are in common use? It makes no sense, except maybe to appeal to the obsessive compulsives in the audience.

And we thank you.

Even if the judges utilize more of the scale, it won’t matter because of the differences of opinion in what constitutes “effective.” At UFC 105, Thai kickboxer Brandon Vera squared off against Greco-Roman stalwart Randy Couture. The bulk of the fight consisted of Couture pressing Vera against the cage for extended periods. Couture controlled nearly every second of the match, but what he did not do was actually hurt Brandon Vera. The only damaging strikes of the fight were Vera’s, including a brutal kick to the body that crumpled Couture so alarmingly I thought the man’s spleen had ruptured. Though Vera did more damage, the judges awarded Couture the fight for the control he displayed. Why? Did Couture’s smothering make for an exciting battle? Of course not. Did it replicate as closely as possible the conditions for victory outside of the Octagon? Not unless Couture was fighting in a gay bar. And by fighting, I mean making violent love. I’m not suggesting that takedowns or control are useless, but they should not be regarded as ends. They are means to an end, namely getting the other man in a position to pound his face into a Tobe Hooper movie, or tying him into a mewling knot. If not, all you’re left with is awkward spooning.

So... uh... doing anything later?

Aggression, though less important than causing damage, is still important, if only to produce an entertaining bout. After all, if Fighter A was the more aggressive fighter and he didn’t get knocked out for his trouble, shouldn’t he be rewarded for forcing the action and giving us our money’s worth? Going back to what nearly every fight fan feels is the most egregious failure of judging in the last year, we turn to Lyoto Machida and Shogun Rua’s encounter at UFC 104. Ignoring the fact that Rua landed roughly twice the strikes that Machida did, that Machida suffered a split lip, a broken rib and had trouble walking afterwards, and it was Machida who required surgery after the bout, Machida spent nearly the entire match backing up while Shogun relentlessly advanced like a kickboxing Terminator. I’m not arguing that this means he won, but if you are one of the morons who thought the fight was a tie, Rua’s aggression should have been the tiebreaker. Machida apologists have claimed that running away is just Machida’s “style” and thus should be given a free pass. Well, it’s Keith Jardine’s style to get knocked unconscious. Does that mean he wins those fights when he does? I have no problem with elusive fighters, but the onus is on them to finish the fight. An elusive fighter should dread the scorecard as he gets docked points for his timidity. Want to be elusive? Then look to the model of Chuck and put people to sleep.

I'm Chuck Liddell and I pounded the fuck out of this message.

My solution to scoring is to first reduce the whole thing to a 5-point must system. The winner of a round gets 5 points and draws are allowable. The loser gets between 1 and 4, with 1 point meaning he was saved by the bell, and 4 points meaning he lost by a thin margin. By using the entire range, this allows a fight to be more closely judged as a whole. A single dominating round could offset two rounds of stalemate. Additionally, control and takedowns without subsequent damage don’t score nearly as much, and a failed takedown wipes away any points from a successful one on a one-for-one basis. The fight itself is on a damage basis. Unless one of the guys has a lot of easily ruptured scar tissue, it’s pretty easy to see who won a fight just by looking at faces. The one that looks most like he did at the beginning of the fight is who won.

That’s not to say that this will entirely fix the judging. After all, if there’s one thing the judges have proved over and over, it’s that they can fuck up almost anything.

About Justin

Author, mammal.
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