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The Rear Naked Column 05.13.11: Judging Debate! (Part 1)
Posted by Samer Kadi on 05.13.2011

Judging. Without a doubt, one of the most discussed – and perhaps exhausted – topics in the world of MMA. In this very column, you have undoubtedly come across this subject on multiple occasions, and may in fact have grown tired of repetitive arguments. Have no fear however, as while some of the same points are inevitably going to emanate, this week will be a little different. Last year, I made my stance on how I view fights and interpret the rules clear in my three-part column. Additionally, I recently dedicated an entire article to discuss the "never leave it in the hands of the judges" expression and why it is one of my biggest pet peeves in MMA. This week, someone is here to challenge some of those ideas.

411 "Ground-and-Pound Radio Show" host Mark Radulich will be joining us to discuss a recent judging seminar he attended, and how his experience changed some of his views on how to score fights. Amidst a busy schedule that includes radio show hosting duties, fatherhood responsibilities, and plans of an MMA themed restaurant/bar in the case of a hypothetical divorce or death of a spouse (no really…just listen to the last radio show and you'll understand), Mark was kind enough to join "The Rear Naked Column" this week.

Samer Kadi: First of all, thanks for taking the time to do this Mark. A few weeks ago on the radio show, you discussed a judging seminar you had attended that weekend, and talked about some very interesting aspects that people may not have been aware of. Most notably, you talked about the way judges are instructed to perceive offense as well as prioritize certain aspects of the judging criteria. For those who didn't get the chance to catch the show, can you please reiterate some of those points?

Mark Radulich: Thank you Samer for this opportunity to share my experiences at the International Sports Karate Association (ISKA) judging seminar. First let me state that ISKA is not, as near as I can tell, some fly-by-night operation. ISKA is one of the regulating bodies for combat sports in Florida along with The Boxing Association, among others. Their job is to license fighters, promoters, judges and all other ring/cage-side personnel and to most importantly protect the integrity of combat sports by enforcing all rules of safety. ISKA has not only regulated local shows in Florida, both professional and amateur, but has also sanctioned Strikeforce shows as well.

The seminar was conducted by ISKA Florida State Director John Morrison (not that one, a different one) and he basically read through the ISKA MMA Judging guide. The main point that was made during this seminar and the point that I was trying to drive home on the show is that the criteria for MMA judging is not static, nor is it equal but rather prioritized. An MMA judge places damage as the highest priority when attempting to score a bout. To quote the handbook, "The round is not scored in favor of the fighter who achieved the greatest damage at any one given moment in the round; it is scored in favor of the fighter who inflicted the greatest volume of damage on his opponent throughout the entire round." Incorporated into this is damage taken by result of a takedown.

The second priority is action, aka successful technique (striking or grappling). Action is to be considered when neither fighter distinguishes themselves in terms of damage inflicted. However, in cases where once again neither fighter can distinguish themselves by damage inflicted or by successful technique, then in lieu of anything else to score on, the judge then looks to effort. One element of effort is forcing the action through aggressiveness. Aggressiveness demonstrates effort. If it is effective then it's judged under action but even if it is ineffective then it is scored under the lesser priority, effort. To me, this explains at least some of the rationale behind the Sanchez/Kampman and the Warren/Galvao decisions. With no distinguishable lead in either damage or action, the judges awarded rounds to the competitor who acted with more effort.

Samer Kadi: What I find interesting about this is that it seems to differ quite a bit from the judging criteria as per the unified rules of MMA. In the unified rules, each criterion is indeed valued differently, with the main priority going to effective striking followed by effective grappling (or vice versa if a round happens to be grappling oriented). I always found this a better notion than "damage", which can be quite arbitrary. Often times, actual damage is confused with cosmetic damage, when in reality, some fighters cut and bruise more easily than others. Moreover, judges are often guilty of not rewarding the fighter who inflicted more damage anyway, and overvalue some rather insignificant takedowns instead.

The second priority is one I don't agree with. Once again, the criteria in the unified rules states "effective aggression", and doesn't say much about ineffective aggression. If neither fighter manages to distinguish himself by having the more effective offense, then a round should be scored 10-10. To me, favoring the fighter who simply moved forward despite not accomplishing much is giving judges an easy cop out. "Pushing the pace" means absolutely nothing if the aggressor fails to produce any significant offense. Diego Sanchez shouldn't have been awarded the decision over Kampmann because the latter was the more effective fighter. He had the more effective striking by out-landing Sanchez, while also scoring the cleaner, harder shots, and was the more effective grappler by stuffing 13 out of Sanchez's 14 takedown attempts. Yet, Sanchez was rewarded for aggression, despite the fact that not only was it not very effective (he did land his fair share of shots but got handily out-struck), but actually got him in trouble as Kampmann was able to land a great amount of significant counterstrikes.

Simply encouraging aggression, however ineffective it might be, favors fighters who are naturally aggressive while putting counter-strikers at a severe disadvantage. These fighters spent years perfecting a certain style and shouldn't be paying for it.

Mark Radulich: There's counter-striking and then there's defensive fighting, and there are some great examples of this in boxing. A fighter can be an effective count-striker in boxing by goading his opponent into striking first and then retaliating in kind. When the counter-striker finishes with a combination of punches, often times but not always he will continue to follow up with another series of punches before exiting the pocket. Essentially the pattern for the counter-striker is defend-counter-attack-retreat-defend-counter-attack. If this works then after the first fighter is worn down the counter-striker will shift gears into a more aggressive attack position and (God willing) win the fight. Unfortunately, what often happens in MMA is you see this pattern instead, defend-counter-retreat-defend-counter-retreat, with no attacking and no aggression what-so-ever. I think that to insist on judging in favor of someone who is not attacking at all in a round but was able to take advantage of their opponents aggression ultimately rewards the counter-striker for not doing his job, trying with all of his might and skill to win the fight.

To bring another sport into this, think about football. A team can score points on defense through interceptions that lead to touchdowns or touchbacks, etc. and it's perfect acceptable to win that way. However, what analyst or coach would recommend that as a strategy? Nobody in their right might would say, "Wait to you get on defense and then nail them, but don't ever go on offense." As near as I can tell, the judging criteria favors the more active, aggressive fighter and rightly so because it is logical to do so.

On the subject of damage I just want to add that we should all remember what the whole point of a fight is, to render your opponent incapable of continuing in the match; to incapacitate them. Obviously damage can be inflicted through effective counter-striking, that's not debatable. However, from a logical perspective, why wouldn't someone be able to continue unless they are damaged in some way? If the goal is stop the other guy from continuing then the path to accomplishing that goal is through damage. To be clear, these are the criteria for damage:

• Appearing stunned from a blow to the head, or from a body slam
• Wincing from a strike to the body
• The appearance of a cut or a bruise resulting from a legal strike
• Ceasing forward movement, becoming defensive or hastily retreating
after being struck
• Staggering or favoring a leg that been kicked
• Debilitation (or fatigue) resulting from the efforts required to
avoid or escape takedown attempts, wrestling holds or submission

So in terms of being the non-aggressive fighter or counter-striker, it seems pretty clear to me that by doing so you are telling the judges that you are in fact damaged by not moving forward or by becoming defensive. If this is the path fighters choose to victory then by all means, please do so. Backing up and burning everything left behind worked very well for Russia against both France and Germany but I'm
pretty sure they would have preferred to have moved forward instead.

Samer Kadi: Peculiar sports comparisons don't really work when it comes to MMA. Football is Football, while MMA is MMA. But if I absolutely have to make one, then I can easily point out that Soccer (football) is a sport where teams often play with the deliberate strategy of sitting back, defending, and hitting the other team on the counter attack. Regardless, both the Football and Soccer comparisons are totally useless since we're talking about different sports altogether.

Regarding the first paragraph, I strongly disagree. There is absolutely nothing in the judging criteria which suggests that a counter-striker needs to follow up his counterpunch with a combination. If a fighter slips a punch and counters with one of his own, then he's being the more efficient striker, which is the main criterion in MMA. Whether he follows it up with a combination or not is irrelevant. Ask yourself this: What did the aggressor do? He moved forward, threw a punch and missed. What did the counterpuncher do? He slipped that punch, and scored with one of his own. Is there really room for debate as to who did the better job? A simpler question would be the following: Which fighter would you rather be? The one who swung and hit nothing but air or the one who punched his opponent in the face?

In my opinion, I think Mark is making a mistake when implementing a "how to guide" for counterpunching. Maybe it is the most efficient way of counterpunching, maybe it isn't. But as a judge, that is not what you are supposed to look for. Judges are simply supposed to look at the action, determine who is being the more efficient fighter, or as Mark suggests, who is inflicting more damage. So in this case, who is inflicting more damage? It's the fighter landing a punch, regardless of whether or not his opponent is "more aggressive", and regardless of whether he actually follows his counterpunch with a combination.

Moreover, the biggest misconception is the one regarding counterpunching being "defense." If a fighter scores with a punch, then he's being on the offensive, regardless of who initiated the action. Punching someone in the face is a pretty aggressive thing to do. Once again, this highlights the biggest problem with judging: Simply moving forward doesn't mean you're being efficient with your aggression. Who cares who pushed the action if one opponent is landing most of the shots? Judges scoring meaningless takedowns (or just pushing someone against the fence) also undermines their misconception of aggression, as the man on bottom can easily be more aggressive and more threatening.

"I think that to insist on judging in favor of someone who is not attacking at all in a round but was able to take advantage of their opponents aggression ultimately rewards the counter-striker for not doing his job, trying with all of his might and skill to win the fight."

A fighter should absolutely be rewarded for taking advantage of his opponent's aggression. What's wrong with doing that? If judges don't reward a fighter for it, then they're essentially forcing a fighter to fight a certain way. Again, rewarding the fighter who simply moved forward without scoring with anything significant as opposed to the one who actually landed contradicts the whole "damage" notion.

I've said this once and I'll say it again: MMA judging will be fine if judges simply apply the rules. How many people debate judging without having ever reading the rules? The unified rules are perfectly clear regarding effective striking (including counterpunching), effective grappling, effective aggression, and something that people are seemingly unaware of…effective defense.

Mark Radulich: I contend that neither of us should be debating how fighters should fight and do not mean to imply that fighters should change their style to accommodate the judges, the fans or anyone else. Their job is to win the fight by attempting to incapacitate their opponent. I do contend however that the fighter that seldom to never presses forward and is always countering or moving from a position of defense is less likely to incapacitate his opponent than the one who is pressing the action. You clearly disagree and we will have to agree to disagree.

On the subject of judging criteria, let's cut straight to the meat of this debate. This is what we're fighting about, the Unified Rules of Fighting criteria for judges:

"Judges shall evaluate mixed martial arts techniques, such as effective striking, effective grappling, control of the fighting area, effective aggressiveness and defense.

Evaluations shall be made in the order in which the techniques appear, giving the most weight in scoring to effective striking, effective grappling, control of the fighting area and effective aggressiveness
and defense.

Effective striking is judged by determining the number of legal strikes landed by a contestant and the significance of such legal strikes.

Effective grappling is judged by considering the amount of successful executions of a legal takedown and reversals. Examples of factors to consider are take downs from standing position to mount position,
passing the guard to mount position, and bottom position fighters using an active, threatening guard.

Fighting area control is judged by determining who is dictating the pace, location and position of the bout. Examples of factors to consider are countering a grappler's attempt at takedown by remaining
standing and legally striking; taking down an opponent to force a ground fight; creating threatening submission attempts, passing the guard to achieve mount, and creating striking opportunities.

Effective aggressiveness means moving forward and landing a legal strike or takedown.
Effective defense means avoiding being struck, taken down or reversed while countering with offensive attacks."

This is all well and good, and I don't have any major objections to what's been established. However, unless you get three robots with equal vantage points to score a fight I defy you to figure how you can get three human beings from different vantage points with varied interpretations of the above to agree on what's happening in front of them. A funny thing happened while I was at the seminar. Mr. Morrison told us a story about how one of the bouts he showed us was reviewed post-fight by all three judges and other officials on a monitor. Almost immediately one of the judges exclaimed that if he had seen from where he was sitting what he just saw on the monitor he clearly would have scored the bout differently. This folks is my point. Samer and I have both read the unified rules and neither one of the seriously disagrees with what is written. However, you need only listen to the show to see Samer, Kuch, Jeff and myself have completely different interpretations of a match that we all saw from the same vantage point. In other words, it's not the judging criteria that's the faulty peg in all of this but rather the immovable object of human error.

Going forward with UFC 131 (get well soon Mr. Lesnar) the judges will be provided monitors and that will cut down somewhat on what some would call "crazy" scoring but it won't cure the problem. As much as judges try to be blank slates and follow the guidelines of the Unified Rules or ISKA or whatever, you can't solve for plain old human error and bias.

Going back to Sanchez and Kampman, my point both here and on the show was that after seeing the judging criteria I could see why the bout wasn't scored in favor Kampman. My own biases aside, it was clear that, rightly or wrongly, they were weighing Sanchez's actions in the fight heavier than they were Kampman. Now pick three different judges and they will see it differently, probably for Kampman and I'll be able to see how they came to that conclusion as well. That's the key issue for me here. We're arguing in absentia of the judges thinking or interpretations. And is my final point in all of this. You can create all of unified rules you want but at the end of the day they only inform the judges of what they can possibly score on and what should be discounted (soccer kicks, fish hooks, eye gouges, etc.) How the rules are interpreted and then scored are something that just can't be solved for. They say that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. Well, the same can be said for MMA judging. One man's aggressor is another man's completely ineffective fighter and vice versa.

Samer Kadi We both – along with the rest of the world – agree that judges need monitors as sitting cage side constitutes one of the worst seats in the house. Judges' view can be blocked by the cage itself, the referee, or even the fighters depending on the angle. Fortunately, as Mark mentioned, we seem to be heading in the right direction as judges will be provided with monitors at UFC 131 in Vancouver. However, whether or not Keith Kizer changes his stance on the subject remains to be seen.

Nobody can deny that human error is always a factor when it comes to judging. I never suggested that a judge should be crucified for rendering a bad decision. But the likes of Cecil Peoples, Adelaide Bird, and Doug Crosby have consistently rendered horrendous scorecards. Human error is not the issue anymore…incompetence is.

While Mark raises a good point in that each rule can be interpreted differently, the fact remains that every criterion in the unified rules is explicitly elaborated on. Meaning that judges have a clear criteria on which they can base their assessment. The "judging is subjective" excuse is one I never subscribed to. Sure, a judge may favor a knockdown over a very tight armbar, and that is one aspect that might come down to a judge's interpretation. However, not scoring leg kicks because "they don't finish fights" doesn't come down to subjectivity. It comes down to cluelessness. The criteria is there to avoid subjectivity, and while it remains inescapable (see the first Cerrone-Henderson fight), there simply isn't an excuse for the majority of bad decisions that we witness in the sport.

I still fail to see how people thought Frankie Edgar beat BJ Penn the first time around, or how Diego Sanchez beat Martin Kampmann. They automatically assume that because these fighters were throwing with more volume and pushing the action, they are having "octagon control" and winning with aggression. When clearly, BJ Penn was being the ring general for the first three rounds against Edgar due to effective counterpunching (Edgar wasn't connecting that often), while Martin Kampmann handily out-struck Diego Sanchez.

I admit that I a feel more strongly about certain issues than most when it comes to judging in MMA, but I don't think anyone should be giving the judges any passes due to the criteria being interpreted in different ways. One of the main knocks on the ten point must system is that it was "stolen from boxing." That simply doesn't make sense. Does it really matter whether grappling is involved or not? You see a round, you value each fighter's offense, and you score it. If it's very close, it's a 10-10. If one fighter thoroughly dominated, it's a 10-8. Otherwise, it's a 10-9. Simple as that. Now that is not to say the ten point must system doesn't have its flaws (though they aren't as numerous as most make them out to be), but that subject will be debated next week, along with the half point system and the PRIDE scoring system.

I would like to thank Mark for taking the time to appear on the column, and he will be back next week to discuss the aforementioned topics. Tune in.

REMINDER: Be sure to check out the latest edition of 411's Ground and Pound radio. As usual, Mark Radulich was joined by Scott Kuczkowski , Jeffrey Harris, and yours truly to preview discuss "The Ultimate Fighter", the changes needed to freshen up the show, as well as the ever lasting Boxing vs. MMA debate. Listen to the show and give us feedback. We'll be back next Sunday at 11 AM Eastern Time.

Listen to internet radio with Mark Radulich on Blog Talk Radio

That will do it for another week of "The Rear Naked Column". As always, feedback is greatly appreciated. You can send in your comments, e-mails (at the address below), or you can follow me on twitter right here for all things MMA, video games, sports, and other nonsense.


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