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The Rear Naked Column 05.20.11: Judging Debate! (Part 2)
Posted by Samer Kadi on 05.20.2011

Samer Kadi: Mark, thanks once again for joining "The Rear Naked Column" to conclude the judging debate. One of the most interesting discussions to have emerged in the past twelve months or so is Nelson "Doc" Hamilton's half-point system. For those unfamiliar with it, it grants the judges the ability to score 10-9.5 rounds and 10-8.5 (as well as 10-9 rounds and 10-8 rounds, of course). Given that this issue has been thoroughly addressed in the judging seminar you attended, I would like to know where you stand on the matter. What were the main talking points regarding the half-point system and what is your personal opinion on the subject?

Mark Radulich: Thank you Samer for having me back on "The Rear Naked Column." First, let me say that I think the half-point system is a fantastic idea and it's a great way to stay in shape. When we were asked to judge some matches ourselves at the end of the seminar, we did half of them with the current 10 point system and the other half with the half-point system. As a group, we agreed that the half-point system tended to reflect more accurately what we had seen in the match. It may not seem like much but a half point can go a long way in determining who should really win a match rather than declaring a draw, like in the most recent case of Mousasi versus Jardine. Had the half-point system been in use for that fight, the judges could have scored the round 10-9.5 for Jardine (8.5 with the deduction) and at the end, keeping the rest of the scores the same (10-9 X2 Mousasi) Mousasi would have eked out a victory. I think most people agree that Mousasi won that fight and using this method of scoring, keeping everything else the same, justice prevails and Mousasi wins.

Here's my problem though; many people argued that Jardine didn't win that round anyway. A half-point system is great for reflecting accuracy in terms of rounds where the action is close but one competitor slightly edged out better than another, versus rounds where one competitor clearly bested the other. For accuracies sake, I am in favor of replacing the current system with this. However, it is not a panacea for what truly ails judging in MMA, which is the interpretation of the criteria itself. Whether you score 10-9 for Jardine or 10-9.5 for Jardine, somebody still thought that despite being out-struck and unable to take Mousasi down at it will he still won the round based on his aggression. To many, this decision is absurd and constitutes highway robbery. That being said, I think that there needs to be an explicit effort to recruit former fighters to become judges as well as instituting the half-point system. One would like to assume that a former fighter can properly identified effective aggression as opposed to aggression for the sake of some subjective definition of "octagon control." Without that ability, having a half-point system in place can only do so much to improve the overall problems with MMA judging.

Samer Kadi: Under normal circumstances, such an awesome "Family Guy" reference would be enough to win me over. That said, I have some issues with the half-point system. I will first state that in theory, it is arguably the best system to judge an MMA bout with. On paper, it has less flaws than scoring fights as a whole (more on that later), and it is less "black or white" than the 10 point must system, given that it awards the judges more freedom with their scoring due to the multitude of options.

In the real world, the half-point system might end up bringing more confusion than anything else. For starters, if many think the current judging criteria isn't clear and some aspects aren't well defined, then imagine how much worse it could be under the half-point system. The ability to score a 10-8.5 round or a 10-9.5 is great in theory as it means a round can be scored in a variety of ways depending on the level of dominance exerted by one fighter. However, how are the rules supposed to define a 10-8.5 round while clearly differentiating it from a 10-8 round? If people think 10-8 rounds aren't well defined to begin with, then just think of the added confusion of a 10-8.5 round. Whacky scorecards are a staple in MMA as it is, and it would only get worse with different judges interpreting different rounds in, well…different ways.

More importantly, you'd be giving already incompetent judges a more complicated tool to deal with. If they're having a hard time scoring straightforward fights (Ring-Fukuda and Phan-Garcia) with a straightforward system, then a more complex system is not going to magically make them better judges. People may point out that the half-point system is perfect to judge a fight like Rampage-Machida (ostensibly scoring the first two rounds 10-9.5 for Rampage, while giving Machida the final round 10-8.5, and thus the victory). However, can anyone really guarantee me that the same judges who are screwing decisions up left and right were going to score that bout correctly?

The half-point system is great for people with profound understanding of the sport, and even then, its application would remain extremely arbitrary. How do you score this year's Edgar-Maynard fight under the half-point system? Would it have meant that all judges would have rendered the exact same – and correct – scorecard? I doubt it.

Does the half-point system mean that judges won't be scoring takedowns which last five seconds or fighters swinging wildly and hitting nothing but air? Again, I don't see it. This is a case of people putting the carriage before the horse. Judges are what is wrong with MMA rather than the judging system. Even if you replace the current system with everybody's favorite "PRIDE criteria", poor decisions won't magically disappear.

Mark Radulich: I feel like we are basically saying the same thing. The point system for judging is not what the central problem is, it's the judges themselves. I think we also agree that the way to tackle this problem is to recruit judges from the fighting world, which is starting to happen in fits and starts. I would also add that maybe a summit of athletic commission representatives might be order to re-evaluate the Unified Rules so that questions regarding various interpretations can be settled once and for all. However, let's not be naïve here. We have a Supreme Court that is supposed to reflect the true meaning of the US Constitution that, with alarming frequency, interprets things in a manner that baffles at least half of the population. So even with new judges, a summit, monitors and the half-point system, judging will never be perfect. I think the best we can hope for is that it won't suck so terribly bad as it does now.

For those of you that have never read my writings from the 411 Political Zone, the theme of my pieces tends to be in the realm of myth busting. I like to take from the comments or the news of the days various beliefs or collective wisdom and show using data that these commonly held views are simply myths. In the case of the much-ballyhooed "Pride Criteria" among MMA aficionados, there exists a belief that if only American MMA adopted "Pride rules" things would improve tenfold. This is nonsense and I will tell you why. First, this is what we are talking about when we say "Pride Rules" in terms of judging criteria:

If the match reaches its time limit then the outcome of the bout is determined by the three judges. The fight is scored in its entirety and not round-by-round. (In Pride events staged in the United States, however, the fights were scored round by round.) After the third round, each judge must decide a winner. Matches cannot end in a draw. A decision is made according to the following criteria in this order of priority:

• the effort made to finish the fight via KO or submission.
• damage given to the opponent.
• standing combinations and ground control.
• takedowns and takedown defense.
• aggressiveness.
• weight (in the case that the weight difference is 10 kg/22 lb or more).

Let's start with the concept of judging on the whole and choosing a winner versus awarding points. As it was said at the judging seminar and in just about any conversation on the subject, anybody can judge or score a fight when it is clear who, in plain English, got more beat up. A child can do that, probably with better accuracy than most. If you've seen the Manny Pacquiao versus Shane Mosley fight then you know what 12 3-minute rounds of someone beating another person up looks like. Georges St. Pierre versus Josh Koscheck is another example where one person clearly beat the other person up, and anybody who watched the fight can make the call as to who won the match. The art of judging comes in when it is not so very clear who won the fight because both fighters fought equally in some form or fashion. Both fighters may have been equally beat up when it is all said and done, so it becomes a matter of scrutinizing details of the encounter to declare a winner. That is what a judge is supposed to do: examine the details and award the better fighter of that particular march accordingly. This is where a point system is superior to judging by whole in my opinion. When it's a close call and based on the entirety of the fight one cannot come to a conclusion as to who did the better job of beating the other guy up, awarding points helps when making small differentiations. Also, keeping a mental track of who has the advantage for 5 minute periods is much less overwhelming than it is to try the same level mental acuity, concentration and recall for 10 minutes at once. And then of course there's the old card of human error. Because even if you disagree with my assessment that judging on the whole is worse than awarding points you still don't solve for the issue of some guy deciding that on the whole, Joe Warren beat up Marcus Galvao more than Marcus Galvao beat up Joe Warren. This is the example I can up with of how going back to "Pride rules" doesn't really solve anything.

The rest of the criteria mostly resembles the Unified Rules so I don't see how employing them gains us much more than what we've already got with the aforementioned Unified Rules. Again, the way MMA as it is sanctioned and commissioned today is much like communism in that it would be a perfect system except for the people charged with maintaining it. There's no reason to go overhauling the whole thing because that will only dance around the central problem, not actually fix it.

Samer Kadi: Once again, in theory, the PRIDE criteria would be an excellent way to judge an MMA bout. However, that is only true if fights were viewed by judges with immaculate memory and understanding who can recall every portion of the fight and judge it equally. Scoring a fight in its entirety (as opposed to round-by-round) should ostensibly eliminate the risk of one fighter getting decisively beaten in one round only to barely eke out the other two and get the decision.

And yet, it presents another (big) problem. Mark put it perfectly. The PRIDE scoring system makes judges prone to the "recency principal." Meaning that in a competitive fight, the fighter who finishes strong is more than likely – but sometimes harshly – going to be awarded the decision. Dan Henderson's fight with Kazuo Misaki is a prime example, as is Josh Barnett's first fight with Minotauro Nogueira. Even if one fighter is getting the better of the other (though not in overwhelming fashion), one late flurry can be enough to sway the judges to score the bout the other way, which isn't always the way it is supposed to be.

Scoring each round on its own ensures that each portion of the fight is taken into consideration equally. Plus, encouraging more 10-8 rounds and 10-10 rounds would actually ensure that while each round is scored separately, the final scorecards reflect the action of the fight and prevent some of the "lost one round in convincing fashion, barely won the other two, but it was enough to win the fight" type decisions.

Plus, the way some aspects of the PRIDE criteria are phrased is severely flawed. "The effort to finish the fight by KO…" Isn't swinging a wild haymaker that misses by a mile an effort to finish the fight by KO? Should it count? Maybe the judges are using this criterion when watching Leonard Garcia's fights after all. "Standing combinations" is also a very poorly employed term. Georges St-Pierre hardly threw a single combination against Koscheck, and yet he picked him apart with one jab after the other.

People need to stop acting as though changing the system would somehow heal all the judging wounds. Remember, PRIDE had more than its fair share of dubious decisions. Any time someone points out to the "flawed" judging system as to why judging is in such bad shape, I'll point them out to the Chase Beebe-Mike Easton fight, which to this day, remains the worst decision I've ever encountered in any form of combat sport.

Mark Radulich: In conclusion, let me reiterate that I don't think the current judging system is anymore flawed than a half-point system or "Pride rules." These are all fine and dandy while having both positives and negatives in their own right. The problem isn't even in the criteria in that as Samer has stated on multiple occasions, if only the judges would actually apply the Unified Rules to their scorecards, the decisions wouldn't be so egregious with such alarming frequency. Therein lies the rub. If you ask any of the judges who have scored any of the fights we've used as examples in this column or last week's installment whether they were being honest in their application of the Unified Rules, I'm sure they would say: "Yes, absolutely." And they wouldn't be lying, because they honestly thought that they did apply the rules honest and true. For goodness sake, Samer and I can't agree on what constitutes effective aggression and we've been studying this stuff as if our lives depended on it. I think attempting to tackle a guy and failing a dozen times in 5 minutes is better than walking backwards in a circle and deftly punching said tackler in the face, and Samer vehemently disagrees. The problem with judging, as I've stated before, is that the people doing it have a bias. That bias is inherent, passive and largely unavoidable. I have a bias. I want to see someone trying to actively win the fight in an exciting, spectacular fashion. Samer has a bias. He believes that strategy, taking advantage of the opponent's errors and luring said opponent into making even bigger errors is better than fighting wildly and only being minimally effective. I thought the Rampage versus Evans fight was underwhelming but overall a good, hard-fought battle. Dana White thought it stunk on ice. :::shrugs:::

My point, and I do have one, is that you can fix some of this with more training and clarity around the rules but ultimately we and the fighters are at the mercy of other human beings, warts and all. The best solution is the social work solution, which simply means that if you don't like something, go do something about it. In other words, fighters who retire should get themselves licensed as judges. I suspect that will positively affect how the criteria are applied. We as fans can also become judges. Trust me, I'm nobody special and neither was anyone in the room with me but we all got certificates and we are all on the list to begin apprenticing at our first match. Until there is a wave of new judges with bias that favors the viewpoint most of us share in terms of what constitutes actions to win a match, we're kind of stuck with the way things are.

Samer Kadi: To end this two part series (which I hope you all enjoyed) I will once again point out that the problem with judging lies in the people running it: The judges themselves (first and foremost), the athletic commissions, and the UFC. The judges because they ultimately have the final say and often do a very poor job. Their incompetence is mostly justified with them being "boxing judges," but many of the fights they screw up are primarily standup affairs in which they somehow were not able to assess which fighter did the better job.

For their part, the athletic commissions seldom do anything to fix the judging problem. You can screw up as many decisions as you like, and there won't be any repercussions (unless you're Doug Crosby and decide to troll the Underground forums. And even then, he's back in full force and judging main events). They remain in denial and claim there is nothing wrong with judging while still refusing to hand out monitors (there is some progress there, but ultimately, Keith Kizer needs to come around).

And finally, while the UFC does indeed have a minimal role in picking judges, they do choose some of the judges to take on international events. Look at how many dreadful decisions the recent card in Australia had (Ring-Fukuda for example). It was in fact Mark Ratner (vice president of regulatory affairs in the UFC) who picked the majority of the judges on that card. It isn't unreasonable to expect the UFC (but mostly the athletic commissions) to do a little study and pick judges based on past performances.

Mark's point about fighters becoming judges is very sound. However, while this is undeniably a step in the right direction, it doesn't automatically guarantee immediate success. After all, Stephan Bonnar and Randy Couture thought Kenny Florian was soundly beating BJ Penn until he got choked out (in fact, according to Mr. Florian, a judge told him he was up on his scorecard). Nevertheless, I'll take Stephan Bonnar and Randy Couture over Adelaide Bird and Cecil Peoples any day of the week. These fighters have competed in the cage and have a far better understanding of the sport than most judges currently involved in MMA. It was only a matter of time until we saw fighters make the transition, as MMA is a young sport and not enough fighters have retired and are willing to sit in the chair, watch a fight, and determine the outcome (or simply tell the competitors not to leave the fights in their hands…*Sigh*).

I would go on, but really, the best way to end this column is the last paragraph that Mark wrote above. If you care about this sport and want to make a difference by trying to solve its biggest problem, do it.

REMINDER: If for some reason, you can't have enough of Mark and I, then be sure to check out the latest edition of 411's Ground and Pound radio. Mark Radulich was doing his usual hosting duties and was joined by Jeffrey Harris and myself. 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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