There’s a saying in combat sports that the individuals competing never want to see their contest go to the judges. Their best bet is to find a way to finish the contest within the time limit and take the idea of subjection out of the equation. When that doesn’t happen your fate is placed in the hands of individuals who may or may not be well versed in the sport, but have the power to decide if you’ve done enough to win the bout. Mixed martial arts is in a precarious position in working with judges that have come to some questionable conclusions in a time where no one is truly sure what they are looking for when determining a winner.
The sake of this argument should always start with looking at the unified rules of MMA. When created in 2009 these rules were created to make the sport safer and more understandable. The scoring segment of the rules goes into depth as to what the judges should look for when charged with overseeing a bout. To begin an overview of what judges should look for when sitting cage side:
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.
When looking at that description of judging criteria, one must wonder if it is in fact, effective. As mixed martial arts has continued to evolve, fighters are using so many different techniques and there are so many different facets to the game that it’s hard for judges to truly see what is going on during competition. For example, if Fighter A is being very aggressive and moving forward for the duration of the bout, but Fighter B is very effective with his defense and avoids many of the strikes, how do they determine which is more important?
The answer is that everything is subjective and that’s common in combat sports. But when judges do not have a solid understanding of what is going on in the cage, then that is where the problem occurs. Many sports commissions are simply recycling the judges that are licensed to cover boxing and placing them next to MMA cages around the country. Many different times the MMA media has questioned the individuals sitting cage side to the point where fans know the “bad” judges from the “good” ones.
Recently, MMA has had two really close bouts that have brought into question what judges are looking for when grading fights. Hatsu Hioki versus Clay Guida and Frankie Edgar versus Jose Aldo were close contests that has fans and media alike arguing over the outcome. In the end, history books will not be changed in any fashion, but the debate going on is needed and should be addressed by commissions.
In Hioki versus Guida, we had the always moving forward Guida swinging wildly at Hioki who countered cleanly for the whole bout. Guida did score takedowns, but once on the mat he did little more than throw his hands about while doing his best to avoid Hioki’s active guard. In the end, he won a split decision victory that had some people groaning in anguish. Are judge’s looking for a fighter to continuously come forward while disregarding if his striking is effective? What are they judging when a fighter who is on his back is more active and keeps his opponent off balance trying to avoid submission attempts? That is just like an aggressive fighter on the feet who doesn’t strike effectively, but is rarely graded in the same fashion.
Edgar versus Aldo brought up a different debate that we’ve seen in a number of Edgar’s fight over time. When the final buzzer sounded it was clear that this was a close contest and would be difficult to determine who truly won. When the judges’ scorecards were read for a unanimous decision for Aldo, some individuals were upset while others pointed towards the visible damage to Edgar’s face as a potential factor that could have swayed the judges. This actually isn’t the first time it’s come up in conversation about Edgar as he scars and bleeds easily in most of his bouts. However, the unified rules make no mention of visible damage, but how can that be ruled out when the judges come into play? It clearly can’t.
The overreaching problem with this entire situation is that a viable solution isn’t available at this time. Changing the scoring system has been ruled out. Educating the judges has been discussed but the commissions would have to take charge of that process and they stand behind their judges. Some big name fighters such as Ricardo Almeida have become judges but not all are interested in making the move. At the same time, that doesn’t necessarily mean they will be better judges. So in the end, there isn’t a solution that is going to work at this time.
In MMA finishing an opponent is a lot tougher than the fans sitting at home and many people even involved with the sport understand. When a contest goes past the allotted time fighters would feel a lot better if they knew they could trust the people making the final call. At this point in time, they can’t and the wait to a time where they can will be an extended one.