by Rami Genauer, MMAWeekly.com
Part I: Nobody’s Perfect

Like all sports, MMA is a topic that lends itself well to debates. Which fighter is the best? What was the biggest upset of all time? Would Art Jimmerson have done any better without that one glove? But no matter the topic, most debates come back to the one big question: UFC vs. Pride.

There are many aspects to this question, from fighters to foot stomps to Fedor. However, there is one difference that has the most direct effect on a fighter’s record: the method by which judges award one fighter a win and the other a loss. And unlike most debates, the question of which organization has a better system of judgment might actually have a scientific answer.

What follows is part one of an examination of MMA judging criteria, the rules governing Pride decisions for events held in Japan and the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts, first instituted by the New Jersey State Athletic Commission and most prominently associated with the UFC.

At its essence, the difference between the two systems is that of qualitative versus quantitative judgment – of Pride’s demand that judges decide who has fought to greater effect and the UFC’s attempt at requiring judges to assign points to fighters and therefore make a quantitative judgment of the fight. Admittedly, neither system is perfect, each with its own advantages and flaws. By subjecting the two to critical examination, we can see which system’s flaws are a greater hindrance to providing consistent, accurate, and objectively correct decisions.

Pride’s criteria are simple: Judges are to consider the fight in its entirety and decide the winner based on the following aspects, in order of priority:

1. Effort made to finish the fight via KO or submission
2. Damage done to the opponent
3. Standing combinations and ground control
4. Takedowns and takedown defense
5. Aggressiveness
6. Weight (in the case that the weight difference is 10 kg/22 lb or more)

All three judges must name a winner, so that, except in matches conducted under special rules, there can only be unanimous and split decisions, but no draws.

The problem with Pride’s judging rules is that of subjectivity. Even though Pride’s rules give a clear ranking of what aspects are more important than others, there is no mandate as to how much more important one category is than the other. Is damage worth twice as much as ground control? More than that? Who knows? This makes Pride’s criteria decidedly unscientific and subjective. Without concrete numerical values with which to measure one fighter’s performance against the other fighter’s, judging becomes a battle of differing interpretations of the criteria and differing opinion as to which particular minutes or seconds mattered most. One judge might give weight to a nearly successful submission attempt by one fighter while another judge will choose to favor the other fighter based on his accumulation of damage and combinations while on the feet. These two judges will arrive at different decisions, even though they both agree in principle on who won each aspect of the fight. In addition, by considering the entire fight, judges are often unduly influenced by the closing minutes of the fight, which leave a lasting impression more so than the beginning.

The problem of subjectivity is simple but its effects are profound. When judges are left to decide a winner based on their own subjective opinions, you inevitably end up with more disagreement, more controversy, and poorer decisions. Without an objective standard, fighters can’t form a strategy; not knowing if the judges they’re fighting in front of will weigh one aspect of the fight more than another. And when decisions are rooted in opinion, fans with a different opinion as to the winner will lose respect for the judging system and distrust the organization.

The criteria used by the UFC are more detailed and therefore engender different problems. Firstly, the “ten-point must” system is used, whereby the winner of each round is granted 10 points with the loser of the round receiving nine points or less. At the end of the fight, points are tallied and the fighter with the most points wins, either by unanimous, split, or majority decision. If both fighters have the same number of points, the match is ruled a draw. It’s the “nine points or less” part of the equation where things get dicey. Unlike in boxing where points are automatically deducted because of knockdowns, judges in MMA are noticeably reticent to mark 10-8 rounds, while 10-7 rounds are almost unheard of. This means that a fighter can overwhelmingly win a round and receive a 10-9 score just the same a fighter who held only a modest advantage.

This is likely the result of just how complicated it is to determine the winner of a round. Though Mike Goldberg breezes through the standards, saying that UFC bouts are judged based on effective striking, grappling, aggression, and octagon control, the official guidelines are not quite so clear.

To begin with, the priority of those categories (striking, grappling, etc.) is not a constant; judges must first take note of where the majority of action takes place during a round. If the majority of the round is spent on the mat, then grappling is worth more, while striking would be worth more should the majority of action take place on the feet. If a round contains an equal amount of stand-up and ground fighting, then grappling and striking would be weighed equally. Next, judges must keep count of “the total number of legal heavy strikes landed” to determine who wins the striking component of the round. While Pride’s rules use damage as the qualitative arbiter of striking effectiveness, the UFC’s rules require a quantitative numerical advantage for one contestant. The merit of each system is debatable, but it would seem certain that by using a clear quantitative standard, the UFC’s criteria would make for more objective decisions in the area of striking.

Quantitative definitions seemingly fall apart when judging grappling in MMA. The rules attempt to set a standard, saying, “effective grappling is judged by considering the amount of successful executions of a legal takedown and reversals.” However, takedowns and reversals are not the only grappling techniques that earn points. With submission attempts, guard passes, sweeps and other ground activity, not to mention Greco-Roman and other grappling action on the feet, judges have to keep track of a staggering number of factors and decide which of these to weigh more heavily than the others. The rules would like judges to count techniques and arrive at a concrete number corresponding to each fighter’s grappling performance. But based on the vagaries of the guidelines, is there any guarantee that judges will arrive at the same number? It is no wonder that takedowns (even into guard) and maintaining top position hold so much sway over UFC judges. These easily quantifiable factors can provide a simple number to judge grappling. But given the complexity of MMA, is that simple number good enough to encapsulate all the grappling in a round and thereby give one fighter a win and another a loss?

The idea of an objective standard is laudable, but as Pride and the UFC demonstrate, nearly impossible to implement. In Pride’s case, the simplicity of their criteria should indicate the same winner to anyone viewing the fight, so long as everyone grants the same weight to each category of performance. In the UFC, each judge would ideally count the exact same number of heavy blows landed, the number of successful grappling maneuvers, and submission attempts. Each judge would utilize the objective standard to decide the winner of each round and all three judges should arrive at the same decision. In both cases, proper standards should provide the same results no matter who the judges are. There should never be a split decision.

But there are plenty of split decisions. Viewed individually, split decisions can be blamed on a particular judge, simply accounting for inevitable variables in vantage point, concentration, and judging bias (e.g., giving more weight to striking rather than grappling or submissions). However, on a systemic level, a large number of split decisions would perhaps indicate a deficiency in the judging criteria itself. If judges frequently disagree with each other, it might be an indication that the judgment parameters are themselves unclear and inherently lend themselves to discord.

So getting back to the original question: Who’s judging criteria is better, Pride’s or the UFC’s? If split decisions are an indicator of poor judgment criteria, perhaps figuring out which system produces fewer split decisions will indicate which is the better one…

Part II: Split Decisions and the Men Who Love Them