In the welterweight title fight at UFC 167, the three judges scoring the bout only disagreed on the score of one of the five rounds, the first one. Judges Tony Weeks and Sal D’Amato scored the round a 10-9 for St. Pierre. Glenn Trowbridge scored it a 10-9 for the challenger, Johny Hendricks. In a fight where almost the entirety of those watching saw it as a victory for Hendricks, many were quick to blame incompetent judging, and also the 10-point ‘must’ scoring system.
A popular criticism of the way fights are scored in MMA is that it is round-by-round, and two rounds, one of which may have been a very close round, and one a very one-sided round, would both be considered 10-9 rounds. I do agree with the widespread sentiment that judging needs to be improved upon, but it would appear to me that the answer lies in a much more nuanced view of what a 10-9 round is, what a 10-8 round is, and even what a 10-10 round is.
Judges seem compelled to declare a winner of each round, but don’t seem compelled to put any distance between winning the round and losing it, by scoring more 10-8 rounds. The scoring system is called the ’10 point must’ system, not the ‘10-9 scorecard must’ system. The problem lies in the fact that we just don’t see enough rounds scored as 10-8’s.
The Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts describe a 10-8 round as “when a contestant overwhelmingly dominates by striking or grappling in a round.” Compare that to a 10-9, which is defined as “when a contestant wins by a close margin, landing the greater number of effective legal strikes, grappling and other maneuvers”. It’s clear that a practical application of deciding the difference between the two can be difficult. What exactly is a ‘close margin’? What exactly would someone need to do in order to ‘overwhelmingly dominate’?
Nonetheless, judges are tasked with making these determinations, and every fight is unique, so further defining the criteria can present challenges of its own, but I still feel that those guidelines can be expanded upon. However, the rules are in place and the fights still go on, so we do need to work with what we have.
Fighters seem at times to adapt their fighting style to how they think the judges will interpret a particular series of events in the fight. The term “lay & pray” comes to find, and folks who watch a lot of fights, like the hardcore fans and the MMA media, tend to score the rounds based on what they think the judges will decide. That normally doesn’t involve assigning any 10-8 scores unless someone looks like a character from The Walking Dead when the horn goes off.
This is the problem. In the GSP/Hendricks fight, the first round could be debated as a 10-9 for either fighter, which on the surface, would lend credence to the idea of it being a 10-10, but either way, arguments could be made for either St. Pierre or Hendricks. But in the second round, Hendricks landed more power strikes to the head than either man did in any other round. It’s ultimately up to the judges to mark these things as 10-8 rounds when warranted.
Even if judges started ruling rounds as 10-10s, or 10-8s immediately, there would undoubtedly be outcries afterward, if only because it would go against what we are accustomed to seeing, which is usually 10-9s all around, unless somebody almost gets put away and looks visibly torn to shreds. There will never be a substitute for competency and accountability. If a judge doesn’t understand what’s happening on the mat during a grappling exchange, or whether a glancing headkick has the same effect and multiple elbows to the side of the head, not only should they not be there, but the person tasked with assigning them shouldn’t be in their role either. What the rules guide you to do and your ability is to get the job done are two different things.
The verbiage in the unified rules certainly would benefit from being updated to be more concise, but I don’t think that we need to further complicate a system that can’t even be effectively utilized in its current form. I am not at all opposed to the idea of ‘open scoring’, where the scores are released round-by-round, so then everyone has a clear idea of who’s up or down, regardless of the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ as to how those scores came about. When the cage door shuts what we really need are judges who understand what they’re being tasked to judge, and scores that reflect what actually occurred in the round.