The Judging of MMA Fights

MMA Officiating Issues

There have been a number of controversial judging decisions in some of MMA fights. A lot of angry fans have decried what they viewed as unfair or unclear decisions made by the judges and referees that have severely affected the result of the match. UFC VP for Regulatory Affairs Marc Ratner concurs that judging MMA fights present a number of difficulties especially with regards to grappling and the ground game. As such, he acknowledges that “as long as we have humans subjectively judging there will always be decisions that are found to be controversial.” This holds true with almost every type of competition that requires judging.

UFC adopted the MMA Unified Rules of Conduct formulated by the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board. Most state athletic commissions have adapted these rules for regulating MMA fights in their jurisdictions. This requires that judging be based on a 10-point system. There judges are required to score the fight with each of them place at different locations around the octagon to provide them with different vantage points. The judges score each round awarding 10 points to the round winner and 9 or less points to the loser. All scores are then added after the end of all rounds with the highest pointer as the winner. Fouls are usually valued as 1 point and are subtracted to a fighter’s score per each round.

Judges evaluate the various aspects of the techniques used such as effective striking, grappling, octagon control, effective aggressiveness, and defense. As such, the number of legal heavy strikes made, successful legal takedowns or reversals, bout control, and aggressiveness and defense are all considered when judging each round. Judges change the weight of effective grappling and effective striking criteria depending where most of the fights are made. If the fights are usually done standing, effective striking is weighed first over effective grappling. The reverse is done when the majority of the fight is on the canvas.

However, despite the rules made the NSAC, there are still a number of issues that fans in MMA forums have raised. How are strikes or take downs scored? How are they deemed as “clean” or “effective” for scoring purposes? Judges are usually seated 2 feet away from the octagon but at a lower level compared to the octagon. How can they effectively score when they are unable to see the whole fighting area considering it is about 750 square feet in expanse? Aside from these, there were some instances when referees called for stand-ups on dominating fighters. Fans cite fights where the referee opted to stand up a fighter on a full mount because he deemed that the dominating fighter was not active enough against the opponent on that position. Senior referee John McCarthy points out that referees should only call for a stand up for cases where fighters are at a neutral of close to neutral positions. But when a fighter is on position that he can inflict but cannot be inflicted, the referee should not take that away from him.

According to Keith Kizer, NSAC executive director, there is a lack of formal process in the selection of judges and referees and in ensuring that they have or maintain a certain level of competency. This is due to the fact that MMA is a relatively young sport. Other sports have veteran referees who can act as panels to grade the current referees several times a year. There is none in that in MMA. There is also the problem of a lack of the necessary certification for judges and referees and any consistent means to measure performance.

Being the largest promoter for MMA, the UFC can take the lead in initiating steps to improve the judging and refereeing criteria. Credible personalities who know the fights very well and how it is be in the actual fight should be tapped to create a curriculum to better define the terms noted in the current NSAC guidelines such as effective striking, grappling, takedowns, and others. There should also be a referee panel that will review the calls made by referees and that can make the necessary steps in correcting these referees.

The bottom line in making better officiating is to decrease if not completely eliminate subjectivity. Although this is a very difficult task, it is something that must be done for the benefit of the fighters who work and fight hard. By being fairer in its decisions, the MMA can enjoy better acceptance to the general public and legislators as a legitimate sport.


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