What is the one common fabric found in almost every recent controversial decision in MMA? They were mostly striking affairs where grappling didn't factor in. The schematic above depicts an interesting exrescence of the unified rules resulting from fights that are mostly handled on the feet; meaning grappling and takedowns are nonexistent or mostly inconsequential.
Let's apply Pareto's "80/20" principle to this examination of the final result when the unified scoring criteria are applied to striking matches. Pareto’s principle came about in the early 1900's when Pareto, an Italian economist, identified that 20% of the people accounted for 80% of the wealth. The 80/20 rule has proven beyond valuable in troubleshooting complex systems--where the depth of finite details can easily clog the process--to extract a conceptual result.
The philosophy remains an important tool in the engineering world for those who conduct “failure analysis” studies in modern industry to pinpoint the 20% of issues that cause 80% of the problems. For example, all nuclear power plants and major chemical manufacturing companies (which are among the most elaborate, high-tech, and sophisticated operating systems in existence) have a small group (20%) of "critical equipment" that makes or breaks production levels, and is therefore directly associated with the vast majority (80%) of system problems. Consequently, the common solution is to focus 80% of efforts on the 20% of issues at the heart of the problem to maximize success. (The percentages are intended as reasonable estimates instead of hard numbers, so despite being able to flesh out finite details that may not fit the equation, the concept still retains value in the big picture.)
With that groundwork established, let's begin with the common thread in almost every (80%) of controversial MMA decisions, such as Shogun vs. Machida 1, Penn vs. Edgar, Couture vs. Vera, Hamill vs. Bisping, Griffin vs. Ortiz 1, Jackson vs. Griffin in the UFC, and Jung vs. Garcia, Varner vs. Shalorus in the WEC. Most (80%) of those fights were dictated by striking, with only a small amount (20%) of grappling and/or takedowns. For all intents and purposes, these were basically kickboxing matches where striking proficiency trumped everything else.
Take another look at the graphic above to understand exactly what happens to the unified scoring criteria when grappling doesn't factor into the assessment, specifically under the "control" heading. The driving factor (80%) of overall scoring worth is dedicated to effective offense through striking or grappling; as definitively demonstrating superior offense is how a fight is won. In these controversial decisions, the main thrust of debate was that the battle playing out on the feet was razor-thin and extremely debatable, which is when the auxiliary credentials are then assessed to examine if a competitor excelled enough in these secondary elements to break the close tie in offense.
I've deemed everything below striking and grappling as secondary because they are the lowest on the priority scale, and therefore the least significant (20%) of achievements. This is also where I support MMA's 10 Point Must System, because the actions of exhibiting superior control, being more aggressive, and defense aren't nearly as important as who is imposing offense more effectively. However, when one of our two main criteria doesn't apply (grappling) and the other is disputable (closely contested striking), the subordinate material can potentially make the difference in who deserves to win the round.
It is at this exact point that the problems arise from the way the control category is altered when grappling doesn’t factor in. Control was initially instituted for the infamous "Lay and Pray" fighter who didn't really out-strike or out-grapple his opponent, but significantly surpassed in dictating the pace and location of the fight through superior "control" with takedowns and wrestling. In fact, a loud complaint from some fans is that the rules favor a grappler winning with only top control; but nothing will ever eliminate that scenario from occurring, and when offense is a wash, the fighter that imposes his will and thoroughly controls the action over his adversary rightfully deserves the vote.
In the official description under control, 80% of the wording pertains strictly to grappling and takedowns; meaning that 80% of its intended design vanishes without grappling and takedowns, and only a small fraction remains in all-striking contests. The equation leaves only: "... who is dictating the pace, location and position of the bout. Examples of factors to consider are [countering a grappler’s attempt at takedown by remaining standing and legally striking; taking down an opponent to force a ground fight; creating threatening submission attempts, passing the guard to achieve mount, and] creating striking opportunities.”
So what’s the big deal about that?
I encourage you to re-watch Shogun vs. Machida 1 and Penn vs. Edgar, which represent the most action packed, nonstop sequences of frenetically paced striking the top level of the sport has seen. Both Penn and Edgar would often clash and mutually unleash 3-punch boxing combinations on each other in the blink of an eye, which translates to 6 strikes being thrown in the short span of a second or two, which quite obviously can be a challenge for the human eye to accurately gauge throughout a twenty-five minute title fight. The same can be said for Machida and Shogun gracing us with a consistently explosive kickboxing match (that may have been the most dynamic and labyrinthine striking battle in MMA to date). The amount of range and ground they covered, the vast multitude of techniques and strikes being implemented, the plethora of feints, blocks and counter-attacks, and the insanely high pace they maintained is almost inimitable and unprecedented—MMA evolution at its finest.
Not only is the barrage of physical interaction and engagement difficult to measure in these stand-up firework displays, but now contrast the criteria we've eliminated without grappling in the control category: "countering a grappler’s attempt at takedown by remaining standing and legally striking; taking down an opponent to force a ground fight; creating threatening submission attempts, passing the guard to achieve mount."
The significant difference between these directives and those listed for striking is that there is absolutely no question or dispute when a double-leg is stuffed and countered with punches; or when a fighter locks on a submission that doesn't finish but is "threatening"; or when someone has their guard passed or gets mounted. You can reach out and grab those things and identify them with absolute certainty (objective), where "dictating the pace, location, and position of the bout" and "creating striking opportunities" is ambiguous (subjective) and not nearly as tangible.
Yet these emaciated guidelines for scoring that survive sans grappling become the measuring stick to determine the winner in these dynamic confrontations that ensue in controversial decisions. The result is the application of the system in its weakest and most limited state—where the lowest priorities of winning a fight become the most prominent, and the criteria is redolent of subjectivity (instead of objectivity, the impetus of impartial scoring)—to evaluate the most complex and dynamic combat the sport of MMA has ever seen.
Now that MMA's advancement has yielded the worth of Judo thanks to pioneers like Hidehiko Yoshida and Karo Parisyan, and Kyokushin karate on behalf of Lyoto Machida and Katsunori Kikuno, we're slapping ourselves for being too close-minded in the late 90's for thinking wrestling, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and some combination of boxing and/or Muay Thai were the only effective arts of combat. New techniques and tactics are weaseling their way into modern MMA more and more, and fighters like Jon Jones are breaking new ground with creative fusions like his poetic "fake takedown to spinning back elbow". MMA is still inchoate and not fully developed, as evinced by the many new techniques from different martial arts still being incorporated at the elite level.
The sport continues to evolve at an alarming rate before our very eyes--but have the rules? Do the following guidelines provide judges with an effective tool to objectively decide who wins an incredibly complex striking war like Machida vs. Shogun or Penn vs. Edgar? Or how about a battle of wills and control like Couture vs. Vera, where "octagon control" was not coincidentally the entire source of debate?
In actuality, the concept of the remaining rule-set is not terrible: who is landing a combination of the most strikes and the most effective strikes, who is dictating the pace and creating opportunities, and exhibiting more aggression with better defense. The problem is that there is no baseline of objectivite measures for striking like there is when grappling is present, such as tangible and inarguable guidelines--like takedowns, guard passing and submission attempts--and the judges can basically award the round to whoever they feel got the better of exchanges.
Since many MMA judges come from a boxing background, a common generalization is that they may not have a firm grasp of the grappling elements. But can we automatically assume that all judges are adept at scoring striking in MMA?
Striking in MMA is unlike anything else, and quite literally one of a kind. We can measure the effectiveness of grappling and Jiu Jitsu in MMA by comparing it to sport BJJ competition, but we all know that high-level “pure” striking arts like boxing and kickboxing simply do not translate directly to MMA. Any top level fighter from any striking background must invoke a litany of technical adjustments to their style to succeed in MMA: such as footwork, stance, and the measurement of distance and range, where standout submission fighters need only incorporate the threat of strikes on the ground, where wrestlers must account for both the additional threat of submissions as well as striking.
The laundry list of accessories that accompany the process of adapting traditional striking to MMA far outweigh those of grappling. These vast complexities in cooperation with the subjective descriptions for judging striking in the unified rules create pure chaos in MMA decisions.
Since crying about a problem is ten times easier than recommending solutions—what can be done about this?
With our core flaw consisting of a lack of easily discernable criteria like those listed under grappling, adding more objective and clearly identifiable measurements seems like the best path forward. Here are some examples of what others have done to add tangibility and remove subjectivity from scoring, and I’ve added my own personal emphasis in bold. However, just like most things in life, each option presents a new set of concerns and advantages along with it.
Include Tangible Elements to Identify Striking Superiority: simply add observable examples to the striking category to make the guidelines less subjective and more objective like those listed under grappling. Examples would be obvious damage or effect from striking (a knockdown, a fighter being clearly wobbled or losing his balance/footing from strikes, visibly limping after a leg kick like Griffin/Rampage, etc.) This would mean that if a fighter were knocked down and/or visibly and significantly injured as a direct result of his opponent’s strikes, he would lose the round unless he can also inflict the same level of effective offense to balance the scales.
From the link above: Effort to finish by KO or submission: Fighters who are striking with force and intention that may result in a KO will be awarded in this criteria, that applies both standing and on the ground. “Catch” or near submissions, as well as multiple attempts will score in this criteria.
(Author’s Note: this was listed as the #1 credential in Pride’s scoring system. Though the interpretation may still be somewhat subjective, this would do wonders for the incipient complaining about fighters “not fighting to finish” and “trying to ride out a decision on the score cards”.)
Standing combinations and ground control: When a fighter lands a skillful combination of strikes while standing, they are awarded this criteria.
Must Point System: The winner must be decided in the Must Point System by scoring points.
The purpose of establishing the Must Point System is to eliminate any possibility of a draw match, and the System is to be applied in the last round of the fight (draw match is a possibility with matches of three (3) minutes X three (3) rounds, which aims for fighters development). Even when the score difference is minimal, a winner will be decided on the merit of the final round fight.
However, there are some possibility of even scores under the must-system fight format without an extra round after the 3rd round. Even scores shall be announced and then the judges will review the fight with the consideration of small differences between two fighters such as downs and dominance of the fight to determine the winner of the fight. This fight system shall be called "special must-system".
From the link above: When a judge is judging a Muay Thai fight, they view the fight as if it is a distance running race. They judge it as a whole not just who is winning the most rounds. This means that if they are judging correctly they will be trying to keep in mind who is ahead at any particular moment, but also crucially, how far they are ahead. At the end of each round they determine who is ahead at that point in the bout and record points but keep in mind the ‘distance’ that separates the boxers.
(Author’s Note: the “distance” the fighter is ahead by is represented by 10-10, 10-9, 10-8, and 10-7 scores… only one of which is prominently awarded in MMA judging. The problem with restricting almost every MMA round to a 10-9 score is discussed in this article.)
This is different than the system used in western boxing. In determining how far a particular boxer is ahead in a bout, a judge considers the number of clean techniques a boxer lands on target and delivers on balance, along with the relative effectiveness of the techniques landing and their effect on their opponent’s balance and position. While the boxer can deliver scoring techniques while moving forwards, backwards, sideward or against the ropes, balance is essential both before and after technique delivery. Although effectiveness can legitimately be defined in a number of different ways and could be interpreted by different people quite differently, in MuayThai effectiveness is a specific concept that refers to quite specific observable behaviours. It is important as a fighter and coach to know what these are.
(Author’s Note: the problem with MMA judging, particularly the thesis of this article about the ambiguous nature of striking under “control”, is specifically alluded to in the paragraph above; referenced as the critical importance of “quite specific observable behaviours”, i.e. objective measurements.)
As well as a technique causing an opponent to move physically, the target hit can also determine how well a technique scores. Kicking and kneeing the body and head (neck) tends to considered more effective than kicks and knees striking other targets; given the same physical effect on an opponent. While punches, low kicks and elbows do score, to score well they have to cause a physical effect (or get an opponent to show they are hurt). For example, if a boxer was kicked to the floor, that is considered an effective technique. However, as suggested above, if a boxer can land clean kicks and knees to the body (or kicks to the neck) these are considered strong techniques (if they are delivered on balance) even without visual effect or obvious injury (if they do manage to cause a boxer to lose position they score even better). Another example of the target of an attack being important is when kicking or kneeing an opponent’s back. If you can hit their back with kicks or knees it is considered a really good score as it shows your opponent can’t protect him or herself.
Sengoku’s “Must Decision” Rule:
This rule is simply a method to avoid draws when an even score results from a fight, basically saying that if the fight is a draw, the judges must still pick a winner. Unfortunately, the most popular example is fraught with controversy, which is Michihiro Omigawa’s “must decision win” over Marlon Sandro. The fact that Omigawa’s coach was one of the judges and Sandro seemed to demonstrate consistent striking dominance should elicit that the Sandro/Omigawa controversy was the fault of the judging; not necessarily the system.
One Additional “Tie-breaking” Round:
We see this on The Ultimate Fighter. If the fight is even after two rounds, a final round takes place to ultimately determine the winner. This is just a different method to use the “fighter who wins the distance race” is given priority, which makes sense because a fighter can always recover and re-establish himself in early rounds, where a fighter who fades at the end of the fight is not as likely to be able to turn things around.
No Decisions. Any Unfinished Fight is a Draw:
This is self-explanatory, and would completely place the onus of responsibility on the fighters and avoid a judge and/or the rules to decide the winner. Unless you finish your opponent, the fight is a draw. Again, I must mention how immensely this would emphasize the importance of action and excitement, while naturally compelling fighters to go for the finish (without achieving it through yellow cards, point deductions, docking pay, referee’s instructions or stand-ups). The penalty for fighting passively and not going for the finish is the result of a draw if you don’t.
Personally, I would supplement this idea by making an exception for fights that go to a decision but still elicit a clear victor (Jose Aldo vs. Urijah Faber, Rich Franklin vs. Evan Tanner 2).
Applying Each Scoring Credential to “The Three Phases of Combat”:
This is my own personal creation. I’ve attempted to point out the problem in the existing rules where there is overlap and confusion resulting from vague criteria in certain categories. A fight can only take place on three different platforms, per the Gracie’s family’s designation of the three phases of combat: free phase (free movement striking), clinch, and grappling.
Why not apply our given credentials (effective striking, grappling, control, aggression and defense) to each phase of combat? Effective striking on the feet (free phase) can often be entirely different than effective striking in the clinch and on the ground; just as control, aggression, and defense can play out differently when striking, clinching, and grappling.
Couture vs. Vera is the perfect example, where Couture clearly dominated control, aggression, and striking the clinch, but Vera snared the same elements in free-phase striking. Instead, we are using the categories of scoring as a baseline and trying to sandwich the dynamic differences of offense and control from three entirely unique circumstances into one larger category; and quite frankly, they don’t mesh together well.
The most important of the three phases of combat would be dictated by wherever most of the action takes place: wherever the most fighting-time takes place (striking, clinching, grappling) would designate priority. If the majority of action takes place on the feet, whoever excels with effective offense, control, aggression, and defense on the feet wins the category, and then the remaining portions are calculated accordingly.
This would add a simple ingredient to easily diversify and widen the spectrum of scoring, eliminate the overlap and inherent subjectivity of the existing guidelines, but clearly establish priority in a sensible way, and in some cases offer useful tie-breaking material since three categories can only result in a draw if one of the three phases of combat doesn’t factor in or results in an even (draw) performance.
To summarize, a judge would:
Prioritize where most of the fight took place (standing, clinching, or grappling). This would create the hierarchy of importance based on the fighters and actual results of the round, as opposed to a pre-determined importance based on the rules.
Apply the existing criteria to each dimension (who inflicted more effective offense, followed by who was more superior with control, aggression, and defense only if striking or grappling doesn’t extract a winner through offensive accomplishments).
With this system in effect for Couture vs. Vera, Couture would win the rounds where he both out-struck and controlled Vera in the clinch, and also got a takedown and landed some ground-and-pound (Randy wins the clinch category—where most of the round took place—and would also win the round where he showed grappling superiority). Conversely, in the round where Randy still had his way in the clinch (even if more fight-time was expended clinching), but Vera dropped him with strikes and then pounced on him on the mat to win the grappling, Vera would win for demonstrating more effective offense in two of the three phases of combat (striking and grappling, Randy wins clinch).
Check out this link for a list of some sensible no-no's when scoring a striking match, such as being influenced by the crowd and "flashy" techniques, only scoring techniques you see land (not presume to land), and being influenced by early action or only select actions that can cloud the cumulative action of a round (another point of debate in Penn vs. Edgar).
My intent with this loquacious diatribe on MMA scoring is simply to inspire thought on what’s wrong with the existing system (it’s not applied as it’s written with vague and ambiguous categories that often overlap, with striking under “control” being the biggest culprit) and offer some starting points for potential solutions that would improve the issues.
Please use the comments section below to voice any positive, negative, or indifferent opinions.