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UFC 163: Davis-Machida highlights need for reform

Phil Davis

UFC 163’s co-main event between Phil Davis and Lyoto Machida saw another chapter in the dubious history of MMA judging as Davis was awarded a unanimous decision victory over Machida. The decision was met by a wave of consternation in both the crowd and many viewers watching from home. Making the matter worse was the fact that the judges’ score cards did not seem on the same page despite the unanimous 29-28 call. Despite what you think of those scoring the bout, the real issue is the need for judging reforms.

It is an oft-repeated mantra in MMA that fighters should “never leave it in the hands of the judges.” While UFC president Dana White’s real reasoning behind this is to encourage fighters to take risks, the fact remains that there is more than a shred of truth to it. Judging an MMA fight is one of the harder things to do in sports due to vague criteria, since many combat sports have much more defined criteria by which to determine a winner (i.e. wrestling, SAMBO, karate, etc.). While anomalies still happen in those sports, they happen with far less consistency than in MMA. It is this ambiguity that leads to a lot of headaches for fans and promoters alike but the reality is that there are ways to improve the current criteria.

MMA’s judging criteria is laid out in the Unified Code of MMA, and while subtle changes can be made with approval from the overseeing commission much of the criteria leaves a lot to be desired. While the term “effective” is used quite often, what constitutes “effective” to some may not be seen as “effective” to others. In the Davis vs. Machida fight, Machida out-struck Davis in significant strikes in two of three rounds and was nearly twice as accurate over the entire fight, is that not effective? While Davis was certainly more active and pursued throughout the fight, he often hit nothing but air and met several counters from Machida face first.

Even in the grappling department Davis was a paltry 2 of 10 in takedowns and only landed one pass in the short time the fight stayed on the canvas. Ironically, the judging criteria is supposed to dictate that the standing strikes is supposed to be more heavily weighted than the ground strikes (which significantly drops Davis’ totals) since the majority of the round took place standing. That is rarely the case however, as takedowns are often over-valued by judges.

It does not help that the judges are asked to make a snap decision at the end of the round, without the benefit of replays, and so they are often left deciding the entirety of the round on the last minute of the round they saw (aka the recency effect). Just defining that a takedown into guard is not worth as much as a takedown into a dominant position would be an improvement. While better defining the criteria in a manner that is easier to apply is one aspect of change needed, positioning of the judges and replay are two other aspects that could better judging as a whole.

If you have ever sat on the floor for an event, as opposed to watching at home on TV, you learn very quickly the importance of perception. When I was covering Bellator 87 earlier this year I sat about 10-15ft. from the cage. As I scored bouts and tracked what others were scoring at home, I was surprised by how often we differed on many rounds. It becomes readily apparent that there are positives and negatives of sitting in either position.

For one, the impact of some shots just cannot be appreciated on TV. I remember Bellator middleweight champion Alexander Shlemenko in particular landing some strikes on Maiquel Falcao that landed with such force members of the press were flinching. On TV this is less noticeable because the sound is more of a dull thud rather than a loud crack or snap that causes audiences to “ooh” and “ahh” but in person, you feel it.

That said, their are also portions of the fight you plainly have no idea what is happening when the action moves to certain points in the cage. At those points, a judge is blind to the action and is forced to make a decision with their distorted view being the only thing they have to go on. In addition to obstructed views, you are often unable to ascertain if a punch landed or not. This leads to judges sometimes rewarding a more active fighter despite the fighter rarely landing (aka what I call “The Leonard Garcia Effect”) with any real effectiveness.

Fixes seem simple, like the addition of video monitors allowing the judges to switch between feeds when their view is obstructed or moving the judges away from the cage and giving them monitors (an idea NJSAB official Nick Lembo mentioned when asked about replay), but the logistics of changing the rules often become an obstacle. Another easy change that requires absolutely zero legislation is just encouraging judges that you can score a round 10-10 rather than doing slightly more than flipping a coin to decide a fight. Obviously continuing education and proper training come into play here as well, but commissions in many places simply skimp in that area due to budget constraints (with the hope being they are competent enough by simply meeting the extensive qualifications).

At the end of the day, there is one group that could provide a significant positive effect on judging but neglects to do so and that is the promotions themselves. Dana White often criticizes the various commissions, judges, and referees for the strange things that happen in the fight game but acts like the various promotions have no ability to influence change. Simply assisting commissions in shouldering the cost of properly educating and training officials would at least help raise the level of competency across the board. Lobbying the commissions to ratify monitors for the judges and then assisting with the education are feasible objectives.

That said, it is always easier to complain than it is to actually do something about it. Not to mention, controversy courts viewers like little else and that is what it is all about right now. While the point that finishing a fight removes the judges, finishing fights is a lot easier said than done and is like telling a pitcher to just “throw strikes.” Reductive reasoning like this produces easy quotes, but not actual solutions.

Across every level of combat sports you see that finishes decrease as parity in competition increases, making it so that unless you mismatch every fight you will still have judging decisions. So despite the fact that judging changes are clearly needed, they are unlikely to happen anytime soon unless promotions want to do more than just get angry every other event. It is frustrating, but decisions like the Davis-Machida outcome are not a rare occurrence now and will not be in the future without some effort.

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