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11th Sep 2017

Controversial headliner shows serious UFC problem still needs addressing

Change is needed

Ben Kiely

“Never leave it in the hands of the judges.”

It’s 2017 and that old adage somehow still rings true. The implication is that even if an MMA fighter knows they have won a contest, they better be prepared for the possibility of the judges screwing them out of a win bonus.

In MMA’s short lifespan, we’ve seen so much innovation in terms of how fights are fought, but there has been sweet f**k all in terms of how fights are scored. The Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts have been tweaked and improved, but we still rely on a modified system from boxing to decide a victor when it goes the distance.

How many times have we seen that backfire of late? Remember all those complaints about Germaine de Randamie getting the nod over Holly Holm to claim the inaugural women’s featherweight crown? Who could forget Diego Sanchez receiving that laughable split decision against Ross Pearson in his hometown? And what about Robbie Lawler vs Carlos Condit, Georges St-Pierre vs Johnny Hendricks or any number of high-profile fights that were marred by what fans saw as questionable judging?

At the weekend, we had another title fight end in controversy as two of three judges thought Amanda Nunes successfully defended her belt against Valentina Shevchenko. The challenger, and a lot of fans in the arena and watching at home, weren’t satisfied with the result.

Nunes took home a split decision (47-48, 48-47, 48-47) and while two judges scored the fight in her favour, none of them scored the fight the same.

Tony Weeks gave Shevchenko rounds two, three and five, Sal D’Amato scored rounds one, three and five for Nunes, and David Therien gave the champion rounds one, two and five. Three qualified judges who have seen a countless number of fights, who are well-versed with the scoring system and have been informed of the new rules changes adopted by the commission only agreed on one round.

While it may be easy to put it down to a competency problem with the judges, and that’s certainly something worth discussing, the bigger issue is with the system. It’s a big ask for three humans to assess a five-minute segment of a fight from their point of view Octagonside and use their interpretation of the rules to decide who won it… all in real time.

According to the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts, ‘judges shall evaluate mixed martial arts techniques, such as effective striking, effective grappling, control of the ring/fighting area, effective aggressiveness and defence.’

Effective grappling includes takedowns, reversals, submission attempts, guard passes and bottom fighters using an active threatening guard. Under the updated rules, quality of strikes rather than volume to be given more emphasis, while control of grappling exchanges is also given more emphasis.

If most of the round is spent on the feet, effective striking takes precedence. If it mostly takes place on the mat, effective grappling is weighted first. However, when the time is pretty much evenly split with one fighter dominating the grappling for half a round and the other dominating the stand-up for half the round, it becomes confusing.

That’s more than likely why we saw one judge disagree with the other two on the scoring of the final round and most action-packed round between Nunes and Shevchenko. Nunes got two takedowns and was in favourable positions in the grappling exchanges, but Shevchenko landed over double the number of strikes (33) that she managed (15).

So how the fuck are you supposed to score that?

A big thing is made of what was once called ‘Octagon control,’ but is now called fighting area control. Dictating the pace, location and position of the bout are big factors here and keeping the fight standing by countering takedown attempts also comes into consideration.

Then you come down to aggressiveness vs defence. Effective aggressiveness is defined as moving forward and landing a legal strike, while effective defence is seen as avoiding being struck, submitted or taken down.

However, when you have a counter-striker like Shevchenko against a hard-hitting aggressor like Nunes both using their styles effectively, it’s impossible to definitively say which one gets the edge in terms of fight area control. Their styles are so complimentary, the only way to lean one way or the other is through output, and even at that, they were hard to separate.

Nunes edged the striking in rounds one (16-11) and two (17-15), Shevchenko edged the striking in three (20-17) and four (25-20). Then in round five, Nunes dominated the grappling while Shevchenko dominated the striking.

On a different night with different judges, Bruce Buffer could have ended up calling ‘And New…’ and people still would have complained about the result. If that doesn’t prove that the current scoring system doesn’t work in MMA, we don’t know what will.