Johny Hendricks was arguably "robbed" in his fight against Georges St-Pierre at UFC 167 in November 2013. (Zuffa LLC)

When Joselyne Edwards’ hand was raised after her fight against Lucie Pudilova on Saturday night, the MMA community erupted in disbelief, crying “robbery.”

Judging controversies have long plagued the sport, but recent events have once again thrown the issue into the spotlight. With fighters’ careers and the sport’s credibility on the line, it’s time we take a closer look at scoring controversies in MMA. Are these mishaps simply inevitable or a sign of a deeper problem in need of fixing?

In this article, we’ll dive into recent and notable MMA judging controversies, explore their root causes, and discuss the impact on fighters and the sport as a whole. And, of course, we’ll consider possible solutions to ensure a more equitable playing field for all.

Recent MMA Judging Controversies

It seems as though every few months, another MMA event is marred by questionable judging.

Take, for example, the recent Paddy Pimblett vs. Jared Gordon fight from December last year. Pimblett’s unanimous decision victory left many scratching their heads, wondering how the judges arrived at that conclusion. Media member scorecards on MMA Decisions show that 24 of 25 media members scored the bout for Gordon, with 11 members scoring all three rounds for Gordon. However, the only scorecards that mattered on the night had it in favor of Pimblett, 29-28.

And who could forget the Raufeon Stots vs. Danny Sabatello scorecard, with Doug Crosby’s inexplicable 50-45 score for Sabatello? Interestingly, Crosby was one of the judges who handed in a 29-28 scorecard for Pimblett.

But the controversy du jour is the Joselyne Edwards vs. Lucie Pudilova fight. Pudilova seemed to have the edge throughout the bout, and yet, the judges awarded the victory to Edwards. Again, media members had a different perspective with all 11 scorecards submitted during the UFC on ESPN 44 event in favor of Pudilova.

The decision left the MMA community up in arms, once again demanding change and accountability.

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Joselyne Edwards walked away victorious following a fortunate decision at UFC on ESPN 44. (Zuffa LLC)

The Root Causes of MMA Judging Issues

Controversial MMA judging decisions can be attributed to a variety of factors, ranging from inherent flaws in the scoring system to human biases and limitations. By examining these root causes, we can better understand the complexities of this issue and work towards developing potential solutions.

One of the primary factors contributing to judging controversies is the subjective nature of the 10-point must system used in MMA. This system, adapted from boxing, requires judges to award the winner of each round 10 points, while the loser receives 9 points or fewer. However, the criteria for determining the round winner are often vague and open to interpretation, leading to inconsistencies and discrepancies in scoring.

For instance, the Unified Rules of MMA state that judges should consider effective striking, grappling, aggression, and cage control when scoring a round. However, the relative importance of each of these factors can vary significantly between judges, resulting in differing opinions on who won a particular round. This issue was evident in the GSP vs. Hendricks fight, where one judge favored GSP’s striking accuracy and top control, while another leaned towards Hendricks’ overall aggression and damage inflicted.

Another contributing factor to controversial judging decisions is the lack of education and experience among MMA judges. Many MMA judges come from a boxing background and may lack the necessary experience and understanding of MMA’s unique techniques and strategies. This lack of expertise can lead to inconsistent and questionable decisions, as judges may be more comfortable assessing striking exchanges than grappling or ground game.

For example, in the Sanchez vs. Pearson fight, it was widely believed that Pearson’s striking and overall control of the fight should have earned him the victory. However, the judges’ scoring seemed to favor Sanchez’s aggression and forward movement, despite his lack of significant offense. This decision led to widespread criticism and calls for better judge education in the sport.

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Ross Pearson really should have been declared the winner at UFC Fight Night 42 but the scorecards somehow ended up showing a win for Diego Sanchez. (Zuffa LLC)

Furthermore, human biases and limitations can also play a role in controversial judging decisions. Judges may be influenced by factors such as crowd reactions, the position of the fighters in the cage, or their own personal preferences when scoring a bout. As veteran referee and judge “Big” John McCarthy explained in an interview, “You’re always going to have personal biases…The problem is when that personal bias affects how you’re scoring the fight.”

One potential example of such bias occurred in the Andrei Arlovski vs. Jake Collier fight from May 2022, where some observers speculated that the judges may have been influenced by Arlovski’s reputation and history in the sport when awarding him the decision. This raises concerns about the potential for judges’ pre-existing opinions to impact their scoring.

Finally, the pressure and time constraints faced by judges during live events can exacerbate these issues. With only a few minutes between rounds to make their decisions, judges may struggle to accurately recall and assess the action that took place. As a result, they may rely on heuristics or mental shortcuts, which can lead to biased or inaccurate scoring.

The Impact of Controversial MMA Judging

Controversial judging decisions not only frustrate fans but also have significant consequences for fighters and the sport as a whole. From financial implications to career trajectories and the overall integrity of MMA, the ripple effect of these decisions cannot be underestimated.

First and foremost, the financial impact of a controversial decision on a fighter can be substantial. With many MMA fighters relying on win bonuses as a significant portion of their income, a perceived “robbery” can have serious consequences on their livelihood. Moreover, a loss on a fighter’s record can hinder their ability to secure future high-profile bouts or title shots, further impacting their earning potential.

In addition to financial implications, controversial decisions can also impact a fighter’s career trajectory. A loss on a fighter’s record, whether justified or not, can set them back in the rankings and delay or even prevent a potential title shot. In some cases, this can have long-lasting effects on a fighter’s legacy within the sport.

For example, following the controversial decision in the Pimblett vs. Gordon fight, Gordon expressed his frustration on social media, stating, “I was robbed everyone knows it. I can cry about it but I been back from worst and gods plan is the best plan so I know there’s something big to come from it.”

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Jared Gordon closed as a +210 betting underdog but got the better of Paddy Pimblett at UFC 282 in the eyes of most fans and media. (Zuffa LLC)

Gordon now finds himself in a position where he feels like needs to ‘bounce back’ rather than enjoying what should have been the biggest win of his career and a moment that would lead to better opportunities in the division.

Moreover, the integrity of the sport as a whole is called into question when MMA judging controversies arise. Fans and potential new viewers may be turned off by the perception that outcomes are unpredictable and influenced by factors other than fighters’ performances. This, in turn, can hinder the growth and mainstream acceptance of MMA.

Potential Solutions and the Path Forward

As the impact of controversial judging decisions in MMA continues to be felt by fighters and the sport as a whole, it becomes increasingly important to explore potential solutions to mitigate these issues. Several ideas have been proposed, each with its own set of advantages and challenges, but ultimately, the goal is to create a fairer and more transparent system that promotes the growth and credibility of the sport.

Improved Judge Education and Training

One of the primary issues highlighted by experts and fighters alike is the need for better education and training for MMA judges. This includes a deeper understanding of the intricacies of the sport, such as grappling exchanges, striking techniques, and the ability to recognize effective offense and defense.

During a recent UFC broadcast, former UFC champion Dominick Cruz emphasized the importance of education, stating, “You need to have knowledgeable people judging, and we need to educate the judges that we do have. There’s always room for improvement.”

To address this issue, organizations like the Association of Boxing Commissions (ABC) and the International Mixed Martial Arts Federation (IMMAF) have begun offering courses and certifications for MMA judges. These programs aim to improve judges’ understanding of the sport and provide them with the tools needed to make more accurate and consistent decisions.

Open Scoring System

Another potential solution that has gained traction in recent years is the implementation of an open scoring system. Under this model, fighters and their corner teams would be informed of the judges’ scores at the end of each round, allowing them to adjust their strategies accordingly. This increased transparency could help reduce the likelihood of controversial decisions and foster greater trust in the MMA judging process.

However, UFC president Dana White was quick to criticize the idea, stating “If a guy knows that he’s up two rounds and you’re a professional fighter, you can absolutely stay away from a guy for an entire round and make the fight completely horrible.

“If you already know you’ve got two rounds in the bag, guarantee if you saw your score up there, all (you) have to do is stay away from this guy for the next five minutes. That makes for a lot of bad third rounds.”

Furthermore, White pointed out that open scoring “completely takes away the anticipation of who won the fight.”

Regardless, Kansas Athletic Commission experimented with open scoring in recent years, receiving mixed feedback from fighters and coaches. While some argue that it encourages more strategic and engaging fights, others worry that it could lead to more conservative fighting styles if a fighter knows they are ahead on the scorecards.

Utilizing Technology

Incorporating technology into the MMA judging process could also help address some of the challenges faced by human judges. For example, there are now systems that calculate fighter performance based on various data points, such as strikes landed, takedowns, and submission attempts.

However, it’s important to note — very simply — that the number of strikes landed doesn’t matter as much as the impact of the strikes. Relying on statistics to score a fight is a dangerous standard and definitely doesn’t align with the scoring criteria outlined in the Unified Rules of MMA. But it is possible that the extra information could aid the judging process.

Alternative Scoring Systems

Exploring alternative scoring systems, such as the “half-point” or “pride-style” systems, may also help address some of the issues with the current 10-point must system. These alternative models aim to provide a more nuanced and accurate reflection of the action inside the cage, reducing the likelihood of controversial decisions.

Regardless of the specific solution or combination of solutions adopted, the key to addressing the issue of controversial MMA judging decisions lies in the willingness of stakeholders, including fighters, promoters, regulators, and fans, to engage in open dialogue and collaborate towards meaningful change. As the sport continues to evolve and grow, it is crucial that its judging systems and processes adapt in tandem to ensure fairness, transparency, and the continued success of MMA.

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Johny Hendricks was arguably “robbed” in his fight against Georges St-Pierre at UFC 167 in November 2013. (Zuffa LLC)

Without a doubt, MMA judging controversies, from recent events like the Edwards vs. Pudilova fight to notorious decisions like St-Pierre vs. Hendricks, cast a shadow over the sport.

The root causes, such as inconsistent criteria, lack of expertise, and an unsuitable scoring system, must be addressed to ensure a more equitable playing field for fighters and maintain the integrity of MMA.

By implementing solutions like improved judge education, a new scoring system, increased transparency, and technological advancements, we can move towards a future where the outcome of a fight is determined solely by the skill and heart displayed inside the cage, and not by questionable decisions from the judges’ table.

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