The fight is over. The final horn has sounded we've watched all the replays, and we've listened to Joe Rogan and Mike Goldberg give their take on the fight. The fighters stand to either side of the referee, while Bruce Buffer, the UFC octagon announcer, gathers the judges' scorecards and prepares to read the official decision. But everyone knows who won. Anyone with a working set of eyes could see that one fighter clearly outperformed the other. The decision should be nothing more than a formality. And yet this moment is one of the most tense moments in the Mixed Martial Arts. Because all too often, it seems the wrong guy wins.
Sometimes we can't agree on exactly what the problem is. We can argue endlessly over whether the judges need monitors, or whether they should have access to statistics, or whether the criteria is foggy. Maybe the 10-Point Must system, borrowed from boxing, isn't really right for MMA. Maybe we need to tweak it, make it more dynamic, to fit our longer rounds, and the shorter number of them. Or perhaps the judges need to train for MMA themselves so they can better understand what they're watching. Or maybe they're just corrupt, crooked or bought off...
But even if we can't agree on what the problem is, let alone decide on a solution, it seems that everyone agrees -- it's a problem. Is there anyone left that thinks MMA judging is just fine? And no, Keith Kizer (executive director of the Nevada Athletic Commission), doesn't count.
There's only one argument that supports the current state of MMA judging, and that argument is this: At least it's not boxing.
Many MMA fans, myself included, were once boxing fans. Those that weren't might not understand how judging can possibly get worse than it is in MMA, where it seems each and every major fight card has at least one robbery. But veterans of boxing fandom understand that, while MMA judging seems wildly incompetent, there are times in boxing where the problem seems beyond incompetence, and it's impossible not to suspect corruption.
Think about this. Because MMA fights are generally three rounds, a judge usually needs only to see one of those rounds differently than the majority of viewers in order to create a controversial decision. In boxing, because the fights usually last ten or twelve rounds, a judge can see a round or two the wrong way and it doesn't even get noticed. In boxing, a robbery can't usually be created unless a judge sees three, four, or even five rounds for the wrong fighter.
In preparation for writing this piece, I went back and re-watched many of the MMA fights that I remembered as robberies -- not close fights with unpopular decisions (Machida/Shogun I, Penn/Edgar I), but outright robberies. The clearest case of a robbery in recent memory is the fight between Nam Phan and Leonard Garcia that took place at The Ultimate Fighter Season 12 Finale in December of 2010. This was likely not the biggest robbery in MMA history (Chase Bebe vs. Mike Easton is the reigning champion of robberies in my opinion), but it happened at a time when dismay over judging was reaching a boiling point.
The fight was an exciting one. In my own opinion, Nam Phan won each of the three rounds with precise striking to the head and body. Garcia's punches were wild, often to the point it looked like he was fighting an imaginary opponent somewhere between himself and Phan. And yet when the dust settled, two of the three judges saw Garcia as the winner.
How Garcia was awarded this fight (and other fights -- Garcia has been on the lucky side of judging robberies so often he might just be the scariest opponent in MMA) goes well beyond the point where any argument of subjectivity will suffice. The action was clear to everyone that watched the fight, it seems, save for two of the three judges. Whether their angle was poor, or they value harmless aggression over damaging strikes, it's hard to boil the Phan/Garcia decision down to anything other than some form of incompetence.
Corruption is a different animal, and we should only suspect it when accusations of incompetence are so exhausted they no longer make sense. And perhaps there is absolutely no corruption present in the judging of prize fights. But sometimes, and here we will look at boxing again, incompetence can reach such outrageous levels that it becomes hard to believe it's really incompetence at all.
The most suspicious boxing decision I can remember came at the end of the first fight between Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield in 1999. I recently re-watched the fight with my scorecard in hand. Like Phan/Garcia, it was a great fight, and it reminded me why I was once a fan of boxing. Lewis controlled Holyfield throughout the night, keeping him at bay with a strong jab and pounding him with timely overhand rights. Holyfield had trouble closing the distance, and aside from a few flurries, seemed to have no answer for Lewis's length and ring generalship.
I scored the fight 117-111 for Lewis (my round-for-round scoring was directly in line with HBO's Harold Lederman), 9 rounds to 3. The official decision, which is now famous, was a draw. And frankly, it makes me feel lucky to be an MMA fan.
Lewis's most dominant round was the fifth, which saw him corner Holyfield against the ropes for a minute or more, landing shots to the head and body. Yet somehow, beyond any explanation I can come up with, Judge Eugenia Williams of New Jersey scored the round for Holyfield.
Williams was later shown a videotape of the round, and told the BBC, "What I saw on TV is not the same as what I saw that night." Yet Holyfield's offensive output in the round was so minimal that I can't imagine what she thought she saw.
In total Lewis had landed 348 punches to Holyfield's 130. During the broadcast, before the decision was read, HBO's Jim Lampley stated, "If the judges see fit to ignore this kind of numerical dominance, you would wonder how." And indeed we do wonder.
But just because our problem with judging in MMA hasn't reached boxing proportions doesn't mean we don't have a problem. If anything, we should heed boxing's example of how bad things can get. We need to fix our problem now before it really gets out of hand (Here's looking at you, Keith Kizer). We all agree there is a problem, but by putting up with so much incompetence, we are leaving the door wide open for corruption. And that's a much uglier monster, and a much harder problem to fix.