How do MMA Judges Score Fights?

As professional fighter Urijah Faber so eloquently put it, the purpose of an MMA fight is to simulate a death match – and, of course, the way to win a simulated death match is to simulate the death of your opponent. Despite that being the ideal that the UFC was based on, 44% of fights make it to decision. Although every MMA fight can’t end in a spectacular finish, it doesn’t help that of those fights that make it to a decision, the winner is based on the opinion of three judges.

With the recent string of questionable judges decisions, the question “How do MMA Judges Score Fights?” is being asked more and more these days. Whenever I’m watching a UFC PPV at the bar I constantly hear people complaining about a judges decision they don’t agree with. A majority of the time the people who are most often complaining simply don’t understand how judges evaluate fights.

The average MMA fan might not know that MMA judges score fights round by round. So although your favorite fighter may have dominated the very beginning or end of a fight, it doesn’t always make him/her the winner. It’s important to note that there’s multiple scoring criteria that judges use to score a fight, such as: effective striking and grappling, octagon control, and aggressiveness. With all of this combined, it’s easy to see why it’s possible to disagree with a judges decision, as it’s the judges who score the fight subjectively based upon a list of Unified Rules and specific scoring criteria. 

What are the Unified Rules of MMA 

The scoring criteria of MMA in the UFC is relatively simple. Prioritized first is effective striking and grappling, characterized by attacks with immediate potential to contribute to a finish. Cumulative damage scores as well; fighters that thrive on volume striking, such as Max Holloway, can accumulate points by keeping the pressure high and causing their opponents to wilt.

how do mma judges score fights
Max Holloway Defeated Brian Ortega by Doctor Stoppage.

However, IMMEDIATE damage is weighted more heavily than CUMULATIVE damage – meaning that if one fighter is battering another fighter with a long combination, a devastating punch that drops the aggressor will score more heavily. This is the most important point of scoring a fight: the remaining criteria are to be taken into consideration only if effective striking and grappling are equal. 

Another way to view this is that damage reigns supreme for the sake of scoring. Effective aggression is the second thing that judges look at. Aggression is only counted if it leads to successful attempts to end the fight. Chasing an opponent to no avail is not considered “effective”. On the other hand, defense does not score: evading an opponent’s strikes and retreating successfully do not influence the judge’s score cards. 

Finally, controlling the fighting area is taken into account assuming that both effective striking and grappling as well as effective aggression is equal. This is defined by who is dictating not only the location of the fight, but also the pace. Because this is the last thing that is considered, many people see fighters that surge forward with heavy swings and assume that, because they are trying to end the fight, that they must be winning. However, if the aggressive fighter is absorbing strikes – however minor – their missed strikes will not tilt the scales in their favor. An example of this is Zabit Magomedsharipov vs Kyle Bochniak, wherein Kyle crashed forward repeatedly and was picked apart, eventually losing by decision despite his tenacity.

How do MMA Judges Score Fights

With these rules in mind, the last thing to understand is that fights in the UFC are judged on a 10-9 system. This means that, in most cases, the fighter that won the round is given ten points and the fighter that lost is awarded nine. These figures can be changed through damage dealt or through fouls. 

The rarest score that can be awarded is 10-10. This score indicates that the fighters were equal on every level, with neither having an advantage and neither having fouled their opponent badly enough to warrant a point deduction.

The most common score is a 10-9 round. This suggests that one fighter had an advantage over the other, but did not come close to ending the fight during the round nor were they excessively dominant. 

A 10-8 round shows that one fighter was dominant in the round to the point of nearly finishing the fight, with that dominance being shown by the losing fighter continuously defending without trying or without being able to strike back or advance their position when grappling.

Furthermore, fighters may lose points due to committing egregious fouls. The lost point does not lead them to lose the round, but instead will be deducted at the end of the round. Therefore, if the judges would otherwise award them a 10-9, the score is changed to 9-9 to reflect the impact the foul had on the fight.   

How MMA Fights can be Decided

Once the fight has concluded, the scores of the judges can result in a number of announcements. Some of them, such as a unanimous decision or a split decision, are well known or very intuitively named. However, for the sake of clarity, all of the options are below.

  • Unanimous decision: All three judges judge the same fighter to be the winner.
  • Majority decision: Two judges score one fighter as the winner and the third judge scores it a draw.
  • Split decision: Two judges score one fighter as the winner and the third judge awards the fight to the other fighter.
  • Unanimous draw: All three judges score the bout a draw.
  • Majority draw: Two judges declare a draw while the third judge scores one fighter to be the winner.
  • Split draw: One judge scores it a draw, and the other two judges have awarded the fight to different fighters.

Controversial Decisions in MMA

Given the nature of a subjective scoring system, a certain percentage of those decisions (specifically, 26%) see one judge disagreeing with the other two. Following that line of logic, 11.44% of fights, just over one in ten, end in a decision that has some level of controversy. Despite a relatively small margin for error, it is human nature to focus on failure rather than the amount of uncontested decision wins. Therefore, there are more judges known for “incompetent” judging than there are judges known for their quality. 

Fans attribute these anomalies to a number of things. Most notably is that state gaming commissions do not have judges assigned solely to MMA; boxing judges were repurposed, and often judge for both sports. This can lead to an overemphasis on wrestling takedowns, to the point where a successful takedown is treated almost as a knockdown. While, in MMA, a knockdown does not automatically award a 10-8 round, it or a takedown will often result in the fighter winning the round in the absence of dominant action by their opponent. 

how mma judges score fights
Jon Jones Defeated Dominick Reyes in a Controversial Decision.

There are also judges that have been targeted specifically by fans. Joe Soliz, for example, was one of three judges who awarded Jon Jones his unanimous decision over Dominick Reyes. He was singled out not only because he gave the fight to Jon 49-46, the widest margin among the judges, but also because he awarded Trevin Giles the first round in his split decision victory over James Krause. This was considered poor judging because Krause had attacked and secured Giles’ back for several minutes, constantly threatening submissions and, thus, the end of the fight.

Adelaide Byrd is also infamous for strange decisions (most notably in boxing, though she has made some calls that are questioned by people like Joe Rogan even in MMA). She is often maligned by fans due to her relationship with a state gaming commissioner, leading to many suggesting that her role was awarded due to nepotism. 

With all this in mind, hopefully it’s a little easier to understand a judge’s decision in the future. Remember to appreciate the decisions that go the way that they should rather than allowing the ones that don’t to sour your viewing experience. The subjectivity of judging lends viewership a dynamic and sometimes unpredictable quality, which is part of the fun of MMA.

Final Thoughts

Although judges are often the first criticized during a close fights decision, they don’t deserve nearly as much hate as the fans give them. They have one of the toughest jobs in all of sports, as Joe Rogan has been quoted saying numerous of times during a close fight “I wouldn’t want to be a judge scoring this fight.” Of course I’m not saying that there haven’t been some shady decisions in MMA. I’m just saying that a majority of judges want to get it right, however, there always isn’t a clear winner in MMA and that’s what makes this sport the greatest in the world.

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