Issue 115

June 2014

The 10-point-must scoring system used in mixed martial arts was brought over from boxing, but is it time MMA tried something a little more accurate? And is there even a system out there that would work? FO investigates...

Rarely known for his quiet, considered words, UFC boss Dana White was in explosive form at the post-UFC 167 press conference last November. In the aftermath of Georges St Pierre’s heavily debated split-decision win over Johny Hendricks, White went off on a tirade about judging, declaring: “I think the Nevada State Athletic Commission is atrocious. I think the governor needs to step in and fix the incompetence. It’s 100% incompetence. I’m scared to come back here.”

White wasn’t the only one appalled. Former UFC champion, legendary trainer and one of the sport’s best color commentators, Pat Miletich, called it “the worst judging decision in the history of the sport.”

Such reactions, extreme as they might have been this time, don’t seem all that unusual. Every MMA fan likely has their ‘favorite’ on a long list of robberies, screw-ups, biased and downright awful decisions. But how bad are things really? And what can, and should, be done? 

‘Don't leave it in the hands of the judges’

The myth, obviously exaggerated but still quite prevalent, goes like this: judges in MMA are often clueless, possibly corrupt and always unreliable. They can’t be trusted to pick the right winner so every fighter needs to do everything they can to finish the fight and keep these pencil-wielding buffoons out of the picture. 

To separate popular myth from reality it’s always useful to look at the numbers. According to, 159 UFC fights were decided by the judges in 2012, which was 46.4% of the total number of fights in the Octagon that year; and 182 went to the score cards in 2013, which was 47.2% of the total. The judges decide almost half of all UFC fight outcomes and it seems, for the most part, they do a decent job.

Of the 159 judges’ decisions handed out in 2012, only 16 attracted significant and widespread questioning in the MMA media. For this article, ‘significant’ and ‘widespread’ are defined as attracting negative comments and frequent use of the ever-popular c-word, ‘controversial’, from a variety of MMA websites which publish play-by-play event reports. While there were plenty of other debatable fights, and ones that reasonable people can accept could have been judged either way, those 16 were the most frequently questioned.

Last year, with 182 decisions, just 13 attracted similar dissent. While this sample covers only the last two full calendar years, the results are reasonably consistent and suggest the current system of judging works around 90% of the time.

And given there are very few fights (even in the lists of 2012 and 2013’s

so-called ‘most controversial decisions’ which can be seen on the following pages) that aren’t at least open to debate on either side, bouts ending with the often claimed ‘robbery’ are actually very rare.

Journalist Dave Meltzer has been covering mixed martial arts from the beginning, has reported on every UFC event ever held and was even a UFC judge in the old SEG days. On his Wrestling Observer Live radio show immediately after the decision-heavy UFC 169, Meltzer discussed ‘robberies’. 

“Most of the judges in MMA are pretty good,” he said. “There are a few that should be gone, no question, but most of the time, when you talk about bad judgement, it’s usually fights that could have gone either way, and people overreact and freak out... I don’t care who’s judging, in a close fight, a 50:50 fight, you’re going to p**s 50% of the people off.”

Certainly, judges disagree on the outcome of fights, just as much as journalists, fans, fighters and everyone else who watches the sport. In the tome Fightnomics: the Hidden Numbers and Science of Mixed Martial Arts, penned by Reed Kuhn, a whole chapter is devoted to the judging of fights and how officials’ disagreements on rounds, and winners, is a significant, recurring issue.

Kuhn writes that in 2007, judges disagreed on the winner of a fight 22% of the time but disagreed on a round 58% of the time. In 2013, the numbers fluctuated and then rose to 26% and 63%, respectively, meaning that in almost two-thirds of UFC fights, judges disagree on at least one round. Such variations can easily swing decisions and outcomes.

Improving standards and consistency, especially over 10-8 rounds, is a major concern for the executive director of the California State Athletic Commission (CSAC), Andy Foster. Appointed last October to one of the sport’s biggest and most influential regulatory boards, Foster is a former professional fighter.  

Speaking to Fighters Only, he says: “The CSAC is very concerned about the lack of consistency in MMA judging, specifically, when a 10-8 round is scored. Almost never do all three judges agree on a 10-8 round in MMA. In boxing, judges agree on a 10-8 round almost always. This will definitely be a problem moving forward – until we try to fix it.

“I am not sure we can ever ‘objectify’ a 10-8 round in MMA, but we must try to better define what a 10-8 round looks like. I am not claiming to have the answers, but I recognize that we have a problem.”

That problem was made clear when, absurdly, two judges scored the second round of Jessica Andrade’s ferocious beating of Rosi Sexton 10-9 at UFC Fight Night 30. No one could sensibly argue they picked the wrong winner of that October 2013 fight, but you rarely see a more obvious 10-8 five minutes. 

Similarly, in their October 2012 fight at UFC 153, one judge scored the first round 10-9 for Glover Teixeira, despite him giving Fabio Maldonado a real savaging. Judges unable to identify such obvious 10-8 rounds need to be asked to explain their rationale, even if in the end they select the correct winner.

Andy Foster’s office also shared some statistics comparing how the 10-point-must system is applied in boxing and MMA. In boxing, judges score rounds 10-9 almost 93% of the time, with 5% of rounds being 10-8 and 1% being scored 10-10.

In MMA, 10-9 rounds are even more prevalent, 97%, while 10-8 scores are rarer at 2% and 10-10 is used just 0.2% of the time.  

But the biggest difference, and the one that concerns Foster most is that, of those 10-8 rounds, boxing judges agree on the score a whopping 94% of the time, while for MMA, judges agree on a 10-8 round just 28% of the time.  

Foster says: “This problem is amplified when you consider that MMA is scored in three and five-round increments and boxing is scored, almost always, in four, six, eight, 10 and 12 rounds.”

The more rounds a fight has, the less likely a single, poorly scored round could skew the eventual outcome. Quite clearly there are problems with consistency and poor judging, albeit in a relatively small number of fights, which then provoke virulent negative responses. So what are the potential solutions?

Can we fix It? Yes we can

Immediately after St Pierre’s UFC 167 points victory, perennial championship contender Urijah Faber called for a fairly drastic change, while most other fighters and ex-fighters were simply screaming ‘robbery’ and ‘judges suck.’  

“A three-out-of-five judging system could work. Five judges, majority wins. Then start eliminating judges that always blow it,” Faber offers. It’s an idea worth serious consideration. Employing five judges rather than three should, on paper at least, reduce the likelihood of a couple of rogue scores in one or two rounds determining the outcome of a close fight.  

However, if the real problem is a scarcity of high-quality judges, then inviting two more to the table might actually increase the chances of incompetent scorecards.

Highly-respected former referee and judge Nelson ‘Doc’ Hamilton runs, a California-based training program and seminar service for referees and judges. In January 2011 ‘Doc’ published his own proposal on fixing MMA’s judging problems. 

His MMAS (mixed martial arts specific) scoring system is essentially an evolution of the existing system, employing somewhat different criteria, introducing half points and, in the event of a draw, an additional ‘table judge’ who scores the fight by allocating points for significant actions and moments.  

According to Hamilton: “The 10-point-must system, as used in boxing, the sport for which it was created, has proven inadequate for use in a multi-discipline sport like MMA, particularly when scoring very close rounds. The nature, variety and diversity of what regularly occurs in most MMA rounds demands a scoring system with a finer gradient of options to ensure more fair and accurate scoring.”

Hamilton’s system specifies 10-10 even rounds, 10-9½ for “marginal advantage,” 10-9 for “clear advantage,” 10-8½ for “significant to dominant advantage,” 10-8 for “dominant to overwhelming advantage,” and 10-7½ and 10-7 scores to cover a “decidedly overwhelming advantage.” More nuanced, Hamilton’s half points system has plenty of supporters but his table-judge idea is more problematic.

Do we really need to add a new, more complex layer of scoring, and can athletic commissions and smaller promotions bear the cost of appointing Hamilton’s table judge to account for possibly clearing up 0.53% (the number of Zuffa-era UFC fights judged as draws) of fight results?  

Besides, it seems odd that the deciding voice should be using a completely different criteria to score the fight. If the points system used by the table judge is the answer, why not use it as the basis for all scoring?  

Unfortunately, Hamilton’s points criteria is far too limited. Damaging strikes that don’t lead to knockdowns, takedowns stuffed and any-and-all clinch work simply don’t register on his scale. And while such significant events could be added to an expanded system, that would risk making this ‘objective’ criteria completely incomprehensible to the audience and extremely hard to follow for the judges themselves.

The view from the squared circle

Glyn Leach is a mixed martial arts fan. He’s also been the editor of Boxing Monthly, since 1992, and has been writing about scoring controversies in combat sports since long before MMA even had judges. He has “no problem with the 10-point-must system in boxing,” but notes: “There are so many other things to be taken into account in a multi-discipline sport like MMA and I don’t know how they figure. On a superficial level, 10-point-must is fine for MMA, but the intricacies of the sport seem likely to be ignored.”

He quickly dismisses half-point scoring as a bad idea, having campaigned to have the system dropped in British boxing, which it eventually was in the 1990s, because “there’s no need to further complicate things, nothing to be gained from it. People struggle to understand scoring as it is; half points make things worse.”

In the interests of openness and transparency, ‘open scoring,’ where judges’ scores are announced publicly after every round, has been suggested for MMA. It’s already been trialed in boxing and kickboxing. But again, Leach is not a big fan. He explains: “It robs boxing of one of its great dramatic moments, the announcement of the decision after a close, hard-fought fight. 

“It also alters the run of a fight. If ‘Fighter A’ is miles ahead after 10 rounds and he knows it, what reason is there for him not to spoil and run all the way to the final bell? The MMA equivalent would be ‘Fighter A’ leading after two rounds, then taking ‘Fighter B’ down and just smothering his opponent, doing nothing until the fight ends. Do we really want that? I know I don’t.  

“Open scoring won’t wipe out bad decisions, either. A bad judge is a bad judge, but a weak judge might start to give rounds ‘wrong’ if the crowd starts booing (if) it learns the scores during a fight. I think there’s more to lose than gain where open scoring is concerned.”

Can we fix it? No, we can't

Some advocate the complete removal of any points system, arguing instead for the simpler scoring style of defunct Japanese promotion Pride, where the judges, using set criteria, simply pick an overall winner. But the problem here is twofold. 

Firstly, there were plenty of poor decisions in Pride (Ryan Gracie’s ludicrous win over Ikuhisa Minowa in May 2004, and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira’s ‘victory’ over Ricco Rodriguez in August 2003, instantly spring to mind).  

Secondly, the 10-point-must system should, in theory, make judging more transparent and accountable. By making judges assign a score to each round, it should be easier to track rogue scoring and outright mistakes. Making the system even more subjective and opaque helps no one.

How likely is a major change to the system? Not very. Not with the bureaucratic hurdles to clear and, as yet, a lack of genuinely overwhelming evidence that a change really needs to be made.  

At the July 2012 annual convention of commissions that regulate North American combat sports, the CSAC and Edmonton Combative Sports Commission both presented evidence, based on studies in their jurisdiction, that using half points changed the result of MMA fights 2% and 5% of the time, respectively. The athletic commissions in Georgia and Colorado undertook similar studies and said that half-point scoring made no difference to the outcome of fights.

On hearing this evidence, the official minutes of the meeting revealed that the commissions presenting evidence on half points “believe the system would be good if every fight had top-tier judges, but aren’t convinced that every judge would be good at using the system. The committee recommends that the half-point system not be adopted. The ABC (Association of Boxing Commissions) should stick with the 10-point system.”  

Such a small number of different, and not definitively improved, fight outcomes (the judges’ current 90% success rate wouldn’t be bettered much) is unlikely to make anyone implement major changes to the current system any time soon. 

There are no easy answers and no scoring system will ever be perfect. Glyn Leach feels that “judges should be heavily vetted and their decisions constantly scrutinized, but scoring is in the lap of the gods and it will never be taken out of there.

“Boxing has tried electronic systems, but nobody liked them, either. I think we have to accept that, yes, scoring is subjective but that doesn’t mean we should ever rest in trying to improve standards.”

If controversial decisions continue, and clearly they will, then things might change at some point. If so, the best (or least-worst) solution may be the simplest: use the 10-point-must system, but overhaul the criteria and the expectations of what a judge will and won’t score.  

Accept the usefulness of 10-10 rounds and make 10-9 the standard for close rounds, with 10-8 only used for a clear win, and 10-7 for the round where one fighter shows complete dominance. And if someone is almost finished and escapes the round by the skin of their teeth, perhaps that would be a 10-6. 

The math remains simple, there’s enough flexibility to account for point deductions and still have a broadly familiar system that holds judges accountable for their scoring of every round. And that accountability is vital.  

At the end of the day, bad judging will find a way to mess up even the simplest and most transparent scoring system. Any solution needs to prioritize improved and ongoing training and scrutiny for the men and women who at the end of 15 or 25-minute bouts ultimately decide the winner.


Chael Sonnen beat Michael Bisping

UFC on Fox 2, January 28th

Josh Koscheck beat Mike Pierce

UFC 143, February 4th

Carlos Condit beat Nick Diaz

UFC 143, February 4th

Ronny Markes beat Aaron Simpson

UFC on Fuel TV 1, February 15th

Chris Cariaso beat Takeya Mizugaki

UFC 144, February 26th

Johny Hendricks beat Josh Koscheck

UFC on Fox 3, May 5th

Demetrious Johnson beat Ian McCall

UFC on FX 3, June 8th

Felipe Arantes drew with Milton Vieira

UFC 147, June.23rd

Nick Ring beat Court McGee

UFC 149, July 21st

Tim Boetsch beat Hector Lombard

UFC 149, July 21st

Benson Henderson beat Frankie Edgar

UFC 150, August 11th

Demetrious Johnson beat Joseph Benavidez

UFC 152, September 22nd

Akira Corassani beat Andy Ogle

UFC on Fuel TV 5, September 29th

Cristiano Marcello beat Reza Madadi

UFC 153, October 13th

Takanori Gomi beat Mac Danzig

UFC on Fuel TV 6, November 10th

Francis Carmont beat Tom Lawlor

UFC 154, November 17th


Godofredo Castro beat Milton Vieir

UFC on FX 7, January 19th

Alex Caceres beat Kyung Ho Kang 

UFC on Fuel TV 8, March 3rd

Diego Sanchez beat Takanori Gomi 

UFC on Fuel TV 8, March 3rd

Patrick Cote beat Bobby Voelker 

UFC 158, March 16th

Francis Carmont beat Lorenz Larkin 

UFC on Fox 7, April 20th

Dennis Bermudez beat Max Holloway

UFC 160, May 25th

Yves Jabouin beat Dustin Pague 

UFC 161, June 15th

Jake Shields beat Tyron Woodley

UFC 161, June 15th

Phil Davis beat Lyoto.Machida

UFC 163, August 3rd

Fabio Maldonado beat Joey Beltran 

UFC Fight Night 29, October 9th

Jessica Eye beat Sarah Kaufman 

UFC 166, October 19th

Tim Boetsch beat CB Dolloway 

UFC 166, October 19th

Georges St Pierre beat Johny Hendricks 

UFC 167, November 16th


Judges‘ decision - 159

%Total fights - 46.4%

% Questionable decisions - 10%


Judges‘ decision - 182 %

Total fights - 47.2%

% Questionable decisions - 7%