Controversial judging in MMA has almost become tradition these days, with promoters going as far as urging fighters not to leave it in the hands of the judges to avoid coming out on the wrong side. This stance would suggest a clear distrust in the judging across the board in MMA, though from the promoter’s point of view that stance is adopted more so to entice fighters into providing fans with a great fight to watch, more than anything else.

Judging by its very nature is a subjective process whereby an individual examines the facts and figures before reaching a conclusion on a topic of which they should (in theory) be an expert. Whether this is restricted to the confines of a courtroom, a boxing ring or an MMA event, this assumed knowledge on behalf of the judge is the reason why they are placed on a pedestal and deemed worthy of being the decision-maker.

In reality, at least in MMA, judges (in the past, at least) have been not so much an expert of mixed martial arts, but more so a boxing expert who is looking to cross over to the emerging market of MMA for another payday as a judge. This brings with it its own problems, such as a lack of understanding of the ground game and the intricate movements that take place in a high-level grappling exchange, a lack of understanding of the defensive posture an MMA fighter has to adopt to be able to defend against leg attacks, elbows and knees when on the feet as opposed to the pure punching experienced in boxing.

As MMA has risen through the ranks in the sporting world, the judges that score the bouts have become more specialized, and so are perhaps now in a better position to judge the outcome than in the past.

With that said, there are still numerous examples every year (sometimes on the same fight card) of where the judges simply come to an astounding decision. Whilst some of these decisions border on the ridiculous, it is often forgotten that the judges are not told to decide the fight based on their natural instinct of who won, but more so based upon the application of a regimented set of criteria which can often nullify the real aspects of the fight itself.

For instance, when starting MMA every fighter will most likely learn the basics in boxing, wrestling, kickboxing and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. From the very outset, the fighter will most likely focus his or her training on the attacking aspects of the game so that they have the knowledge of how to finish the fight should the opportunity present itself. However, the defensive side of the sport is often forgotten by the fighters and the judges alike. Knowing the correct counter to an armbar, triangle or guillotine is sometimes ignored on the basis that the fighter defending the technique was in a losing position in the first place.

As MMA develops, the mere fact that any fighter is placed in a compromising position should not be deemed a losing position, but more so a testament to the fact that we are now seeing true mixed martial artists emerging, as opposed to those specialized in one discipline, as in the past.

Although an offensive maneuver should always be given higher praise than its defensive counterpart in combat sports, this does not mean that the defensive maneuver is disregarded as pure luck, rather than judgment. It is likely that whoever the fighter is, regardless of skill level, he/she will find themselves in a precarious position at one time in their career, and it is only then that the true skill emerges to keep a cool head and recover their position.

Despite the influx of experienced MMA judges, this does not mean that the criteria which they are given to implement are evolving at the same pace.

The problem with the lack of evolution with the rules of MMA is often said to be due to the fact the rules are implemented as outlined by the athletic commission in a given area. As such, any changes would need to be ratified by those in power, which can be a long drawn-out process indeed.

In contrast, boxing has a governing body that can alter the rules as it sees fit and as such can legislate immediately against a trend that might crop up that had not previously been considered. In MMA terms, it is possible that had there been a unified body for MMA legislation, the prohibition of knees to the head of a grounded opponent would have been altered some time ago to eliminate the possibility of a fighter using this rule to his advantage by placing a hand on the mat, a loophole that is utilized these days in pretty much any fight that involves clinching against the cage.

Additionally, another controversial technique is the oblique kick, as made famous by Jon Jones. This may well have been outlawed if MMA had the benefit of a governing body similar to that in boxing. After all, the sole purpose of this technique is to injure the opponent’s knee by making it flex in a direction that it naturally shouldn’t, though this would inevitably lead to questions against leg locks in their entirety.

For the traditional MMA fan, there will always be uproar when any rule is changed. Once the process begins of restricting the fighter’s attacks inside the cage, it is difficult to know where it could stop. After all, MMA in its purest form is the ultimate form of combat based upon minimum restrictions so as to allow the fighters complete control of where the fight takes place.

For now, there is a long way to go before fans, fighters and promoters alike become confident in the judges coming to the right conclusion every time. The introduction of instant replay is a general step in the right direction to ensure the correct decisions are made by the referee, and hopefully similar improvements will continue in judging and officiating fights.

Photo: Phil Davis is awarded victory by the judges against Lyoto Machida (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

About The Author

Greg Byron
Staff Writer
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Greg Byron started training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu after his brother introduced him to a local MMA fighter/coach when he was just 16 years old. Greg has trained for nearly a decade in both BJJ and MMA, competing in several grappling events within the UK. In addition to MMA, Greg possesses a law degree and works for a firm in northern part of England.