A few years back I looked at my phone to see a former champion of a major MMA promotion calling the day after losing a high-profile fight.
The second I answered he launched into a frustrated line of questioning that began, “Can you explain to me how judges score these fights?”
It was frustration boiling over after being on the losing end of a close decision.
But if it’s hard to a man who has worn championship gold around his waist to understand the motivations of the judges, it’s easy to see how a casual observer could wind up confused on fight night.
So, how do judges score fights?
Rounds are scored on a “10-point must system,” which was explained in our Idiot’s Guide to the UFC:
Under this scoring system, the winner of each round must be awarded 10 points (unless there is a rule violation) while the loser of the round is awarded nine or fewer points depending on the level of dominance displayed over the course of five minutes. In the event a round has no clear winner, a judge may score a round 10-10.
The Association of Boxing Commissions and Combative Sports (ABC) judging criteria emphasizes three main areas on which each round should be judged. That determines not only the round winner, but also the appropriate score.
The first (and most important) criteria is “effective striking and grappling.” The judging criteria states this should be “the deciding factor in a high majority of decisions when scoring a round.”
“Effective” is the key word and mainly focuses on successful actions with a likely chance to bring the bout to an end. A big punch that hurts your opponent and buckles their legs is worth more than several lighter blows. Similarly with grappling, attacking with submissions is worth more than simply laying on top of your opponent and holding them down.
If a judge sees the striking and grappling to be equally effective, they are then to decide which fighter had more “effective aggression.”
This somewhat nebulous criteria revolves around which fighter was more effective in aggressively attempting to finish the fight. Simply rushing forward throwing heavy punches that come nowhere near landing is not “effective aggression.”
Finally, if the judges also see the effective aggression as even, they are to look at “fighting area control.” That is, who is controlling the pace of the fight as well as where the fight is taking place. A fighter forced to fight with his back against the cage could find himself penalized in a very close round.
All three of these criteria must be considered even for judge score a round at 10-10. Most rounds will be scored at 10-9. But some rounds are dominant enough to be scored 10-8. And in rare cases you may even see a 10-7.
A 10-8 round is usually awarded when the action is 100% in favor of one fighter. Or, if there was sufficient dominance that also included a near finish.
As stated in the ABC guidelines:
Judges shall ALWAYS give a score of 10 – 8 when the judge has established that one fighter has dominated the action of the round, had duration of the domination and also impacted their opponent with either effective strikes or effective grappling maneuvers that have diminished the abilities of their opponent.
A score of 10-7 would suggest that a fighter spent most of the round in danger of being finished, all while taking significant damage.
Again, from the guidelines:
It takes both overwhelming DOMINANCE of a round, but also significant IMPACT that, at times, cause the judge to consider that the fight could be stopped.
Not a perfect science
Of course, whenever winners are decided by the subjective opinions of other humans, there will be controversy. And UFC history is littered with controversial decisions.
For example, in a June 2014 bout between Ross Pearson and Diego Sanchez, only one of 14 media outlets found a single round to award to Sanchez. However, two of the three judges awarded the victory to Sanchez in one of the worst decisions in the sport’s history.
It was so bad that two different UFC legends put it at the top of their worst decisions list:
While winning by decision is a perfectly valid and acceptable form of victory, it’s also the one method where the power does not rest in the fighter’s actions. And you can not trust three human beings to all see a fight the same way … or the sane way.
This is why one of the most used phrases through the career of UFC President Dana White has been telling his fighters “never leave a fight in the hands of the judges.”