The Bottom Line: Unsettled Scores

By Todd Martin Feb 11, 2020

The ordering process for Ultimate Fighting Championship pay-per-views has changed: UFC 247 is only available on ESPN+ in the U.S.

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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The subject of judging in mixed martial arts often brings about hyperbolic reactions. To hear critics of MMA judging tell it, the sport is plagued by an unending stream of questionable decisions—as opposed to an occasional bad decision here and there amidst a constant flow of close, competitive fights. MMA judges make an easy target: They are less viewed and less known than fighters, referees, commentators and trainers. They also get tied in with criticisms of scoring in boxing, a sister sport where bad scoring so often has the feel of corruption rather than simply incompetence. Many are clearly predisposed towards ripping judging at any possible opportunity.

This was evident at points during UFC 247 on Saturday in Houston. At one point, commentator Joe Rogan launched into an extended tirade about a judge not watching the fight without making it a point to first or even later verify that the person in question was in fact a judge. The vitriol towards judging is so baked in that critics don’t feel the need to give them the benefit of the doubt in the way that commentators are for the way they call a fight or media members are for the way they score a fight. It’s not uncommon at all for commentators to rip a judge’s score while acknowledging two rounds were close because the other round clearly went to the fighter who lost on the cards.

The problem for those of us who feel MMA scoring isn’t nearly the problem it’s sometimes made out to be is that one incompetent judge can in short order undo the positive work quality judges spend years achieving. That was certainly the case at UFC 247, where Joe Soliz turned in what was likely the worst one-night set of scores in the sport’s history. If Texas has any intention of turning around the poor reputation of its athletic commission, it can’t trot out judges who produce scorecards so out of line with reality.

Since the event, criticisms of Soliz have focused on the fact that he has been in the minority view on the vast majority of the Ultimate Fighting Championship bouts he has scored. To be clear, there should not be a stigma attached to simply being in the minority. Different judges are going to view fights differently. The role of a judge is not to score the fight as the judge expects others to score it but rather to score it the way he or she thinks it should be scored.

What’s important is not being in the majority or minority but whether looking at the judges’ scores in their totality gives the impression of a considered, knowledgeable viewpoint. There are going to be fights where someone scoring it is in the distinct minority but with a scorecard that’s eminently reasonable. There are so many components to MMA, and different educated observers are going to weigh submission attempts, body attacks and facial damage differently, to use three examples. However, sometimes there just isn’t a coherent logic to explain why one fighter who clearly lost should in fact be declared the winner. Soliz’s scores at UFC 247 failed the basic test of defensibility. He scored three fights in one night, and all three of them could qualify as the worst in a given month of UFC scoring. The scores weren’t just bad; they were spectacularly misguided.

The calamity began with the Andre Ewell-Jonathan Martinez prelim. This was a fight where Ewell came out strong but Martinez turned the tide in the middle. The overwhelming viewpoint was that Martinez won, but what was so striking about Soliz’s scorecard was that he found a way to give Ewell all three rounds—a score I’ve been unable to find duplicated anywhere. This was a bad score, but things only got worse from there.

The first round of Trevin Giles-James Krause was pretty straightforward. Krause took Giles’ back early and spent the majority of the round actively working for a rear-naked choke. On a couple of occasions, it looked like he might get the submission. Giles escaped at the end to take top position, but that should have been the difference between 10-8 Krause and 10-9 Krause, not between a Giles round and a Krause round. Soliz, of course, scored the round for Giles. It’s difficult to recall ground dominance being overlooked to that degree since Matt Hughes-Renato Verissimo.

That was all a warmup for the main event. I’ve seen people I respect justify scoring the second or third round for Jon Jones. I just don’t see it. It wasn’t simply that Reyes was outlanding Jones, although he was; it was that Reyes was landing the much stronger strikes, big punches that punished Jones and knocked him back. Jones was reliant on leg kicks just to stay busy because he recognized the danger in Reyes’ boxing. Jones was moving forward, but Reyes was landing better in both quantity and quality.

A 48-47 for Reyes felt like a much easier scorecard than most competitive championship fights because of the way the rounds went. However, you can sort of understand how a judge would talk himself into giving one of the first three rounds to Jones. “Bones” has the vaunted reputation, and Reyes pulling away early was unexpected. That is a fact pattern that often leads individuals to give the benefit of the doubt to what was the more expected outcome going in. However, at the point you’re giving Jones two of the first three rounds like Soliz did, you’ve moved beyond that to affirmatively thinking Jones was winning the fight through three. That’s pretty difficult to comprehend.

Even giving judges every possible benefit of the doubt, sometimes scorecards are beyond the pale. Moreover, taken together, they often tell a larger story. The athletes who competed at UFC 247 deserved better than the quality of the officiating they received. Other judges deserve better, as well, because the next time a judge turns in a minority viewpoint score in a close fight, the memory of this particular event will color the negative reaction to it. Everyone benefits when the judges who are truly the worst are identified and prevented from continuing to do damage to the collective faith fans have in MMA scores.

Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people. Advertisement

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