How Do MMA Judges Score Fights And Why So Controversial Explained


MMA judges and their work are, perhaps, one of the most hot topics in modern MMA. Nowadays, we can hear people arguing about judges’ decisions after every UFC event. 

But, why this comes about so often, and how MMA judges actually score fights? Is it the problem in judges or the system itself? 

First of all, one has to realize that judging a fight is much harder than you might think. The scoring system and criteria judges are using are complex and have many flaws which often lead to very controversial outcomes of the fight. In recent years, we are seeing an increase in split or majority decisions. Out of 225 decisions in 2017, we saw 58 split or majority decisions which is a disagreement rate of 26%.

But before blaming the judges, we should all educate on what is the science behind scoring fights in the first place. By doing so, one can become aware that the MMA judging system is far from being perfect. Due to the issues within the system, bad calls will happen no matter what.

So in this article, we are digging deep into MMA judging and bringing you all you need to know about how MMA fights are scored by judges to better understand why there are so many controversial decisions.

General rules of MMA Judging In UFC/MMA events

The MMA judging system is based on the “Unified Rules of MMA” that were put together in the early 2000s. Over the years, we haven’t seen any major changes within the system and here is how it works: 

  • Each MMA event consist of three judges sitting next to the cage/octagon. 
  • They score a fight round by round using the criteria from “Unified Rules of MMA”.
  • A fighter who wins a round gets 10 points on the scorecards while a losing fighter gets 9, 8, or 7 points. This is based on how one-sided the round was or whether the referee deducted a point due to a rule violation. 
  • Upon the end of each round, judges need to score a round and must hand in their cards to officials overlooking their work before the next round starts. 
  • If a fight goes to a decision, then the officials would tabulate the judges’ cards and give a win to a fighter with more points. 
  • If a fight ends in a KO, TKO, or submission, then the scorecards are no longer needed. 

With the general rules in place, we can now move to what type of criteria MMA judges use when evaluating the fight.

What Criteria MMA Judges Are Using When Scoring Fights?

“Unified Rules of MMA” include precise criteria MMA judges must use to score a fight. In UFC for instance, judges score the fight round by round using three main criteria:

Effective striking/grappling

Effective aggression

Fighting area control

from abcboxing.com

It’s important to know that judges use criteria in this order to decide the outcome of the round. And this is where judges and fans often go separate ways when it comes to who they think won the fight.

The thing is, fans and judges often don’t see a fight with the same pairs of eyes. Scoring a fight based on your personal feeling is not the same as when you score it following criteria. This is often a reason why fans may think judges have made a bad call while in fact they were right.

That said, let’s have a closer look at all three criteria and how judges are using them when scoring fights:

Effective Striking/Grappling

This is the first priority criteria MMA judges use to pick the winner of the round. They will look for strikes or grappling attacks that do damage or may lead to a finish of the match. And the immediate damage is more important than cumulative damage. 

In other words, the winner of the round is a fighter who:

  • lands more strikes or does more damage
  • scores more takedowns or attacks with submissions

Effective Aggression

This is the second priority criteria judges’ use only when fighters are equal in the first criteria. It often happens that the fight is equal in both striking and grappling. Then, MMA judges must determine which fighter has put more effort into finishing a fight. 

This doesn’t mean that a fighter chasing the rival across the cage and taking damage is “effective aggression”. No, he/she must push for a KO or submission while having control of the fight

Fighting Area Control

This is the third priority criteria MMA judges are using only when fighters are 100% equal in both Effective striking/grappling and Effective aggression criteria explained above. In that case, judges would pick a winner based on who is dictating the pace, place, and position of the fight. 

If fighters are equal in all three aspects then a judge will score a draw.

What Are The Unified Rules Of MMA?

Unified Rules of MMA” are the set of rules used by all major MMA promotions like UFC or Bellator. Apart from these two promotions, they are de facto a standard set of rules for pro-MMA matches in the entire US and many other parts of the world. 

It all started in 2001 when the sport of MMA needed a new set of rules to become a regulated sport. Various athletic commissions and experts have put together a set of rules known as “Unified Rules of MMA”. 

The birth of Unified Rules is often seen as a tipping point in MMA history that made the sport safe and suitable for a broad audience.  Here are some of the changes that came with this set of rules:

  • Weight classes
  • Judges scoring criteria and 10-point scoring system
  • Prohibited substances
  • Various fouls and penalties to keep the fighters safe and competition fair

What Is A 10 Point Scoring System In MMA?

A 10-point scoring system is what MMA judges are using to decide the outcome of the fight. This type of scoring system originates from boxing and it became a part of MMA in 2001. While working on Unified rules of MMA, they adopted a 10-point system as an initial solution that is still in use today. 

This system has its own pros and cons in MMA and the way judges are using it is very simple. In most cases, judges will give 10 points to a winner of the round and the loser would get 9. If the fighter dominates the round, nearly scores a finish, or produces a lot of damage, then the judges will score a round 10–8. 

What’s more, MMA judges can also score a 10–7 round but that doesn’t not happen often.

What Types Of Decisions There Are In MMA?

MMA fights go to a decision when fighters fail to finish the fight with KO, TKO or submission and the outcome has to be decided by the judges’ scorecards. When the decision is in the judge’s hands, there are two possible outcomes. Either one fighter would win a fight, or it ends as a draw. Since we have three judges who may score the fight differently, there are three types of decision win and two types of draw:

Decision Win

Unanimous– this type of decision happens when all three judges agree on which fighter won the match. 

Majority decision– this means that two of the three judges agreed on which fighter won the match. But the third judge scored a fight as a draw. 

Split decision– this means that two of the three judges picked the same winner while the third judge picked the other fighter. 

Draw

Unanimous draw– in this type of draw, all three judges agree that neither fighter won the fight. We must point out that this has never happened in the history of UFC. 

Majority draw– is an outcome when two of the three judges agree that neither fighter has won the bout. Meanwhile, the third judge has one fighter as the winner on their scorecards. One of the most famous majority draws was between Tyron Woodley and Stephen Thompson at UFC 205.

Split draw– this type of outcome occurs when one judge has one fighter as the winner, another judge has the other fighter and the third judge scores the fight as a draw.

What Happens If An MMA Fight Ends In A Draw?

In modern MMA, there are no extra rounds or overtime where there’s a draw like you see in other sports like kickboxing. 

So when a fight ends in a draw, the UFC would usually book the same fight again. This is because neither the fighters, fans, nor the UFC benefit from a draw. Fans love to see a winner and draw decisions stop fighters from moving forward. So booking the same fight again is the best solution as we would normally get the winner the second time around. 

In the past, some “K-1 Hero’s” included extra rounds when fights end in a draw. And the Japanese “Pride FC” had a different scoring system made in a way that we always had a winner.

How Does An MMA Fighter Lose A Point In A Fight?

MMA fighters can lose a point for violating rules like landing eye pokes or hitting the groin area. When a fighter violates the rule, then the referee would stop the fight and deduct a point or more from the fighter. So at the end of that round, each of the three judges needs to take away one point from a fighter who broke the rules.

For instance, let’s say that a fighter who got a point deducted ended up winning that round 10–9. The judges would, in that case, score a round 9–9 due to point deduction. In boxing, for instance, losing one point is not a big deal as there are 12 rounds. But in MMA it is a disaster since a fighter has only two rounds or less left to get that point back. 

In reality, however, MMA fighters would get away with a verbal warning from the referee for breaking most of the rules. Before the referee takes away a point, he/she would first stop the fight and issue a verbal warning. If a fighter does the same thing again, then the referee would deduct a point or warn a fighter once again. 

Apart from losing a point during the bout, fighters can also get disqualified by the referee at any point. This happened when UFC champion Jon Jones landed several illegal “12 to 6 elbows” on Matt Hammil during their bout in 2013. The referee disqualified Jones and awarded the fight to Hammil as a result.

Who Are MMA Judges And How Are They Selected?

The road to becoming a top MMA judge is similar to the way fighters are working their way up to the UFC. But of course, it is much less painful. The first step is to find and apply to an organization where you can earn a certified license to judge MMA fights.

Here are the major organizations in which one can become a certified MMA judge:

  • USA Mixed Martial Arts Federation (UMMAF)
  • International Sport Combat Federation (ISCF)
  • International Sport Karate Association (ISKA)

After passing a course, they start by judging amateur fights in UMMAF or ISCF MMA events. Before judging pro-MMA matches, each judge must work their way up in amateur matches first. But, how do they get selected to judge UFC fights?

If a judge thinks he/she has what it takes to judge a UFC fight, then the next step is to submit the application to Nevada State Athletic Commission (NSAC). According to NSAC, one must have previous experience judging amateur matches. But having a martial art background is not required to become a UFC judge. 

Reasons Why MMA Judges Make Controversial Decisions

Unified Rules of MMA are far from being ideal, notably when it comes to judging. The problem with bad decisions is a mix of issues within the system and judges scoring the fight. Here is a list of factors that are the main reason why we have so many bad decisions:

The Judging System Is Very Subjective

MMA judges must use three main criteria when scoring the fight. Even though these criteria are good, judges are the ones who have a final call and they are very subjective in the way they use these criteria. One judge may value the striking aspect more than grappling and vice versa. In fact, some judges value a takedown the same as knockdowns. 

This subjective system often leads to many controversial decisions. 

10-Point Scoring Was Not Made For MMA

10-point system comes from boxing and was adopted by MMA in 2001. This system does not work well simply because it wasn’t created for MMA fighting in the first place. 

For instance, pro boxing fights have 12 rounds while most MMA fights are three rounds except for title fights which include five rounds. When a boxer loses a round, he/she has more rounds to catch up. In MMA, losing one round means you must, at all costs, win the next round or you will lose a fight. 

Incapable Judges

As said earlier, you don’t have to have a background in MMA or martial arts to become a UFC judge. Although this may sound crazy to some, it is true. Generally speaking, most MMA judges have some background in fighting sports, but not in MMA. They usually come from boxing where they judged the fights before moving into MMA. The problem is, most of them do not understand all elements of MMA, and they never will. 

That is like putting an NFL referee to judge an NBA match, it’s basically the same thing and it will never work. These judges will never have the understanding of MMA like people associated with the sport like coaches or former fighters. 

Decision Fights Are On The Rise

In the past, we had just a few UFC events per year with much less decisions than in modern days. This is mainly due to the lack of rules during the 90s where fights rarely went to a decision. 

In modern times, we have UFC events almost every week, and around half of the fights go to decision. From 2001 to 2020, the percentage of fights that ended in a decisions has increased from 30% to 52%. Combine this number with issues within the system and incapable judges, and you get bad calls in every UFC event. 

Recent Posts