MMA judging hit some 10-8 milestones last year. Paul Gift has the details.
Mixed martial arts is just over a year into a new, more liberalized criteria for 10-8 round scores. Approved at the 2016 conference of the Association of Boxing Commissions and Combative Sports (ABC), the new criteria officially went into effect on Jan. 1, 2017.
A 10-8 round continued to be defined as a fighter winning by a large margin, but the written guidelines for these potentially difficult decisions expanded from a single sentence to more than a page of explanation.
In practice, judges used to use the then-unwritten two D’s of 10-8 rounds: Domination and Damage. The new criteria added a third D – Duration – and formalized the definition of each. They noted that a judge “shall ALWAYS” score a 10-8 when domination, damage, and duration are present and “must CONSIDER” a 10-8 when a fighter dominates without much damage or significantly damages without much domination [Writer’s note: If you read the actual document, Impact is a bureaucratic disguise for Damage. If you want to say something about cage control, go sit in the corner for a 30 minute timeout.].
Informal stories abound of regulators treating 10-8 scores with disdain, if not outright prohibition, in the early days of the sport up to the not-too-distant past. The state of Texas comes up a lot, but isn’t remotely unique.
Prohibitions and disdain for a legitimate judging score are hopefully things of the past now, no matter the jurisdiction. These days consistency is the key; getting regulators and judges up-to-speed on the new criteria and its implementation. While human beings will always have variation in their evaluations, as John McCarthy noted in an ABC judge training session, “We’ve got to get everyone on board saying, ‘It’s close,’ and we can’t give credit where credit isn’t due.”
The new 10-8 criteria is about evolving the nascent sport and giving fairer outcomes to the fighters who put their mental and physical health on the line for our personal entertainment.
Which leads to a natural empirical question: How’s it actually going?
To answer, we’ll look at a sample of complete and partial UFC, WEC, and Strikeforce scorecards I collected from 2001-2015, which FightMetric then took to another level in January 2016, collecting scores for 37-of-41 UFC events that year and 38-of-39 events last year.
The sample is split into four periods representing potentially different regulatory views of the 10-8 score.
- 2001-2012: When 10-8 rounds were defined as a fighter “overwhelmingly” dominating.
- 2013-2015: When a 10-8 was changed to winning by a “large margin” and the unwritten two D’s (Domination and Damage) originated and started to spread.
- 2016: When the push was made to liberalize 10-8 scores and the new three-D criteria was passed at the August ABC meeting.
- 2017: When the new 10-8 criteria officially went into effect.
For those wondering if single-year periods at the end will have enough judging observations, due to the way the data was collected, the 2001-2012 period has 1,643 scored rounds, the 2013-2015 period has 472, 2016 has 730, and 2017 has 742. It’s by no means perfect, but the 2016 and 2017 sample sizes are substantial since FightMetric is a considerably better collection agent than yours truly.
The only two 10-7s in the data – Sal D’Amato’s 3rd round score for Rick Glenn vs. Gavin Tucker at UFC 215 and Marcos Rosales’ 2nd round score for Forrest Petz vs. Sammy Morgan at UFC Fight Night 6 – were treated as 10-8s for analysis purposes.
New 10-8 Scoring: The Year in Statistical Review
10-8 scores are rare, even today, since the 10-9 criteria runs the gamut of very close rounds all the way to those of “marginal domination and/or impact.” But their frequency has evolved, and last year made a huge jump.
A 10-8 score was given 114% more frequently in 2017 than the early years of 2001-2012 (7.3% vs. 3.4%). On average, a single 10-8 score from a single judge used to be given every 9.7 rounds. In 2017, that number dropped to every 4.6 rounds.
Since a winning decision requires at least two judges in a fighter’s favor, a 10-8 should have more influence if two or more judges agree with each other.
The rate at which a majority of judges agree on a 10-8 score has increased by 137% from the early years. We used to see it in only 2.7% of rounds, or once every 12.4 three-round bouts, and now see it in 6.3% of rounds – once every 5.3 three-round bouts.
I attribute the drop in 2013-2015 in the previous two charts to likely randomness from the smallest sample size and in-cage performances that statistically seem to have warranted fewer 10-8s or perhaps were tougher decisions. A later chart will clarify that judges in this time frame probably shouldn’t be considered less likely to give a 10-8.
The two previous charts examined 10-8 frequency in the context of all scores. But since the in-cage performances of fighters could vary over time, it’s instructive to control for these possible confounding factors. One way is to look at situations in which at least one judge thought a round was lopsided enough to give a 10-8, and 2017 made some large jumps in this regard.
Last year was the first documented time period in MMA history where a 10-8 score in a round wasn’t most likely to be by itself, alone on an island. A 10-8 round had only a single 10-8 score 48.9% of the time. So for the first time ever, if someone scored a round 10-8, it was more likely than not (51.1% of the time) that a majority of the judges agreed on that score.
51.1% majority agreement certainly isn’t the target number for regulators and judge trainers to start getting complacent, but it’s a significant milestone for the evolution of MMA judging, especially given the distributed nature of state regulators and their various abilities and desires be at the forefront of officiating.
Of course, it would be nice if there were unanimous judge agreement when a 10-8 score comes along (assuming accuracy). It happens in boxing over 93% of the time according to Matt Podgorski of the Pod Index. But boxing’s 10-8 decisions generally aren’t nearly as difficult as those in MMA.
Take California’s boxing judging criteria as an example: “The knockdown should count as one point.” Boom. There’s your unanimous boxing 10-8 scores right there.
Granted the document goes on to say, “Do not assume that a knockdown for a boxer gives him an automatic 10-8 round; you must score the entire round” and “Remember you must score the remainder of the round, thus if Boxer B comes back strong you might score the round 10-9 for Boxer A,” but you get the idea. Boxing’s judging criteria often makes 10-8 scoring an easy exercise. In MMA, a knockdown doesn’t even guarantee a fighter wins the round, much less wins with one or multiple 10-8 scores.
MMA judges nevertheless reached another significant milestone in 2017. When there was a 10-8 score in a round, the verdict was unanimous 26.1% of the time – the first time the sport has seen complete 10-8 agreement over ¼ of the time.
More than 1-in-4 might not seem like a major milestone, but when the starting point was complete agreement 1-in-11.5 times, we’ve come a long way. Huge strides were made in unanimous 10-8 agreement in 2016 and 2017 relative to where the sport was at over the previous 15 years.
A final method of 10-8 scoring analytics was also used in my piece last April. A judging baseline was modeled out for the 2001-2012 time period. Actual 10-8 decisions were then compared to the 2001-2012 baseline to see how much more or less likely 10-8 scores were, controlling for what the two fighters actually did inside the cage in each round.
From 2001-2012 and 2013-2015, the results are not statistically different from zero, meaning judges appeared to assign 10-8 scores in the same way they did in the early years (the 2001-2012 result is a given since it’s also the baseline). In 2017, judges were 85.1% more likely to score a 10-8 for the exact same in-cage action than they were in 2001-2012.
An increased likelihood of 10-8 scoring often leads to questions and comments about the possibility of more draws. Draws in MMA have been extremely rare, but if it becomes easier for a fighter who’s won two rounds by a point to lose another by two points, in theory draws could propagate.
In practice, there certainly isn’t strong evidence that draws have increased significantly. This chart looks at UFC bout outcomes only.
The 4.9% draw percentage in 2003 should be viewed as a small sample number (two draws in 41 UFC bouts). I’d ignore it and consider 2016 and 2017 as the first and third highest draw frequencies (1.4% in 2016, 1.2% in 2010, and 1.1% in 2017).
At the end of the day, only 4-of-7 draws came from 10-8 scores in 2016 (three were from point deductions) and 3-of-5 draws came from 10-8s under the new scoring criteria last year (other two from point deductions). Draw frequency technically seemed to increase relative to history but in a pretty minimal way.
There’s information in one fighter dominating and damaging another enough to earn a 10-8 score. There’s a good chance they’re just the better fighter that night and won’t lose both other rounds in the eyes of at least two judges. If the domination and damage happen in an early round, the opponent’s will to fight could be sucked away (e.g., what Khabib does to opponents) or if the original 10-8 fighter gassed out to get there, there’s a better chance he’ll be finished.
Draws don’t appear to be a big concern after one, possibly two, years of liberalized 10-8 scoring. It’s no fun when they happen in title fights, but I’d argue giving fighters scores closer to what they deserve across all fights outweighs the title fight draw downside.
While there’s still much work to be done, the fight data appear to show that a more complete description of a 10-8 round, the three D’s, the long hours of travel and training sessions, putting people on the spot, forcing them to adapt or defend their decisions to embarrassment and (good natured) ridicule from John McCarthy, Herb Dean, Rob Hinds, Jerin Valel, Mike Bell, and others like them has started to pay dividends.
This piece hasn’t addressed what some will surely call the incompetence of certain judges, especially after last Saturday night. Certain commissions need to do a much better job of holding their judges accountable, true. It’s also true that learning about judging and actually sitting in the chair to do it creates much more understanding when unusual decisions come up on television. If it’s not egregious, I don’t get worked up about it anymore.
Trained judges also might see and hear things viewers don’t. They don’t count strikes, they’re evaluating striking and grappling damage. In the process, the referee gets in the way, pole pads get in the way, the fighters themselves get in the way, corners and the crowd say and do weird things, and going from monitor to live action and vice versa is more distracting than one would think. When it comes to the UFC, judges get two of the worst seats around the cage doors. They don’t jockey to sit close to the Octagon girls for that view, they do it for the one good view of the fights.
Judging is hard, but with the 10-8 score, the statistical data show clear and marked recent improvements.
Paul writes about MMA analytics and officiating at Bloody Elbow and MMA business at Forbes. He’s also a licensed referee and judge for the California Amateur Mixed Martial Arts Organization (CAMO). Follow him @MMAanalytics. Fight data provided by FightMetric.