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McCarthy clears up confusion surrounding judging criteria and MMA’s new rules

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With constant confusion on whether use of new/old rules also implies new/old judging criteria, Paul Gift talked with “Big” John McCarthy and Jerin Valel of the COMMAND officials training program to clear things up.

It’s a familiar sequence of words to fight fans, “A 10-Point Must scoring system is in effect. The round winner gets 10 points, his or her opponent nine or fewer, and scoring is based on effective striking and grappling, followed by aggression and Octagon control, in that order.”

Then comes whether the new Unified Rules of MMA have been adopted by the regulating commission and it’s topped off with the availability of instant replay for fight-ending sequences – an MMA rules trinity for viewers at the start of each event in 2018.

In locations where the new rules haven’t been adopted – so the old ones are in effect – a common point of confusion is how rounds are being scored. When a commission uses the old rules, do judges also use old scoring criteria? Is it possible for judges to use the new scoring criteria while referees use old rules in the cage?

Take two recent examples.

At UFC 222 in Las Vegas last Saturday, the Nevada Athletic Commission still utilized the old rules. In the middle of the main card, exciting young prospect Sean O’Malley took the first round from Andre Soukhamthath, with a possible 10-8 score. During second round action, UFC play-by-play announcer Jon Anik said he could make an argument for an O’Malley 10-8 in the first, to which long-time color commentator Joe Rogan replied, “Well, if we were using the new scoring system, which we’re not. Which is crazy.”

In fact, the three judges for that fight – Sal D’Amato, Junichiro Kamijo, and Chris Lee – were certainly using the new scoring criteria, as seasoned veterans familiar with the evolution of the sport’s officiating.

Another situation arose last month in the Luke Jumeau vs. Daichi Abe fight at UFC 221 in Perth, Australia. Abe clearly took the first round, inflicting damage but not dominating the action. Midway through the second, new UFC color commentator Jimmy Smith observed, “An important thing to keep in mind not adopting the new rules, that first round with new rules could certainly be a 10-8. That’s less likely tonight, so if Jumeau finishes strong this second round, he could tie it up.”

It implied the Combat Sports Commission of Western Australia’s use of the old rules also meant its judges were scoring rounds with the old criteria.

The reality of the situation is a little more confusing. To understand why, welcome to the wonderful world of combat sports commissions.

The first thing to recognize is there are no rules in MMA. There are regulations and criteria.

UFC President Dana White’s practically copyrighted the phrase, “We’re regulated by the government.” And he’s right, only the statement’s a little too simplistic for this exercise. MMA’s technically regulated by more than 50 governments, in the sense that each state, local, or tribal commission throughout the United States and the world sets the sport’s regulations within its jurisdiction.

Those regulations are what we loosely call “the rules,” an oversimplification that easily leads to confusion once the concept of criteria is also considered. Things get even more fun when an outlier commission takes what should be criteria and builds it into its regulations.

To help make sense of it all, I spoke with the men who provided my judge certification in 2016, “Big” John McCarthy and Jerin Valel of the COMMAND officials training program.

According to McCarthy and Valel, the criteria by which judges score rounds is not an actual regulation in the vast majority of commissions. “It is a system of a judge breaking a fight down utilizing a criteria,” per McCarthy. In this situation, all judges should be using the most recent ABC scoring criteria, regardless of whether the referee and fighters inside the cage are operating with the new or old list of fouls. As Valel put it, judges “should all be using this standard, as a fluid criteria used to adjudicate a round.”

That’s how we should think of judging in the majority of commissions, whether they’ve instituted the new rules or not.

A wrinkle can arise in the rare situation where a commission has actually written an older judging criteria into its regulations. In this situation, there are two types of judges to consider: traveling and local.

Major promotions such as the UFC and Bellator sometimes request or select certain officials to take with them when they travel (Derek Cleary or Sal D’Amato, for example). These “traveling officials” don’t score rounds differently depending on what state or country they’re in. “They’ve figured out the criteria they’re judging off,” McCarthy said, “and no matter where they are or where they go, they’re using that criteria.” And since judging is subjective, Valel noted that even if a commission’s regulations happen to have an older scoring criteria baked in, when it comes to the traveling judges, “the sport is moving on as commissions are trying to play catchup.”

However, in this rare case of having older judging criteria written into a commission’s regulations, local judges who haven’t been trained or tutored on the new approach to scoring – particularly 10-8 rounds – might still do things the old way. And McCarthy was quick to point out that if this happens, it’s a commission problem, not a judge problem. “If we sit there and say ‘You’re wrong,’” McCarthy said, “It’s the commission that’s wrong in that situation for not adopting the new criteria, not the judge that’s wrong…If the sport’s evolving and the judge is not allowed to evolve with it, they’re probably going to end up making mistakes.”

So at the end of the day, how should viewers approach a televised MMA event?

I asked McCarthy and Valel if this is a fair take: At the beginning of every event, viewers should be informed (1) if the new or old list of fouls is being used and (2) if instant replay is allowed or not. When it comes to judging, viewers should pretty much think the new scoring criteria is being utilized – regardless of what’s going on with fouls or replay – even though there might still be rare cases where a local judge uses an older scoring criteria. “Yup,” said McCarthy and “That is a mirror of what’s happening,” replied Valel.

MMA: UFC 222-O'Malley vs Soukhamthath
Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

When television announcers talk about a commission using the new or old Unified Rules, they’re really talking about a list of fouls – most notably the definition of a grounded fighter and the extended finger foul. Judging should be thought of separately, and predominately under the new scoring criteria, with rare exceptions that are becoming rarer still every day.

And remember, whether instant replay is available or not in a particular jurisdiction, a referee can always poll the closest judge or outside ref as a less sophisticated alternative for trying to determine whether a foul contributed to the end of a fight.

An important final point is that none of this would even be an issue if commissions would just tie their regulations to the most current list of ABC-approved fouls and use of instant replay. And if they insist on a regulation for judging criteria, tie it to the ABC’s as well. “Instead of caring about what’s best for the sport, what’s best for the fighters, what’s best for the fans, and what’s best for their officials,” McCarthy stated, “they’re going to sit there and say, ‘We don’t want to make changes.’”

Welcome to the wonderful world of combat sports commissions. You were warned in the beginning.

At least we now have clarity on how judges are likely scoring rounds at major MMA shows and what announcers really mean when they talk about new or old rules (*cough* fouls).

Valel closed the interview with these final thoughts:

Viewers and fans should remember that judging is subjective, and the judging criteria is used as a tool to help judges score a round as they see it from their vantage point cage-side. Judges, when familiarized with the new clarified criteria, think it makes sense and adopt it straightaway. Traveling judges will often continue to use that new/superior and relevant framework to inform their subjective opinions to score a round. The criteria is there to assist them only, and ensure the fighters are being equitably credited for their work in that round.

Rightly or wrongly, this is a reflection of what is happening right now in the sport from the perspective of an industry insider, which is vastly different from foul and rule changes that must be adopted by a local jurisdiction’s regulations or internal policies in order to be enforced. This is all happening in parallel as local commissions work hard to adopt the standard ABC MMA Unified Rules and criteria so the sport can have one true common rule set.

I believe commissions and local governments are working hard to update their policies and regulations to reflect these improvements and the evolution in our sport, but it takes time.

For a statistical look at how 10-8 scoring changed in 2017 and over the years, see my piece from February.

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.

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