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It doesn’t take an expert to figure out that UFC 247 had some controversy surrounding it.
The main event on Feb. 8 saw Ultimate Fighting Championship light heavyweight champion Jon Jones defend his title against undefeated rising contender Dominick Reyes, with Jones heavily favored going to the fight. Reyes defied expectations, however, taking it to the champion in the early rounds of the contest before Jones found his rhythm and took control of the match, making the man many consider to be the MMA “GOAT” look quite vulnerable at times. Despite “The Devastator” landing the most significant strikes ever against the 205 lbs. champion, when all was said and done “Bones” managed to retain his belt by a unanimous decision of 48-47, 48-47, and 49-46.
What caused strife among fans and pundits were the judges' scores—not just of the main event, but throughout the entire UFC 247 card. There were multiple decisions that seemed to have viewers scratching their heads all night long, and one official in particular drew the ire of most in the arena and at home for his highly questionable calls. The Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation (TDLR) also has not adopted the new Unified Rules of MMA, leading many to wonder if bouts would have been judged differently in the Lone Star state if those guidelines were in effect on Feb. 8. Following UFC 247, a plethora of articles condemning inadequate judging have been seen across the MMA media landscape, and Kansas has decided to experiment with open scoring in an effort to at least let fighters know where they stand during a contest.
While these reports have done deep-dives into the history of bad judging in major promotions, the judges at UFC 247 themselves, and solutions to what many view as a systemic problem in MMA, few if any have given focus to the impacts incompetent judging has from a business perspective. Although an egregious scorecard certainly isn’t what fans want to see, especially when they pay $65 for a pay-per-view event, the impact of those decisions goes far behind viewers being upset. Inaccurate judging can influence promotions, venues and especially fighters’ bottom-lines in a major way depending on the circumstances.
For promotions, controversial scoring decisions can hurt their brand and put them in a bind when it comes to matchmaking. Many viewers—mainly casual ones—incorrectly associate the promotion with bad judging rather than the athletic commissions that determine which judges will be assigned to a particular event. When these viewers see a decision, they believe to be abhorrently wrong they are turned off from not only the promotion but the sport as well, resulting in an important revenue stream for many MMA organizations taking a hit. Promotions also must take into account bad decisions when matchmaking, considering whether a rematch is warranted or if the fighter who was on the receiving end of a bad call should get a similarly ranked opponent. Depending on if the bout has implications for title contention or is for a championship, i.e. Reyes vs. Jones, this can clog a division and impact other potential bouts as well.
For the venue that hosted the event, poor judging can kill future business. In the case of UFC 247, many pundits have stated that the UFC should not return to Texas for championship matches until the state commission has adopted the Unified Rules and produced more suitable candidates to judge the sport. If the UFC heeds this advice it means that bigger pay-per-view cards will be held elsewhere and cities such as Houston or Dallas will miss out on the significant economic output that these events can generate. Some fighters have also shared their disdain on social media regarding judging at UFC 247, which begs the question if they would be willing to compete at a venue where they may believe they could get cheated out of a victory if the fight went to a decision.
Of course, fighters are the most impacted by bad calls made by officials. The vast majority of fighter contracts across all promotions are paid out on a per-fight basis, with half of the money guaranteed for showing up and half of the money delivered if you win the bout, meaning a bad night on the scorecards could cost an athlete anywhere from a million dollar payday to much-needed rent money. Not only that but a controversial loss is still a loss nonetheless on a fighter’s record, which can knock some out of title contention in crowded divisions or worse, see them lose their jobs. For fighters that aren’t at risk of being cut, losses still play an important role for athletes when it comes time to renegotiate their contract, regardless of how bad the decision may have seemed at the time.
There is little doubt that MMA judging needs to be overhauled as the sport continues to develop. Whether it's open scoring, adding more judges in order to balance out the impact of the bad apples, or taking scoring out of the hands of state and country athletic commissions, it seems clear that the MMA industry is ready for a change in how the judging of sanctioned bouts work. What modifications will actually produce better results, however, is still very much a mystery.