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The result of the featherweight title rematch between Alexander Volkanovski and Max Holloway at UFC 251 on Saturday gave way to another discussion about mixed martial arts scoring, long a sensitive subject in the MMA community. Most media and fans felt Holloway deserved to win the fight, while UFC President Dana White echoed those sentiments. The frustration over the result was compounded by the fact Volkanovski is now officially 2-0 against Holloway, making it hard to justify a nearly unprecedented trilogy of consecutive fights where one fighter won the first two bouts.
Some lashed out at the decision by attacking the judges. While I scored the fight 48-47 Holloway, it’s hard for me to target the judges over the result. Volkanovski deserved the last two rounds, and the third round was close. It’s certainly not unreasonable to give the last three rounds to Volkanovski, who did land more significant strikes in each of the three. The reason the scores felt unfair was because of the structure of the scoring. The two strongest rounds of the fight were Holloway’s first and second, which made it feel unjust that they could be outweighed by Volkanovski rounds that were much closer.
These are the limitations of the 10 point must system, borrowed from boxing and never fully satisfying in the context of MMA. The problem: It’s not clear that the proposed alternatives are better. One alternative sometimes discussed is to just pick a winner based on the totality of the fight, as was done in Pride Fighting Championships. This would remove the issue of a fighter getting more points without feeling like a winner. The issue? That would also remove much in the way of accountability for judges, no small factor given the widespread criticism MMA judges receive. The 10 point must at least forces judges to provide an answer of who won each round and by how much. That can then be unpacked and critiqued in a way that’s not possible when a judge just provides a name.
In the other direction, it’s sometimes suggested that there should be scoring for different components of a fight, such as extra points for a knockdown or submission attempt. The problem is that MMA is so dynamic and fluid that each of these can be incredibly important or largely insignificant. The odds that scores seem wonky and out of place compared to what happened in the bout go up the more you attach points to everything that happens. It’s a significantly more untenable proposal than just naming a winner.
A proposal in between those two was to modify scoring so that 10-8s are more plentiful. This was a good idea, and scoring is better with this change. However, the number of 10-8 rounds is still quite small, leading to a continued wide variance in the competitiveness of 10-9 rounds. It also has limited affect, because in practice, 10-8 rounds pretty much only serve to change some fights from 29-28 decisions for one fighter to 28-28 draws.
So what can be done? Here’s a proposal that to my knowledge hasn’t been presented to this point and could improve scoring precision with little to no downside: half-round scoring. MMA scoring was borrowed from boxing, with boxing scoring every three minutes. If MMA switched to scoring every half round, it would mean a two-and-a-half-minute frame for scoring. This is more in line with how the scoring was originally set up. A three-round fight rather than having three periods to score would have six.
The advantage of creating more frames to score is that it makes scoring more precise without removing the subjective component. Judges could still weigh all the different aspects of MMA, but it would be less likely a fighter could get an undeserved decision. A fighter controlling a five-minute round would be much more likely to get both half rounds, while a fighter who narrowly won a round would be much more likely to get one half round but not the other.
Adding further precision, scoring half rounds would likely increase the preponderance of 10-8 rounds—something MMA regulators have been trying to do for years with limited success. There are two problems in increasing 10-8 rounds under the current system. First, judges know how big a point is in a three- or five-round fight and are thus reluctant to use them. Second, five minutes is a very long time in a fight, and over that time, the losing fighter usually gets in some effective offense.
If scoring were done every two and a half minutes, there would now be six scoring periods in a non-title fight and 10 scoring periods in a title fight. This would make a 10-8 round seem less disproportionate and would make judges more likely to use them. It’s also more likely that a half round would seem dominant, further increasing those odds. Between the added scoring periods and the increased likelihood of 10-8s, the scoring would become much more precise and make it much less likely that a fighter would lose a fight the judge feels he or she is winning. The judges still need to be competent, but they would have much better tools.
There are further benefits to a half-round system. It would be easier for judges, who wouldn’t have to keep five minutes in mind when scoring. They could press a button at the midpoint of a round for the winner of the first half and then quickly reset their mind for the second half. That would also remove a potential unconscious bias against events that happen earlier in a round.
Half-round scoring might also serve to make the sport more exciting. Fighters often push the pace at the end of rounds, wanting to increase their output to make sure they get the round. By having a horn at the midpoint of a round for which the fighters’ corners would be priming them, there’s a good chance that it would increase action in the middle of the round just like there is increased action at the end of the round. Half-round scoring would also help to improve MMA’s foul system. Currently, referees are reluctant to deduct points, knowing that they play an outsized role in a three- or five-round fight. With six or 10 half rounds, it’s highly likely that referees would use point deductions much more often, which would in turn deter illegal conduct without creating draconian punishment for accidental fouls.
Finally, half-round scoring would not be hard to implement. The half-point system that’s often been discussed, while laudable in trying to advance many of the same goals, has the negative to some people of adding up decimals. Point criteria are even more difficult to implement. By contrast, scoring half rounds would be exactly the same as scoring rounds; there would just be more periods to score. It would be relatively painless to implement and would make it more likely that deserving winners get their hands raised.