Henderson – Bisping II : The Uncertainty of Scoring a Close Fight

Sometimes MMA fans drive me nuts.  Let me restate that: sometimes some MMA fans drive me nuts.  I’m primarily a fan myself, and at least in my experience, most other fans are reasonable people.  There is a subset, though, that you can count on to cry “ROBBERY!” after every close fight when the guy they like lost a decision.

One of my pet peeves in life is when people present their opinions as fact.  This applies to anything, but it is especially noticeable in mixed martial arts scoring.  Scoring a round is by definition an opinion on how the round went.  Now, we’ve all seen rounds where a fighter clearly dominated, and the opinion that Fighter A won the round over Fighter B is one that is pretty obviously validated by what went on in the cage.  I’m not talking about those clear-cut rounds and fights, though.  Robberies in judging do happen on occasion, but last night’s fight between Dan Henderson and Michael Bisping wasn’t one of them, despite some vocal outcries on social media.

First, let’s look at the reality of scoring.  As mentioned, a score is based on the opinions of the judges and how they interpreted the round that just occurred. The Unified Rules of MMA set out the guidelines for judges to follow, but any system of scoring is going to be by its very nature imperfect, especially in a sport as complex as mixed martial arts.  

The Unified Rules currently set guidelines on what is to be considered by judges when scoring a fight, and also what constitutes 10-10, 10-9, 10-8, and 10-7 rounds.  Now, we’ve all probably heard that a revision to the rules was voted on in August that changes a lot of that.  However, those revisions will not take effect until January (or possibly later in some jurisdictions where athletic commissions don’t adopt the new rules in time). So for Henderson-Bisping II the “old rules” are still in effect.

In simple terms, the existing Unified Rules (available here) mandate that rounds are to be judged based on “effective striking, effective grappling, control of the ring/fighting area, effective aggressiveness and defense” in that order.  What that means in practice is that striking and grappling are rated pretty much equally depending on the amount of time spent striking and grappling in a round, while octagon control, aggression, and defense are given lesser consideration.  The rules don’t specify how much less consideration is given to the secondary scoring criteria, but it appears that most judges weight them considerably lower than the main criteria of striking and grappling.

It is also worth noting that the current rules in place specify that “Effective striking is judged by determining the total number of legal strikes landed by a contestant.”  No mention is made of damage, but it appears in reality that most judges do take that into consideration when determining how “effective” striking in a round actually is.  Again, this seems to be a matter of interpretation by each individual judge, but in general if the number of shots landed are reasonably comparable, the judges score the harder shots more.  At the same time, one quick knockdown usually does not negate a large disparity in volume of striking.  

All of this means that, barring a clear-cut round in favor of one fighter, different observers can reasonably score different fighters as having won a round.  Sometimes things are close, and the judging criteria are nebulous enough that people can interpret things different ways.  

Once a judge determines who he thought won a particular round, then there is the matter of assigning points for the round.  Under the 10-point must system, the round winner obviously gets 10 points, assuming the referee didn’t deduct any points for fouls.  The loser of the round usually gets 9 points.  The Unified Rules currently state “a round is to be scored as a 10-8 round when a contestant overwhelmingly dominates by striking or grappling in a round,” so for anything from a razor-thin margin to a fairly dominant round that falls just short of  “overwhelming” dominance in the judge’s opinion will get a 10-9 score.

A 10-8 round is fairly uncommon under the current system, due to the language that one fighter must “overwhelmingly dominate” to earn that score.  The phrase simply means different things to different people.  Some judges have a lower threshold for a 10-8 round than others.  Like all things in judging, it’s not an exact science.  For a 10-7 round, the rules specify that a fighter must “totally dominate” a round, so 10-7s are very rare.

Now that we have the basics of scoring out of the way, we’re left with many fallacies that people will perpetuate after close fights:

“No way was that 50-45! It was a really close fight.”  Yes, it could very well be 50-45 in a close fight.  Since a 10-9 will go to whoever the judge felt won a particular round, a judge who felt a fighter won all five rounds by a very thin margin could easily score a fight 50-45 in his favor.  A judge has to honestly score each round.  He can’t say, “I gave the last close round to that guy, so I have to score this close round for the other guy even though I think he lost it by a whisker.” Basically, the final score is no real determination of how dominant a fight was.  A 48-47 fight could be very dominant if the winner took three rounds by fairly wide margins, and his opponent took two very close rounds.

“Look at his face!  He clearly lost the fight!” No, bruising and bleeding have no bearing on how a fight is scored.  First, one quick flurry can bust up a fighter who dominated the rest of the fight.  Unless something was bad enough to cause a doctor’s stoppage, visible damage does not determine who won. Second, we all know that some fighters bruise and bleed more easily than others. Just because a strike cut Fighter A does not mean it was more effective than a strike that wobbled Fighter B but left him with no cuts or bruises.

“I prefer the old Pride Rules where a fight is judged as a whole, so Fighter A won.” You can score any way you want, but the judges are bound by the rules in place.  Under the current rules a fighter that wins four rounds by small margins but gets dominated in the other round will win regardless of how it might have been decided in Pride.

“He almost finished him!  That HAS to be a 10-8.”  No, it doesn’t.  If the other guy had a good lead for the rest of the round, an exchange that almost results in a finish can easily fall short in the minds of many judges of the “overwhelming” dominance required for a 10-8.  The coming changes to the Unified Rules (linked here) set more concrete guidelines for 10-8 rounds that will likely make them much more common, but again, those changes have not taken effect yet.

“He couldn’t have won that round, he was backing up the whole time!”  Yes, he could have.  As mentioned, octagon control and aggression are secondary to effective striking and effective grappling, so if the fighter coming forward was hit a lot more, or was taken down and controlled several times, he could have easily lost the round to the guy who was backing up.  After January, the new rules taking effect will reduce the importance of control and aggression even further, making them merely tiebreakers considered only when grappling and striking are dead even.

Ok, now let’s look at tonight’s Bisping vs Henderson fight, using the current rules.  I will give how I scored each round, as well as how hypothetical judges could reasonably have scored it differently.  I’ll give the Fight Metric stats (available here) with the caveat that stats don’t tell the whole story, but are still useful.

Round 1:      

Stats: Bisping landed 16 significant strikes, Henderson landed 25 significant strikes and one knockdown.

Action: The fight seemed fairly close until the last minute, until Henderson landed a solid right that knocked Bisping down.  Henderson landed some serious ground and pound, but Bisping survived.

My Score:  10-9 Henderson.  I felt it was close to 10-8 but that Bisping did enough in the round to avoid that score.

My assessment of what a reasonable judge could possibly score:  10-9 Henderson or 10-8 Henderson.  It would be hard to imagine anyone reasonably giving the round to Bisping.

Round 2:    

Stats: Bisping landed 25 significant strikes, Henderson landed 9 significant strikes and one knockdown.

Action: Bisping landed more early, and had Henderson visibly hurt briefly.  Late in the round, Henderson landed a right that knocked Bisping down.  Bisping seemed to recover quickly, and was able to tie Henderson up on the ground enough that he suffered little or no additional damage.

My Score: 10-9 Bisping, but close.  I felt Bisping had enough of a lead before the knockdown, and prevented Henderson from capitalizing on the knockdown enough to take a close round.

My assessment of what a reasonable judge could possibly score: 10-9 Bisping or 10-9 Henderson.  It was close enough that it could go either way, depending on how you weighed the knockdown vs Bisping doing better the rest of the round

Round 3:    

Stats: Bisping landed 33 significant strikes, Henderson landed 10 significant strikes.

Action: Bisping kept up the pressure and landed often.  Henderson seemed to be looking for another big punch, but his timing was off due to Bisping’s pressure.

My Score:  10-9 Bisping

My assessment of what a reasonable judge could possibly score:  10-9 Bisping.  The most clear-cut round of the fight, other than Hendersons dominant first round.  It’s hard to imagine anyone scoring that round for Henderson, or giving Bisping a 10-8.

Round 4:    

Stats:  Bisping landed 23 significant strikes, Henderson landed 21 significant strikes.

Action:  A close round, punctuated by an inadvertent groin shot from Bisping that gave Henderson a chance to catch his breath a little.

My Score: 10-9 Bisping.  The round was fairly close, but I felt that Bisping did a little more.

My assessment of what a reasonable judge could possibly score:  10-9 Bisping or 10-9 Henderson.  A fairly even round with neither fighter having a very clear advantage.

Round 5:    

Stats: Bisping landed 22 significant strikes, Henderson landed 16 significant strikes and one takedown.

Action: Bisping and Henderson both landed well, with Bisping showing a little more volume.  Henderson landed a takedown late in the round, but Bisping escaped fairly quickly.

My Score:  10-9 Bisping.  I had Bisping taking the round on his advantage in volume of striking, and the impression that his shots were landing a bit cleaner.  Henderson wasn’t able to do much with the takedown, so it had minimal weight in my scoring. Still a close round though.

My assessment of what a reasonable judge could possibly score: 10-9 Bisping, 10-9 Henderson.  As said, it was a close round.  The takedown could have had more importance for some judges than others.

Overall:    

Stats:  Bisping scored 119 significant strikes, Henderson scored 81 significant strikes, 2 knockdowns, and one takedown.

My Score:  49-46 Bisping

My assessment of what a reasonable judge could possibly score:  There were only two rounds with definitive outcomes, Round 1 for Henderson and Round 3 for Bisping.  Everything else is up for reasonable disagreement.  A 10-8 round was in play only for the first round.  A hypothetical judge who saw every grey area going Bisping’s way would arrive at a scorecard of 49-46 Bisping. Another hypothetical judge who saw every grey area going Henderson’s way would have reached a score of 49-45 Henderson. Pretty much any score between those two extremes is reasonable.  What we have here is a close fight, that either fighter could have won, depending on how the judges saw it.  

Bisping Henderson 2 judges scorecard
Bisping Henderson 2 judges scorecard

Actual Scorecard:  As it turned out, the three judges had only one disagreement.  Two judges scored the second round 10-9 Henderson and one judge scored it 10-9 Bisping.  That was it.  Out of twelve other possible round scores (four rounds times three judges), they were in complete agreement as to the winners of the rounds and the numerical scores.

Sure, we’ve all seen decisions that were blatantly wrong.  Ross Pearson vs Diego Sanchez springs to mind.  Hometown scoring sometimes happens.  However, there is a difference between a decision that’s a robbery and one that is merely controversial.  Last night’s main event falls squarely in the controversial category for me.  The bottom line is that judging fights is inherently imprecise.

The point I’m trying to drive home here is that in a lot of fights, nobody’s opinion of the outcome is definitive.  It’s the nature of the game and the rules that if you don’t finish your opponent or clearly dominate the majority of the rounds, the decision might not go your way.  On scoring, my opinion isn’t the only valid one, nor is yours.  Even the judges can get it wrong, but then theirs are the only opinions used to determine who gets the W and who gets the L.  They have to score it as it happens, without the luxury of time to re-watch things or think very long about it.