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MMA vs. Boxing: A Judge’s Perspective

By Barry Lindenman

The emergence of mixed martial arts (MMA) as a legitimate sport in recent years has brought with it some of the same challenges in officiating that have plagued the sport of boxing for some time. That is, the perception of non-standard judging criteria, unqualified officials and hence, controversial decisions. While it appears that many of the current MMA judges hail from primarily a boxing background and have merely transferred over to also officiate MMA, the sport of mixed martial arts is a much more diverse and complex sport to judge accurately. Unfortunately, the perception of inconsistent judging is a shared commodity in both sports.

Let’s start with boxing. When compared to MMA, on its surface boxing appears to be a much simpler sport to judge. The two combatants’ weapons are limited to punches thrown with either a left or a right. There is no striking with the legs and certainly no grappling ground game to evaluate. Within this relatively simple arsenal at a fighter’s disposal, the types of scoring punches are also rather simple to observe and evaluate: jab, cross, hook or uppercut. A judge merely has to evaluate the damaging effect of these scoring punches to his opponent so that the winner in the ring translates to the winner on the scorecards.

MMA is clearly the more elaborate and complicated of the combat sports to judge. Although it is true that both sports share some of the same rules (standardized gloves, weight classes, time limits, rounds, etc.). Not only does MMA incorporate all of the previously mentioned standing attack weapons found in boxing, but judges also have to evaluate and consider the fighters’ grappling ability, takedowns and submission techniques when the fight transitions to the ground. This is clearly the aspect of MMA judging that receives the most scrutiny. Whereas boxing “styles” can usually be classified as either a boxer or a puncher, MMA “styles” vary considerably depending on the school of thought and training that a fighter brings into the cage. For example, your training background (i.e. Brazilian jiu-jitsu, muay Thai, taekwondo, boxing, kickboxing, wrestling, etc.) can greatly differentiate your fighting style from that of your opponent. No longer can a judge simply be looking for the effect of a left or a right while the two fighters are vertical. MMA requires that a judge also look for and evaluate a fighter’s effect on his opponent from kicks, knees, elbows, holds, throws, etc.

It is my contention that the officially published scoring criteria for both boxing and MMA are essentially the same although the wording may be slightly different:

Clean punching
Ring generalship
Effective aggression

Clean striking / effective grappling
Cage control
Effective aggression

While most of the scoring criteria is identical between the two sports, it appears that the challenge for MMA judges lies in the first criteria. There is apparently a difference of opinion (among fans, promoters, announcers, etc.) between the damage that clean strikes can have on your opponent (whether on the ground or standing or whether from leg kicks or strikes from the arms, hands, or elbows) vs. the control that effective grappling (whether from throws, sweeps, or submission attempts) has on your opponent. Here I believe lies the real controversy in judging and scoring MMA rounds. It is the nature of the sport itself which incorporates the best of all the combat sports that produces the greatest subjective challenge to officials of the sport. However, it should be noted that some credit should be given to the various sanctioned training classes that exist for current and prospective MMA judges whose goal it is to standardize the scoring criteria in order to achieve more consistent and uniform scoring.

Of all the reasons (some would say excuses) that exist for why MMA judges’ scoring so often comes under fire (unfair bias favoring different styles of fighting, lack of experience, having a boxing judge’s background, etc.) my contention is that the main reasons why some judges fail to properly evaluate a fighter’s performance and accurately score a round are (1) their inability to focus their attention for the full five minutes of an MMA round and (2) their selective memory recall which can conveniently erase or minimize certain events that they witnessed during the round. The unfortunate outcome of (1) is that they might “forget” about certain strikes and grappling moves that occurred during the early part of a round. The unfortunate part of (2) is that they might “discount” certain strikes and grappling moves that they deem to not be important enough to factor into their scoring. Whatever the reason, it is clear that it takes a very high degree of discipline and concentration to effectively and accurately score a round, be it a three minute round in boxing or a five minute round in MMA.

Barry Lindenman can be reached at [email protected]


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