The escalation of discourse after a close UFC fight looks something like this: fight ends, decision announced, Twitter explodes, conspiracy theorists multiply, people curse and scream, the world nears its end.
All that, just because many observers of the fight think the other guy won. Too bad the only ones that matter are three specific people sitting in specific chairs in specific locations around the cage -- the judges.
Georges St-Pierre's split-decision win over Johny Hendricks in the UFC 167 main event Nov. 16 in Las Vegas was the latest mixed martial arts bout put through the ringer. Although "controversial" was the buzzword after the fact, that's not entirely accurate.
"We're talking about one round out of five," said Robert Hinds, an MMA judge and referee since 1994 who also teaches courses in both. "When you look at one round that could really be seen either way, you're not looking at controversy at all. You're looking at a contested fight where four of the five rounds were pretty obviously contested and then you have one round that was really, really close."
Judges Sal D'Amato and Tony Weeks scored the fight 48-47 in favor of St-Pierre. Judge Glenn Trowbridge scored it 48-47 for Hendricks. The round in question was the first one. Hinds said he scored the bout 48-47 for Hendricks while watching it live. On four subsequent viewings, his scoring did not change.
"I think part of the problem with the way the fight was scored was the rounds Johny won, he won decisively,'' UFC chief executive Lorenzo Fertitta said. "The rounds GSP won, I thought he won razor-thin. Therefore, when you combine it all together, the balance tends to lean toward Johny, but that's not how our scoring system works. It works you judge every round, round by round. You add it up at the end and that's the outcome.''
No judge is infallible. Not in a subjective capacity for a sport as complex to score as mixed martial arts. There are punches to consider. Kicks, elbows, knees, takedowns, submissions, wrestling, top control, side control, general body control.
"For me, the way I was always taught to score fights from the Commision, from Marc Ratner when I was on the [Nevada State Athletic] Commision, was damage," Fertitta said. "It's who hurts the other guy. It's not point karate. People say the punch stat, this guy had more punches -- forget about it. A power punch is going to, in my opinion, weigh a lot more than a non-power punch or jab or something like that."
Hinds agreed. And he should know. He has judged and refereed fights in the UFC, Bellator, Invicta, the IFL and other organizations. He also is one of a handful of people approved by the Association of Boxing Commissions to teach people how to properly officiate MMA fights, be it as a judge or referee.
"I know Fight Metric and all those things are very fan friendly," Hinds said. "But when you get judges who are counting strikes versus counting effetiveness -- we're supposed to be assessing the effect of what happens, not what happens itself. It's not the action, it's the result."
This is not to defend all judges and all scoring decisions, but there are quite a few things that differ from watching a fight at home and watching cageside.
A television viewer gets a well-produced delivery of the action. What is seen on screen is the collection of 12-15 cameras and 18-20 production people "in the truck" all working in the moment to make sure the home consumer doesn't miss a single punch or kick or submission attempt because the fence or padding got in the way.
A judge sits in a chair and is not allowed to move from it to get a better angle. If all the action happens at the opposite side of the cage from a judge's seat, there may be no easy way to tell if a punch lands or a fighter just pulled his head back to avoid getting hit. (Hinds said proximity wasn't an issue in the first round of St-Pierre vs. Hendricks.)
The UFC provides monitors at all of its events for judges. Those monitors show the in-arena feed -- the same thing an eventgoer would see on the big screens. That feed includes multiple camera angles but does not show replays. In between rounds, the monitors show nothing. A judge is not required by a state athletic commission (or the UFC) to use the monitor. It is there as an optional tool for those who wish to use it. Not every MMA promotion installs monitors for its judges.
"The monitor is a great tool if it's used properly," Hinds said. "It's actually more abused than it is used. When you look up from the monitor, you have to re-find where the action is. We're seeing judges, when the fight is right in front of them, staring down at the minotor and looking up and down and back and forth. That's where they're missing some of the action."
A viewer of fights, be it in the arena or elsewhere, gets one minute between rounds to evaluate who they think won, see replays, get something to eat, tweet something or listen to trainers instruct fighters. A judge has until the outside referee's hand gets outstretched and demands his card. That can be one second after a round ends, depending on where the judge is located. It could be 20 seconds, or even 30. But a judge does not get a full minute to ponder and evaluate. When that bell rings, the decision must be made.
Close fights such as St-Pierre vs. Hendricks also bring out calls for a new scoring system. A half-point system has been talked about as a replacement for the 10-point must system adopted from boxing.
Hinds said the issue goes beyond scoring.
"The issue is the people inplementing the system, not the system itself," Hinds said.
In addition to boxing's scoring system, many state athletic commissions use their boxing judges to score MMA bouts. The two sports are distinctly different, which causes discrepancies from state to state and judge to judge on how criteria is measured.
"I think judging can be better," Fertitta said. "I think there's probably some judges in the sport who don't really know what a submission is, or have never put on gloves and actually been hit in the head or kicked in the legs, so they don't know how to equate how damage is done, or never been in a submission or been choked out. I think in order to be a really good, effective judge, it probably makes a lot of sense to begin cultivating some athletes that have either been in the sport or trained in the sport or coached in the sport so they have a real understanding of what's happening in the fight."