It’s not long ago the UFC was battling state by state to secure sanctioning. New York was among the last pillars to fall in 2016, substantiating mixed martial arts as something beyond beer chuggers and barbarism.
MMA followed the precedent of its ancestral lineage to gain acceptance, adopting terminology and structure from other combat sports. It was not always this way. UFC 1 had a vision of removing the pleasantries that have traditionally softened the raw honesty of fighting, opting for no time limit, no judges, and no holds barred. Two men enter—one leaves the irrefutable winner.
The days of such clarity are long behind us. A round-by-round structure exists. The judges’ decision is now the most likely outcome of a UFC fight. A “10 point must” system scores fighter performance.
The 10-point-must approach is simple, and the judges are generally adept in its application. The real question is: Does this scoring system represent what we want a victory to mean in the context of a fight?
MMA lacks the defining rigidity of many other sports. Where some have an outright winner based on tallied points, the result of an MMA fight is comparatively qualitative. Judges interpret the criterion by watching the fight cage-side and asses scores between rounds. This process repeats round-by-round, with the winner of the most rounds declared the winner of the fight.
A crucial oversight is how volatile this system can be for standard three-round affairs. One fighter may win two rounds by narrow margins, and then lose another by a more definitive margin. In this scenario, the fighter who may have accomplished little, but pocketed two rounds by the criteria, would defeat the opponent who had the most significant moments. The only path to recourse for the judges is scoring a 10-8 round on behalf of the fighter with the more significant success. This would result in a draw, causing both fighters to go home without a win bonus while leaving them unsure of their place in the divisional hierarchy.
So I ask again: What is victory intended to capture?
Is our goal to determine who won a fight, or who best fulfills the judges’ criteria in a collection of five-minute increments?
Considering a judges’ decision is the most likely outcome of a given fight, fighters are incentivized to win in this context. With advances in game-planning and analytics, this inclination will compound. Before long we will have a sport that sees the pursuit of a finish as unnecessary risk.
It is for these reasons I propose the following changes:
First, we must abolish the round-by-round system. It’s unnecessarily artificial and introduces scoring caveats. By giving corners an allotment of timeouts to call during neutral moments, cardio breaks and strategic adjustments would occur more naturally. After the final bell, the fight would be scored as a whole using the existing criteria.
Secondly, we must provide stronger incentives for finishing fights. There are currently two primary motivators for doing so: 1) Preventing (sometimes incompetent) judges from determining the winner, and 2) potentially receiving a performance bonus. While the idea of incentivizing the finish is spot on, these methods leave room for improvement.
To start, fighters who finish fights (FIN%) should have priority in the rankings. If the UFC was to tie their rankings to method of victory, we would see a higher percentage of fights end inside the distance. Another option is to have contractual bonuses for finishing fights. “Paid in full” would take on a whole new meaning if the purse distribution went from show money + win money, to show money + win money + finish money.
These practices would drastically improve the sport. Finishing intent becomes paramount when success no longer falls under the jurisdiction of five-minute increments. Fight-altering sequences would no longer be interrupted by round-based time constraints, providing a more accurate representation of a true fight.
MMA is pioneering its way through the combat universe. While the call of conformity beckons loudly with promises of sanctioning accessibility and household appeal, it does so at the expense of why we consume this great sport. Mobilizing toward a system that not just encourages, but requires lethality, will highlight MMA’s most awe-inspiring displays, creating a more vibrant atmosphere for commentary, gambling, and fan engagement alike.