No matter if you follow only the high-profile events or you are a hard-core fan, you have likely screamed in rage at the UFC judge’s decision at least once. But is there a problem within the scoring system, UFC judges, or it is up to us to learn more about it? How do UFC judges score fights actually?
The UFC matches are scored by the three judges sitting beside the cage/octagon. Their main task is to follow strict criteria, and score the match round by round utilizing a 10-point must system adopted from boxing. The winner of the round gets 10 points, while the loser gets 9, 8, or 7 depending on how dominant the winner was.
After each round, the official collects the scorecards from all three judges. If the match goes to distance, they sum up all the scores and announce a decision.
However, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how UFC scoring works. So be sure to read this article to learn more about it.
UFC Scoring System Explained
The way the UFC scoring system works might look complex at first glance. But it is quite easy to understand.
Each UFC event includes three judges who sit beside the cage in three different corners of the octagon. They are not allowed to interact with each other, or influence one another during the match in any other way. Their work is independent as they are not picked or employed by the UFC, but by the Athletic Commission of the state where the event takes place.
Their main task is to evaluate the action and score the match round by round. To pick the winner, they rely on the three main criteria (in this order):
- Effective striking and grappling
- Effective aggression
- Fighting area control
We will explain each of these three criteria in more detail in the next section of this article.
To give points and pick the winner, the judges use a 10-point must system. The UFC adopted this system from boxing in 2000 with the creation of the “Unified Rules of MMA”. The judges give 10 points to a fighter who they think won the round, while the loser gets 9, 8, or 7. How many points the loser gets is based on how dominant the winner was.
UFC Judges Criteria Explained
To determine the winner of the round, UFC judges must follow strict criteria. According to Unified Rules, the three main criteria are:
- Effective striking and grappling
- Effective aggression
- Fighting area control
Here is a detailed explanation of each criterion along with examples of how each one works in practice.
Effective striking and grappling
This is the first criteria judges must use to pick the winner of the round. The key here is to determine which fighter won more striking or grappling exchanges in a round.
On the feet, the judges look for immediate damage that might contribute to the finish of the match. They value hard blows that cause instant damage more than cumulative damage caused by less impactful shots.
So in some way, the “effectiveness” of striking is defined by the damage done with each clean kick or punch landed. A single power punch that opens up a cut or breaks the opponent’s nose is valued more than five “soft” jabs to the face for instance. The word “effective” and what it stands for in the judge’s book is what often leads to controversial calls.
It often happens that fighter A controls the round with less impactful shots. But in the last 30 seconds, they might get caught with a hard blow, or maybe a couple, be on the wobbly legs for a moment and lose the round. Yes, they have landed more shots in total throughout the round. But it was the opponent who landed more damaging shots, and that’s the most important thing.
The way “effective grappling” works is very much the same. The winner of the round is a fighter who lands more takedowns, spends more time in the dominant position, and tries to submit the opponent with chokes and joint locks or landing ground and pound shots.
Effective aggression is the second criteria judges consider only in case both fighters are equal in the first criteria. The round would be given to a fighter who makes more attempts to finish the fight with striking or grappling attacks.
Though it sounds simple and easy to implement, this criteria is a bit tricky. It gives the judges a lot of room to be subjective when it comes to what is “effective aggression” and what is not.
Judges will look to see which fighter is making more attempts to finish the match. However, moving forward and swinging hard blows while receiving damage from the opponent moving on the outside is not considered “effective aggression”. No, a fighter moving forward has to be better than their opponent. They must be the ones who:
- Land cleaner and harder shots
- Do more damage
- Control the fight from a dominant position
- Land ground and pound
- Threat with submissions
When it comes to striking, controlling the center and walking down the opponent, and landing cleaner and more damaging shots is what “effective aggression” looks like. A fighter will be in the opponent’s space all the time, throwing each kick or punch with a lot of power and intention to score a finish. They are “allowed” to receive damage in doing so, but no more than the damage they caused while moving forward and trying to finish the match.
The same stands for grappling. Sitting in the top position and trying to control the fighter who is threatening with submissions from the bottom is not effective aggression. No, you have to use a dominant position to try to finish the match either with ground and pound or submissions.
Fighting area control
Judges consider who is in control of the octagon only in case both fighters are equal in the first and second criteria, which does not happen that often. “Control” of the fighting area actually consists of two key elements:
- Controls the space – or in other words, who is controlling the center of the cage. Or, who is the one moving forward and trying to cut the movement of their opponent to land strikes or execute a takedown. Pressing the opponent against the cage in the clinch is also considered control of the cage.
- Who is dictating the pace – the pace, tempo, or rhythm of the fight is often a good indicator of who is controlling the match. More dominant fighters are usually the ones who are not just in control of the center of the octagon but are also the ones who control every engagement. They tend to initiate the exchanges, control the direction of the opponents’ movement and are landing better shots.
In most cases, this criterion comes into play when there is not much action going on. There are matches where both fighters hesitate to engage the entire fight, and these ones are really hard to score. But who controls the center in this fight is a good indicator of which fighter is actually more willing to engage and win the match.
How UFC Judges Score Fights?
The UFC judges sore the fight using a famous 10-point must system where the winner of the round gets 10 points, while the loser gets 9, 8, or 7. The rules also enable the judges to score a 10-10 in the case of a draw, but that does not happen too often in MMA.
The sport of MMA adopted the scoring system from boxing way back in 2000 when the “Unified Rules” got developed. The system is the same as in boxing, but only differs when it comes to judges’ criteria. Here is a detailed explanation of each possible score:
- 10-9 round – is the most common round score in the UFC and it means that a fighter won the round by a close margin. It is given to a fighter who has landed better strikes, scored more takedowns, and was more dominant in the grappling department or was controlling the octagon as well as the pace of the fight. The winner does not have to dominate the entire round, but just to have a small edge over the opponent. Even if there is the smallest difference between the fighters, 10-9 should be given in favor of the better fighter.
- 10-8 round – is given when a fighter dominates the entire round in every single aspect. To get a 10-8 score, a fighter needs to land hard blows, do a lot of damage, and even knock the opponent down in the standup. In most cases, the opponent does not have anything to offer in return and is unable to counter or defend against the attacks. The same stands for grappling. A fighter needs to dominate the grappling exchanges from the top through constant pressure. They also need to threaten with submissions, put the opponent into a dangerous spot, or do damage with ground and pound.
- 10-7 round – is a rare score and you will rarely see UFC judges giving 10-7 rounds. On paper, 10-7 is explained as a score where one fighter completely dominates the opponent. They must be in total control from start to finish, and be close to finishing the match with strikes or effective grappling on multiple occasions throughout the round. But in the UFC, most of the rounds that should have been scored 10-7, are actually scored 10-8.
- 10-10 round – is given only when fighters are identical in all three criteria, and thus the judges see the fight as a draw. This outcome does not occur that often in modern MMA simply because it is very unlikely that both fighters would be identical in all three criteria. The sport is too complex and there are so many variables that one of the fighters will almost always have at least the slightest edge.
Has there ever been a 10-7 score in the UFC?
10-7 rounds are really rare in the UFC. In UFC history, it has happened only once that a judge gave a 10-7 round, and it was in a fight between Forrest Petz and Sammy Morgan at “UFC Fight Night 6” held in Las Vegas in 2006.
Petz completely dominated the fight and he nearly finished Morgan on multiple occasions. He won the unanimous decision with one of the judges scoring the second round 10-7 for Petz.
How does the Point Deduction work in the UFC?
UFC fighter might lose a point or more for breaking the rules by landing accidental or intentional illegal blows or committing other fouls.
When a fighter commits a foul, let’s say lands an illegal blow, the referee would instantly pause the match. They will send the fighter to the neutral corner and give their hurt opponent 5 minutes to recover and continue.
For the first illegal blow like a soft eye poke or groin strike, the referee would issue a serious verbal warning. But if the same fighter lands another illegal blow, the referee might take one point.
At the end of the round, the judges would make their decision, and take one point away from the fighter who committed the foul. For instance, if fighter A, who committed a foul and got a point deducted wins the round, instead of 10 they would receive 9 points. Some of the most popular fouls that contribute to point deductions are:
- Eye pokes
- Groin strikes
- Knees to the head of the grounded opponent
- Strikes to the back of the head (rabbit punches)
- “12 to 6” elbows
- Soccer kicks
UFC Fight Outcomes Based on the Judge’s Scorecards
When the UFC fight goes to distance, the officials would sum up the scorecards from all three judges, and declare one of the following decision outcomes:
Unanimous decision is when all three judges score a win for the same fighter.
Example Fight: Amanda Nunes vs. Julianna Pena (UFC 277)
Scorecards: 50-43 (Nunes); 50-44 (Nunes); 50-45 (Nunes)
When two judges think fighter A won the fight, while the third judges sees the fight as a draw.
Example fight: Shane Burgos vs. Charles Jourdain (UFC on ABC 3)
Scorecards: 28-28 (draw); 29-28 (Burgos); 29-28 (Burgos)
Split decision is declared when two judges score the match for fighter A, while the third judge has it for fighter B.
Example fight: Geoff Neal vs. Santiago Ponzinibbio (UFC 269)
Scorecards: 30-27 (Neal); 29-28 (Ponzinibbio); 29-28 (Neal)
Technical decision is one of the rarest types of decisions that occur when one of the fighters gets hit with an accidental illegal strike, and is unable to continue. Bear in mind that the technical decision would be declared only if the referee stopped the fight after the completion of ½ of the scheduled rounds. In that case, the winner would be the fighter who was ahead on the scorecards at the time the referee stopped the fight. If it happens before that, the match would end as a no contest.
Example fight: Martin Buday vs. Chris Barnett (UFC on ESPN 34)
Scorecards: 30-27 (Buday); 30-27 (Buday); 30-27 (Buday)
All three judges score the fight as a draw
Example fight: Chris Gutierrez vs. Cody Durden (UFC on ESPN+ 31)
Scorecards: 28-28; 28-28; 28-28
Majority draw is when two judges score the fight as a draw, while the third judge has it for one of the fighters.
Example fight: Tyron Woodley vs. Stephen Thompson (UFC 205)
Scorecards: 48-47 Woodley; 47-47 (draw); 47-47 (draw)
If you want to learn more about the majority draw and why it may confuse many UFC fans check out this recent article on my site.
Split draw is when one judge scores the match for fighter A, one for fighter B, and the third judge scores it as a draw.
Example fight: BJ Penn vs. Caol Uno 2 (UFC 41)
Scorecards: 48-46 (Penn); 48-47 (Uno); 48-48 (draw)
What is the Problem with UFC Judging?
In modern times, you can see UFC matches ending in a controversial decision in just about every event. But before blaming the judges, let’s acknowledge that the scoring system they utilize is far from ideal. And, a lot of fans are actually not familiar enough with how judges score fights, and which criteria they use. Here is a list of the main problems with UFC judging.
Poor requirements to become a judge
One would reasonably assume that UFC judges need to have some type of MMA background, right? However, you do not have to be a former fighter or even trained in MMA to become a judge. In fact, you don’t even need to have a martial art background. Like that is not confusing enough, the sport is regulated by the “Boxing Athletic Commission”, so most UFC judges actually come from boxing. In some way, this is the same as putting the rugby referee to judge an NFL match, it simply does not work well.
Subjective scoring criteria
On paper, judging criteria look simple and practical. But in reality, there is a lot of space for the judges to be subjective, and interpret the criteria in their own way. For instance, grappling is more important than striking for some judges, while for others, it might be the other way around. Some judges’ value top control more than being activated from the bottom position and the list goes on.
Bad scoring system
The 10-point must system is taken from boxing as an initial solution back when MMA got regulated in 2000. But, nothing has changed since then and the system that was not designed for MMA in the first place is still used by UFC judges. High profile boxing matches have 12 rounds of action while most MMA bouts are three rounds while main events are five rounds. If a boxer loses one or two rounds, they have plenty of more rounds to even the score. But losing just one round in MMA is a disaster, and losing two means that you lost the match if it goes to distance (3 round bout).
Not much room for errors
UFC judges do not have much room for making mistakes as their colleagues from other sports have. In boxing, you can often get away with making one or two bad calls as there are 12 rounds. MMA is different as there are less rounds and each mistake they make directly impacts the outcome of the match.
Too many matches end in a decision
Last but not least, let’s not forget that UFC holds events just about every Saturday, around 40 each year and that 50.5% of the fights go to distance on average. If you combine this with the bad scoring system, and subjective criteria, you get why there are so many controversial calls.
How UFC Judges are Selected?
To become an official UFC judge, each person who wants to become a judge has to obtain an official license first. Next, they have to gain experience in the amateur and pro scene, and then submit the application to the Nevada State Athletic Commission (NSAC).
If they pass all the tests and meet all the requirements, they will start by judging low-level UFC events before progressing to the bigger ones over the years.
The good news is (or maybe not) that you don’t need to have any specific martial art background to become an MMA judge and later judge the UFC fights. No, you just need to apply to a local organization where you can earn a license to judge MMA fights. There are two roads you can take:
- Go to a private school where you may go through the entire process faster, but it will cost you more.
- Find an official organization that is in charge of MMA in your state/area
In the US, there are three major associations where you can get a license, and the entire process lasts between six months and a year.
- USA Mixed Martial Arts Federation (UMMAF)
- International Sport Combat Federation (ISCF)
- International Sport Karate Association (ISKA)
Once you become a certified judge, you don’t just jump right into the UFC. No, like fighters, you have to work your way up and prove your worth by judging in amateur tournaments, before moving to low and mid-level pro-MMA events. Once you gain experience, which might take a couple of years, you must submit an application to the NSAC. If they decide you fit their profile, you might get a chance to judge UFC events.
How much do UFC Judges Earn?
UFC judges earn between $300 and $600 dollars per event. The exact amount is based on whether it is a high profile event or low level one, as well as on the reputation of the judge. Some well-known and reliable UFC judges can earn up to a couple of thousands when they judge pay-per-view events.
UFC judges actually do not have a monthly or annual salary. They are appointed by the Athletic Commission of the state where the event takes place, and are paid per event, just like fighters.
One thing to note is that UFC referees are not employed by the UFC. No, they are independent which also means that all UFC judges also judge other MMA events such as Bellator or PFL.
Final thoughts on UFC scoring
UFC scoring system and the way judges score fights remains one of the hottest topics in the chaotic world of MMA. Though not ideal, the system has been around for a long time, and we might see it undergoing serious changes in the following years.
What the future is going to bring is uncertain. But one thing is for sure – no matter which changes they decide to make, controversial calls are always going to be present.
As in any other sport, as long as you have the judges, referees, and commissioners, there are going to be mistakes made. As far as fighters are concerned, the only thing they need to do to minimize the scorecards damage is to:
“Never leave it in the hands of the judges” – Dana White
What is the difference between UFC judge and UFC referee?
UFC referees are the third person in the octagon responsible for keeping the match fair and under the rules. They have the right to stop the fight whenever they feel the need to, pause the action, deduct points, issue warnings, and overall, keep the match within the rules and fighters safe. UFC judges sit beside the cage and they are responsible for scoring the fight round by round.
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