(Ladies and gentlemen, your “winner.” / Photo via Esther Lin, MMAFighting)
By Adam Martin
There have been many terrible decisions handed out by MMA judges over the years, but none of them had the same consequences as the decision read by UFC ring announcer Bruce Buffer following the main event of UFC 167 this past weekend.
After five rounds of back-and-forth action, Johny Hendricks and Georges St-Pierre headed to the scorecards to hear the official outcome of their fight, which should have been in the bag for the challenger. Watching the fight live, I scored it 48-47 for Hendricks, giving him rounds one, two and four, and St-Pierre rounds three and five, all rounds scored 10-9. My friend and fellow journalist James Lynch, whose judgment I trust and who I watched the event with, tallied the same score on his card. So did all 15 media members who had their scores counted by the great database MMADecisions.com. So did most fans and observers of the sport on Twitter and in the arena. So did UFC color commentator Joe Rogan. And so did UFC president Dana White.
Despite this, two Nevada State Athletic Commission judges inexplicitly scored the fight for St-Pierre by scores of 48-47, and the champion got to keep his belt. He then announced to the audience at MGM Grand Garden Arena that he wanted to take some time off after defending his belt for the third time in the past 12 months.
Hendricks, on the other hand, got screwed.
I thought all five rounds were clear. Round one was Hendricks’ because he was the more effective striker and grappler. Round two was Hendricks’ because he rocked GSP and displayed more effective striking overall. Round three was GSP’s because he outlanded Hendricks by nearly twice the amount of strikes. Round four was Hendricks’ because he was the more effective striker once again. And the fifth and final round belonged to GSP, who made a late comeback highlighted by two successful takedowns.
For some reason, though, it seems that there is some disagreement with the first round. Although I thought it was clearly Hendricks’ round when I watched it live, two judges — Tony Weeks and Sal D’Amato — gave it to St-Pierre, and it ended up being the round that swung the split-decision verdict in his favor.
24 hours after the fight, I re-watched it, hoping that I was wrong and that the first round was closer than I remembered. And as I watched those first five minutes unfold, I could only sit there and shake my head in disbelief that two professional judges could score the round for St-Pierre. Hendricks won the first round, no doubt about it.
In the first few minutes of round one, St-Pierre landed some nice strikes and a takedown. He then attempted a submission while Hendricks was standing up, but wasn’t able to lock it in. In the Unified Rules of MMA, submission attempts aren’t scored by the judges. Effective grappling is, but having an arm around someone’s neck for a few seconds isn’t effective at all. And neither was that takedown that GSP landed early in the round, because Hendricks used his butterfly guard to get back up almost immediately.
What was effective, however, were the big elbows Hendricks landed to the side of GSP’s head while the champion tried to take him down against the side of the cage. Look at UFC matchmaker Joe Silva’s reaction outside the cage at that moment — he knew those hurt. Then Hendricks got a takedown of his own. Then he landed a bunch of big knees to GSP’s body. And while St-Pierre landed a few nice kicks on Hendricks, the challenger landed a bunch of hard punches at the end of the round, putting an exclamation mark on it and winning a competitive, but at the same time clear, 10-9 round.
Or at least most people thought he did did. Viewing Twitter, there were a few fans who gave St-Pierre the first round 10-9, but they were in the minority (about 10-20% of people I would say, but they are fans and I bet most have never actually read the rulebook). Still, mostly everyone gave round one to 10-9 Hendricks. But two of the judges did not, and at the end of the day that’s the only thing that matters in this sport.
I’ve seen a lot of people say that the first round was close in their minds and therefore the round should be scored in the champion’s favor. So listen up, jackasses: There is NOTHING in the Unified Rules that says, “To be the champ you have to decisively beat the champ.” It’s made-up logic by people who don’t know how to properly score a competitive round. In a mixed martial arts fight, the only thing that matters is who won the round and who lost it. The belt is completely irrelevant and should never be taken into consideration when judging fights.
I am bothered by the decision the judges made, but I am more bothered by the reaction of the MMA community to the decision. When the president of the UFC, 95 percent of professional fighters, 95 percent of the media, and most fans scored the fight for Hendricks, I’m sorry, but that’s a robbery. If this wasn’t a robbery, then someone please tell me what is.
Monday morning on Twitter, a follower told me to move on and to stop flooding his timeline with talk about the decision because “bad decisions happen. It’s a part of the sport.” But this is such flawed logic in so many ways. If we can’t discuss the judging in the sport in a civil manner on a public forum it will never improve. If we keep letting the judges get away with screwing up, and let them off with not even a slap on the wrist every time, the sport will never evolve. And we will keep getting bad decisions where someone who deserved to win gets screwed.
When there are discussions about the worst decisions in UFC history, there are usually a few usual suspects that are brought up. Michael Bisping vs. Matt Hamill at UFC 75. Lyoto Machida vs. Mauricio “Shogun” Rua at UFC 104. Nam Phan vs. Leonard Garcia at the TUF 12 Finale. Frankie Edgar vs. Benson Henderson at UFC 150. Henderson vs. Gilbert Melendez at UFC on FOX 7. The were all horrible decisions, and it’s hard to say that Hendricks vs. St-Pierre was worse than any of them. They’re all about on par, because in each case the wrong man got his hand raised. That’s why I can’t say that Hendricks vs. GSP is the worst decision in UFC history.
But out of all the bad decisions handed down in UFC history, St-Pierre vs. Hendricks is the most important because the stakes were the highest and because it featured the biggest star in the sport on the sport’s biggest stage, the main event of the UFC’s 20th-anniversary pay-per-view card. And because of two bad judges, Hendricks was robbed of the chance to wear a belt he deserved to win. This wasn’t St-Pierre’s fault, and he shouldn’t be blamed for the judges’ incompetence, but at the same time I don’t consider him the best welterweight in the world anymore, even though he still gets to wear the belt around his waist.
I’m hopeful that because of the high-profile nature of this fight that everyone in the MMA community can take a step back and look at the judging in the sport and realize that it’s actually gotten worse in the 20 years since the sport began. That’s a huge problem if we want the sport to succeed going forward.
Hopefully this is the moment where we all open our eyes to a huge problem that has been plaguing the sport for years. We need to have an open forum to try and fix this problem. Maybe that means the scoring system must change. Maybe we need to go back to PRIDE rules. Maybe damage has to be added to the criteria. I don’t know what the solution is, but I want to find one. And so should all of us, instead of just brushing it off to the side. Because it’s wrong and it’s hurting the sport.
Until anything changes, though, we are stuck with the 10-point must system. The system isn’t perfect, but for the most part it works, because under the current system one judge, nearly every media member and the president of the UFC was able to still crown Hendricks as the rightful winner. No, it’s not the system that’s the biggest problem, it’s the judges who are applying the scores incorrectly that is the problem.
I know that judging MMA fights isn’t easy and that the judges in this sport never get any credit for the job they do. But they chose to do the job, and they should do it right. And at UFC 167, they failed at it. But it won’t hurt any of them at all. Most likely, they will all keep their jobs and there will be no ramifications. In actuality, the only person it hurts is Hendricks. And it’s not fair. It’s not right, and we need to change things. How we can do that, though, is a difficult question to answer. But hopefully we can answer it sooner than later before this sport goes right to hell. That is, if it’s not down there already.