Sanchez-Kampmann: MMA judges, statistics and damn lies

One certainty about close decisions: They’ll be followed in the blogoTwittersphere by cries of incompetence and wails to reform the judging system. Sometimes they have a point (Pham-Garcia, Beebe-Easton, Dunham-Sherk, Fukuda-Ring). Sometimes they’re just overblown wails from folks who don’t want to admit someone else might have an argument.

The latter is the case in three recent UFC main events: Edgar-Maynard, Penn-Fitch and last night’s Sanchez-Kampmann fight. (The only other major fight this year with a contested decision was Griffin-Franklin, but in that case, the only people who think Franklin won work in his corner.)

One thing these fights have in common — they’re very good fights. Edgar-Maynard was fight of the night, with a thrilling comeback from a champion who was all but knocked out in the first round of five. Penn-Fitch was compelling, with Fitch needing and getting a 10-8 round to force the draw after Penn’s surprising takedown strategy gave him the edge through two. Sanchez-Kampmann was so good that Dana White has given the fighters nearly half the gate.

My colleague Sergio Non and I think Sanchez won, and we’re joined by Josh Gross, Dana White and 52% of those voting at Sergio’s blog. We’re not joined by Jordan Breen, who would like to tell the judges and all of us who agree with them that we don’t know what we’re watching.

A complicating factor here is statistical. Compustrike says Kampmann outstruck Sanchez 33-18 overall (19-15 in power strikes) in round 2, then 34-19 (14-17 deficit in power) in round 3. That would suggest Kampmann won round 2, while Sanchez could take round 3 based on power strikes and his takedown. (Round 1 isn’t in dispute: Kampmann dominated, though not quite enough for a 10-8 round.)

FightMetric’s numbers are a little different. They have Kampmann ahead in round 2 — 27-22 total, 26-22 “significant.” If you look at the graphic and break out the “power” numbers, Sanchez wins 20-17. But the “decision” tab awards the round, barely, to Kampmann.

Round 3 is virtually even in strikes — 19-19 total and 19-19 “significant,” though again, Sanchez has the edge in “power,” 17-7. And Sanchez’s takedown, and the round is his.

The numbers differ between the services, but that’s helpful. Strikes that are clear from one vantage point may be less clear from another, and it helps to get multiple angles.

But the stats are still limited. What they don’t show is that Kampmann spent far too much of rounds 2 and 3 backing away from Sanchez. He says he wasn’t hurt in round 2, but he certainly seemed to be. And in round 3, the takedown he finally surrendered after several failed attempts from Sanchez showed that one fighter was still fresh and one wasn’t.

Those are subjective observations. But if we take those out, then we’re left with amateur boxing. Tap tap tap — hey, I’m winning 3-0!

So here’s the question: Can you change the system to make it so that Penn-Fitch, Edgar-Maynard and Kampmann-Sanchez have clearer winners?

Let’s try: The Japanese style of scoring “the whole fight”? Not really. Edgar’s late surge still balances out Maynard’s early dominance. Penn won maybe nine minutes of his fight against Fitch, but Fitch won the last six more decisively. Reverse that for Kampmann-Sanchez.

A half-point scoring system that so intrigues Josh Gross? He says that would make last night’s bout a draw.

Going five rounds instead of three? It didn’t help with Edgar-Maynard — the challenger took a 10-8 round and a 10-9, and the other three were 10-9 for the champion. Fitch likely would’ve gone on to win, though it’s hard to tell if Penn’s approach would’ve changed. (Fitch would always be an overwhelming favorite against Penn in a five-rounder, anyway.) Sanchez had taken the momentum against Kampmann, but had he also given everything he had in those last two rounds?

Judge primarily by “damage” (though that gives ammunition to anti-MMA lawmakers)? OK then, Penn beats Fitch, having busted up his face in a round many people thought he lost. Sanchez was more visually “damaged” than Kampmann, but Kampmann certainly seemed to be in rough shape at times.

No solution really gives us a definitive winner in a close fight. But I’ll offer three anyway:

1. Four-round main events. Yes, four. Then let judges judge the whole fight as a tiebreaker if it ends up 38-38. This prevents the typical three-rounder in which one fighter convincingly wins one round while another fighter takes two close rounds, then wins 29-28.

2. Judo system. MMA, like judo, is supposed to be about fighting to a finish. Judo has specific criteria for finishing a fight — a fully controlled throw, a hold on the mat for 25 seconds or an opponent’s submission. That’s an ippon. Judo also has a waza-ari (half point) for a throw that isn’t quite an ippon or a hold of 20 seconds. Two waza-ari = one ippon. If the fight ends with one fighter having one waza-ari and the other having none, the waza-ari wins. Then there’s a yuko, which serves as a tiebreaker if each fighter has one or no waza-ari.  So in other words, you’re rewarded for coming close to a finish.

The judo system might work for some of these fights. Penn would get one or two yuko in the first two rounds, but Fitch would get a waza-ari for the third. Kampmann would get a waza-ari in the first and would win out over Sanchez’s yukos in the second and third.

And yet, we’d still find something to argue about. So that brings us to the entirely tongue-in-cheek suggestion:

3. Penalty kicks. Hey, if you really don’t want a draw …

The more important part is the long term. Dana White says Kampmann won’t be treated like a loser, which hopefully means he won’t get the typical “three straight losses and you’re out” treatment that most UFC fighters get. (Kampmann lost a split decision last time out against Jake Shields, another close one that could’ve gone his way.) Getting dominated in a fight should push a fighter farther down a ladder than a fight decided by a virtual coin flip.

And that is, once again, a subjective judgment. Can’t avoid it.

 

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