MMA is doing pretty well for a sport less than three decades old. From the UFC to Bellator to the PFL and beyond, the fight game has grown from a shady niche to the spotlit mainstream, drawing in new fans by the day. A few fighters have broken through to become global superstars.
And yet on practically any fight night, we hear a chorus of complaints from fans, media and even fighters. Bad scorecards. Ill-timed stoppages. Too much "wooo!"-ing from the crowd.
As exciting as this sport is, it could be even better. How so? Here are a few suggestions:
1. Judges should learn numbers other than 10 and 9
All 10-9 rounds are not created equal. Scorecards typically are filled with 10-9s, even for bouts in which one fighter gets mauled for five miserable minutes, then gets the better of things by just a slim margin in the next round. A fight like that should not head into Round 3 tied. But that's the way it goes sometimes. A 10-8 score is a rarity, and 10-7 is as mysterious and elusive as Bigfoot (and I don't mean Antonio Silva).
To help make scorecards reflect the nuanced ebb and flow of a fight, some have suggested that judges use half-points -- 10-9.5 for a really close round, for instance. But why bother with decimals and fractions when we have 10 whole numbers at our disposal? Judges should be instructed to differentiate between even rounds (10-10), rounds in which one fighter has a slight edge (10-9), rounds in which one fighter is clearly in control (10-8) and rounds in which one fighter dominates or nearly gets a finish (10-7). Is there such a thing as a 10-6, too? I wouldn't want to be on the receiving end of that beatdown.
2. Or maybe just bring in judges familiar with the inside of a cage
Judging a mixed martial arts fight is not as simple as counting up strikes and takedowns. It takes mastery of the game -- what each fighter is trying to do, how successful each is at implementing that plan, how the other fighter is countering, who is leading the dance. As a judge, who could be better at navigating the battle within the battle than someone who has been in there? Former fighters and even some coaches have an understanding of the sport's subtleties that the rest of us lack.
Some who used to fight might be too tangled up in a training gym lineage to be an unbiased judge. But if former fighters such as onetime UFC title challenger Frank Trigg can referee inside the Octagon, why not hire ex-fighters to sit cageside? And not just at the broadcaster location.
One ex-fighter has judged fights -- New Jersey-based Ricardo Almeida, the jiu-jitsu coach for Frankie Edgar, Eddie Alvarez and others. But the sport could use more of his kind. The problem: There's no fast track for new judges to gain experience. It would be a somewhat tedious pursuit that would require patience for any ex-fighter looking to become a judge.
3. Referees need to really enforce the rules
Hardly a fight goes by without a groin strike, an eye poke or a fence grab. These fouls can be game-changing, yet when someone commits an infraction, the referee usually just issues a warning. And when there's another foul by the same fighter? Another warning, this one perhaps more sternly worded. It takes a whole lot of foul play before a ref will deduct a point.
That might be because referees don't want to be the one deciding the outcome. And that's understandable. In a three-round fight, one point often is the difference between winning and losing. So installing an expanded scoring system (see above) would help. But even within the current rules structure, refs need to do better.
In every other sport, there are consequences for a player's actions, regardless of the potential impact. An NFL referee throws a flag for holding even if the infraction has nothing to do with the touchdown that's being called back. MMA refs, on the other hand, are like permissive parents, enabling bad behavior with their inaction. Why should fighters refrain from grabbing the fence to avoid being taken down, if they know they can get away with it?
4. What's the score? Let's allow fighters to know where they stand
Ariel Helwani discusses Invicta FC debuting open scoring at their last event and leaving the choice to a fighter's corner to use the information.
Imagine it's the final seconds of an NBA game, with LeBron James holding the ball. He drives to the basket and hits a layup just as the horn sounds. There's no celebration, though, just several minutes of standing around until an announcement reveals that the Lakers have actually lost the game. Unbeknownst to them, they were trailing by 3 points heading into that final play.
This is essentially the plight of MMA fighters, who compete for three or five rounds with no clue about what the score is. They might think they're ahead going into the final round, but nothing is certain until we hear the scores of the three cageside judges. Open scoring, in which scores are revealed after each round, is an idea whose time has come.
Invicta FC has tried it, with a twist: After each round, scores were made available to each fighter's coaches, who could opt to inform their athlete or not. The scores were also revealed to those watching the broadcast. The concept has its detractors, most prominently Dana White. Earlier this year, the UFC president said that if fighters knew they were up by two rounds, they could avoid engagement throughout the final five minutes and coast to victory. "That makes for a lot of bad third rounds," he said.
That need not be the case. Sure, fighters might take fewer risks if they know they're ahead. But refs could counteract that by being liberal with warnings and even point deductions for passivity. Would things even come to that, though? These athletes are built to impress -- the UFC's postfight bonus system ensures that. And open scoring would address another famous Dana White truism: "Don't leave it in the hands of the judges."
5. Make the belts mean something, matchmakers
Money fights are here to stay. This is prizefighting, after all, and athletes with short career windows should chase as much cash as they can. Fight promotions, likewise, are in business to make money. There's nothing wrong with that.
But can we please treat championship fights as pure sports moments? A promotion's title belts should reflect the pecking order within each weight division. If you wear one of those belts, you should be obligated to defend it against the person at the head of the line, even if that's not the biggest-money fight.
Title shots shouldn't be earned in front of a microphone. That's how some fighters draw attention to themselves, which is OK to a point, but the final step toward a shot at a championship should be a shining fight performance, not a clever callout. Fans love a storyline and a grudge match. Star power is real. But factoring those elements into championship bookings disrespects fighters who state their case with punches and kicks rather than words and antics.
6. The fight we've all been waiting for? Don't make us wait so long
Combat sports have traditionally been late-night attractions, and that was fine when fight cards happened only occasionally. The evening's buildup toward a post-midnight main event could even have a special appeal. But nowadays there's a pay-per-view event every month in the UFC, and that company and other fight promotions put on shows practically every weekend. And there's nothing especially appealing about having to wait until 12:30 or 1 a.m. ET to watch the big title fight.
The rest of the sports world has been taking measures to shorten games, but MMA promotions chug along with marathons lasting up to eight hours. (Maybe the Bruce Buffer catchphrase should be "It's time ... finally!") This isn't a call for fewer fight cards or even fewer fights. Promotions have big rosters, and fighters need to earn a living. But let's get creative. The main event doesn't have to be the final bout. Schedule the night in such a way that the top-attraction championship bout starts before midnight, and afterward the card continues with a couple more fights for the can't-miss-a-thing hard-cores.
7. Fighters are individuals in need of a collective voice
MMA is an individual sport full of rugged individualists. Several efforts to unionize the athletes have fallen flat. As a result, fighters have no seat at the table where decisions are being made that impact their livelihoods. In the UFC, for example, when the company was enacting a drug-testing policy with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and a uniform deal with Venum (and previously Reebok), the fighters had no say, as they would in sports with player unions.
Nowhere is the lack of a collective voice more impactful than in fighter pay. Whereas athletes in the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB have collective bargaining agreements under which players get in the neighborhood of 50% of their league's revenue, an ongoing lawsuit has revealed that fighters don't come close to that. There are logistical factors that make the MMA salary pool different from pay in the major pro sports, such as the expense of taking the show on the road and producing broadcasts. But the point is that when paying athletes, fight promotions operate in their own interests. The fighters would be wise to do the same.
8. If you add more weight classes, you get more champions
This suggestion might not work for fight promotions with smaller rosters, but the UFC lists over 700 active fighters on its website, spread into eight men's weight divisions and four women's. By far the two most populated weight classes are lightweight (155 pounds) and welterweight (170). And it just so happens that many of the greatest fighters in MMA compete in one of those divisions. So why not turn two into three by adding a 165-pound division (and moving welterweight to 175)? Isn't it fun imagining who among the 170-pound contenders might trim a few pounds and which 155-pounders might pack on a little more weight for the opportunity at a belt?
The UFC loves to hype up title belts -- just look at the poster for just about any pay-per-view, even those with just interim titles on the line. So here's a chance to create an additional title -- or even more.
What about a division between middleweight (185) and light heavyweight (205)? Or one between light heavy and heavyweight (265)? Or even atomweight (105) for women? No need to add every one of these weight classes -- this ain't boxing, after all -- but let's explore which one or two make the most sense. To me, it starts with 165.
9. Cut down on weight cuts
One Championship might be on to something. The Singapore-based promotion takes measures to address the sometimes scary practice of fighters dehydrating themselves to make severe weight cuts. Promotion officials monitor fighters throughout fight week to keep tabs on their hydration levels, through multiple weigh-ins and urine tests. Sounds cumbersome, but among those singing the praises of this process is Demetrious Johnson. The former UFC flyweight champion now competes in One's flyweight division -- but with a 135-pound limit, not the 125-pound ceiling he had in the UFC. He loves it.
In light of what we've seen at some recent weigh-ins, with fighters staggering or even fainting as they hit the scale, there's got to be a better way.
10. Are you ready for some cross-promotion?
If you're an old-time MMA fan, you might remember when one of the UFC's biggest stars, Chuck Liddell, went to Japan to compete in the 2003 Pride Middleweight Grand Prix. Liddell, who had just lost a UFC title bout but within less than two years would become its light heavyweight champ, traveled across the Pacific and knocked out Alistair Overeem to earn a spot in the semifinals. Then, three months later and with his friend Dana White at ringside, Liddell got knocked out by Quinton "Rampage" Jackson.
Perhaps that experience left a bad taste in White's mouth, because the UFC has done no cross-promotion since then (unless you count the Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor spectacle). There hasn't been much crossover anywhere in the sport, really. In 2018 and 2019, Bellator and Rizin twice matched up their bantamweight champions, and Rizin's Kyoji Horiguchi defeated Darrion Caldwell both times.
As the industry leader, there's no incentive for the UFC to put its fighters in a cage with fighters from other promotions. White has seen what can happen. But it'd be fun to see how Bellator's two-division titlist, Patricio "Pitbull" Freire, would fare against UFC lightweight champ Charles Oliveira or featherweight king Alexander Volkanovski. After all, Freire knocked out Michael Chandler two years ago, and Chandler has since made it all the way to a UFC title fight. Give us more of that.