"Did I miss it?" How MMA judges are trying to sharpen their skills

There was a quorum of judges who felt that Dominick Reyes did enough to defeat Jon Jones in their light heavyweight championship fight at UFC 247. Thomas Shea/USA TODAY Sports

Sal D'Amato was sitting in the airport lounge, getting ready to board a flight to return to the United States just hours after the conclusion of UFC Brasilia -- the promotion's empty-arena event on March 14 in Brazil's capital city.

D'Amato, who is one of the most active mixed martial arts judges in the world, was stewing over his score in the third round of a prelim fight between Rani Yahya and Enrique Barzola. So D'Amato flipped open his laptop, pulled up UFC Fight Pass and watched the fight again.

The bout ended up as a majority draw -- 28-28, 29-28 and 28-28. D'Amato was the only judge not to score the third round a 10-8 for Barzola. His decision didn't end up changing the result of the fight, but he was kicking himself anyway.

"What was I thinking?" D'Amato said on a recent video call with other judges and regulators. "I can come up with reasons why I didn't score it. Then when I watched it again, I was like, 'Jesus, I missed it. Did I miss it?' I could make a case for a 10-9, but that was clearly a 10-8."

There has not been a UFC event since Brasilia, as three UFC cards have since been postponed, and Bellator has wiped its schedule clean until June because of the coronavirus pandemic. No one is quite sure when things will get back to normal, although the UFC still intends for UFC 249 to happen April 18 at a location yet to be revealed.

In the meantime, some Association of Boxing Commissions and Combative Sports (ABC) judges are attempting to stay sharp. The California State Athletic Commission (CSAC) has set up regular digital training sessions at least twice a week -- for judges to brush up on their craft.

Veteran MMA official John McCarthy leads the sessions via video call while CSAC analyst Patrisha Blackstock plays a round of a recent or historical fight. At the conclusion, McCarthy leads a discussion about what the correct score would be, and why. The first session on March 23 had a turnout of 18 judges and regulators from all over the country.

Judges, and scoring in general, have long been the subjects of scorn in mixed martial arts. Those issues came to the forefront again after UFC 247 on Feb. 8 in Houston. Jon Jones was awarded a unanimous-decision -- 48-47, 48-47 and 49-46 -- victory over Dominick Reyes to retain the UFC light heavyweight title in the main event. There was immediate pushback. Reyes -- and many others -- thought he should have been the victor. UFC president Dana White said in the postfight news conference in Houston that one of his sons told him he thought the fix was in.

On the scoring training video call, when it was asked whether everyone thought Reyes should have gotten the decision, the response was a unanimous "yes." The judges assigned to that bout -- Chris Lee, Marcos Rosales and Joe Soliz -- were not on the call. But Texas Combative Sports program assistant manager Jim Erickson was.

The bout came down to the fact, the judges on the call said, that Reyes had more effective striking.

"He won the first three rounds," McCarthy said.

The latest UFC pay-per-view main event was also razor close. Israel Adesanya walked away with a unanimous decision -- 48-47, 49-46 an 48-47 -- over Yoel Romero to hang on to his middleweight title in the UFC 248 headliner March 7. This one was less controversial than Jones vs. Reyes, but some questioned why Romero, who landed some big punches sandwiched in between long bouts of inactivity, didn't earn the victory.

D'Amato and Ron McCarthy, who were both on the call, were assigned to Adesanya vs. Romero and scored the bout exactly the same way, with Adesanya winning the final three rounds. Both said the decision really came down to the fifth round with Adesanya's leg kicks being the most effective technique.

In the first and second rounds, Romero landed big punches that were the most effective or damaging techniques. But after that, the judges thought Adesanya's leg kicks began adding up. And the fifth is where things were decided.

"It was really close, the fifth round," said Ron McCarthy, who is John's son. "If you look at it, a lot of things Romero is throwing aren't landing. Adesanya had the better shots of the round with the leg kicks. A lot of what Romero does is really funky looking. It was a weird round."

Added D'Amato: "What did it for me was the leg kicks in the fifth round."

One of the most enlightening elements of the discussion was about what constitutes a winning round and how it is routinely misconstrued by media and commentators.

According to the Unified Rules of MMA, the primary part of scoring criteria is effective striking and grappling. That means the winner should be the fighter who did the most damage or created the most impact with submission attempts or other elements that could end a fight in a given round. If effective striking and grappling is completely equal between the two fighters -- a relatively rare occurrence -- then you move down the criteria to effective aggression. If that is equal, too, a judge will then ask himself or herself who had the best fighting area control. A major bulk of rounds are decided based solely on effective striking and grappling. The other criteria are simply tiebreakers.

As an example, judges on the call were shown the third round of a UFC 248 fight between Max Griffin and Alex Oliveira. Oliveira took Griffin down, held top control for more than a minute and even slipped into mount twice. He had dominant position for a significant amount of time but didn't do any real damage. With two minutes left in the round, Griffin swept Oliveira, got top position and landed hard punches and elbows. All three judges that night gave the round to Griffin.

"Very simple," John McCarthy said. "Oliveira did barely anything except a lot of grappling. He doesn't do a whole lot to win the fight or damage him. That round should have gone to Griffin."

John McCarthy also discussed what makes for a 10-8 round over a 10-9. On the call, they watched the second round of Ray Borg vs. Rogerio Bontorin from UFC Rio Rancho on Feb. 15. Borg was on Bontorin from the beginning, taking him down multiple times, getting his back, going for chokes and landing some ground and pound. Bontorin barely mustered any offense at all.

Only one judge, Derek Cleary, gave Borg a 10-8 score for the round. Even though Borg didn't do a huge amount of damage, it still met the criteria for a 10-8 over a 10-9, John McCarthy said. Since a 2017 rules refresh, there has been a concerted effort to be more liberal with 10-8 scores. It no longer has to be a near-finish -- judges are asked to look at dominance, duration and damage. If two of those criteria are met, a 10-8 score must be considered.

A 10-8 score must also be considered if a fighter has "little to no offensive output." That described Bontorin's round against Borg, Ron McCarthy said.

"If you score this a 10-9, I don't think you've been paying attention to modern judging over the last few years," said Sean Wheelock, the ABC's MMA rules and regulations committee chairman.

D'Amato said judges "stress" more about what is and what is not a 10-8 round now more than they do about the winner of the round. He's not above that struggle either, which is why he couldn't help but watch Yahya vs. Barzola again at the Brasilia airport. He saw then that Barzola met the criteria for a 10-8 round fairly clearly.

Foster said that's why it's good to bring questionable calls to a group of experts, so that everyone can learn from the mistakes together.

"That's why we're here."