MMA scoring, explained: A guide to understanding the rules, points system and judges in the UFC and MMA

MMA scoring, explained: A guide to understanding the rules, points system and judges in the UFC and MMA

Updated: 21 days, 6 hours, 21 minutes, 19 seconds ago

When watching a UFC or any MMA fight, are you asking, “Why did they score the fight that way?” “What exactly are the reasons for a 10-9 or a 10-8 round favoring one fighter over another?” These are the important questions fans ask, especially on social media, as they watch their favorite fighter battle it out for bragging rights.

Although the rules vary depending on the state, country, and organization, the most common set of guidelines in MMA comes from the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts. The UFC is one of the main organizations that follow those rules, when allowed. 

The Sporting News will be providing all the information you need regarding how an MMA fight is scored. 

What are the Unified Rules of MMA? 

Per the Unified Rules of MMA, scoring in each round is based on the following: 

Effective striking/grappling  Aggressiveness Octagon/cage control

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Striking refers to the amount of damage brought to one's opponent. 

Effective grappling is not just about holding an opponent down to the floor for dear life. It is about what you can do while on the floor and potentially inflicting harm. Per MMA Referee, a successful takedown is not merely a changing of position but the establishment of an attack from using a takedown.

Regarding aggressiveness, a fighter must be able to go toe to toe with an opponent. There must be pressure from both sides. That can ultimately result in octagon/cage control, which can mean the amount of time someone has power over you . For someone like Khabib Nurmagomedov, he keeps the fight on the ground, smothering his opponents while also landing vicious strikes. If he keeps that up, the judges have no choice but to be impressed. 

How MMA fights can be decided

There are various ways for a fight to end. The simplest forms of conclusions for a fight include: 

Decision: When time is expired, the judges are required to determine a winner.  KO/TKO: When the fighter can't continue due to strikes. Regarding a TKO win, the referee will stop the fight if they believe a fighter can no longer defend themselves from strikes or if they take an excessive amount of damage.  Submission: When a fighter taps their opponent's body/the mat or gives a verbal message signifying they can no longer continue. If they can’t tap due to passing out, the referee will wave the fight off.  Retirement: When the fighter or their corner determines they cannot continue. Doctor stoppage: A medical professional will determine if a fighter can't continue. This will be due to a bad cut, an injury to the body or a competitor can't see following a poke to the eyes.  DQ: When a competitor is warned about breaking the rules but continues to do so. It can be intentional or accidental. They can either be deducted a point and then disqualified after. 

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If a fight does not end in a knockout, submission, or a DQ, then it is up to the judges to score the bout. Based on the scoring criteria, there are a few results that can come from the judges: 

Unanimous decision win: The judges all agreed the fight went to one fighter over the other (10-9, 10-9, 10-9). Majority decision win: Two judges score the fight for one fighter, while one saw it as a draw. Split decision win: Two judges scored the fight for one fighter, while the other favored the bout for the other. Majority decision draw: Two judges could not decide on a winner, while the other judge chose one fighter as the winner. Split decision draw: One judge has one fighter as the winner, another has the other fighter as the winner, and the third judge scores the bout a draw.

How is an MMA fight scored? 

A fight is scored through the 10-point system. Unless there is a serious foul, a judge must decide on a round winner and award them 10 points after. The other side, struggling during the fight, will be given a score of nine, resulting in a 10-9 score.  

There are times when a fighter is so dominant and the fight is one-sided that a judge will score it 10-8 in favor of one competitor. Per MMA Referee, a 10-8 score can result from the fact that “one fighter has dominated the action of the round, had duration of the domination and also impacted their opponent with either effective strikes or effective grappling maneuvers that have diminished the abilities of their opponent.”

There is also the rare 10-7 score. That is when a fighter completely overwhelms an opponent. A 10-7 score is not the norm in MMA. 

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How to lose points in an MMA fight

Depending on the organization you are in, you could lose a point or a fight based on an illegal move or through various warnings. 

In ONE FC, knees to a grounded opponent are legal. However, that is illegal in the UFC. ONE utilizes the Global MMA Rule Set. At UFC 211 in Texas, Eddie Alvarez landed an illegal knee to Dustin Poirier while he was on his knees. The end result was a no-contest, questioned since Texas didn’t adopt the unified rules at the time. 

Other illegal moves are strikes to the back of the head, headbutts, groin attacks, throat strikes, hair pulling, fish-hooking, eye gouging, and slamming an opponent on their head. A fighter in the UFC also cannot use an elbow strike in a 12 to 6 downward motion to an opponent. 

How many judges are there in an MMA fight?

There are normally three judges in every fight. Athletic Commissions (Nevada State Athletic Commission, New York State Athletic Commission, etc.) delegate the judges. The UFC or any other MMA organization do not pick them.

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That is right: Judges are separate from the organization that holds the events. The process to be picked for an event gets announced from two weeks to a few days before fight night. This could depend on availability or knowledge combat sports. 

In order to be picked for a fight, you must have a license. Those looking to become a judge have to register with a local sanctioning body. Courses may be needed to determine your skillset, which can take around six months to a year. That means you must have a profound knowledge of MMA in order to take part in the process. It is recommended you judge amateur bouts during this time. 

The USA Mixed Martial Arts Federation has been the most common way to get certified.

Examples of scoring under the Unified Rules of MMA 

A UFC on ABC 1 in January 2021, Max Holloway fought Calvin Kattar in the main event. During the bout, Holloway landed 445 strikes. That was the most significant strikes landed in a fight in UFC history. The judges scored the contest 50-43, 50-43, and 50-42. 10-8 rounds were awarded to Holloway twice on two cards and once on another. The scoring was due to the striking clinic that Holloway put on, breaking down Kattar one round at a time. 

Judges may need to explain their reasoning for the score they gave. At UFC 262 on May 2021, Charles Oliveira beat Michael Chandler via TKO in the second round. In the first, Chandler dropped Oliveira with shots to the face. Veteran judges Sal D’Amato scored the first round 10-8 in favor of Chandler. While he wasn’t the only one (referee Chris Lee also scored it that way), D’Amato believed he made the right decision based on the current unified rules scoring system. 

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“Our criteria also states that a 10-8 round, if a fighter damages his opponent and doesn’t need to dominate the entire round,” D’Amato told MMA Junkie. “Well, I would say that Oliveira was damaged in that round. He was close to being finished. As far as myself and Chris Lee, who was the other gentleman who scored it (10-8), we both spoke a lot many, many times after that, and one of the reasons we scored it that way is because he was almost finished. Now, of course, Oliveira had his moments – took his back, took him down. To me, he wasn’t really threatening from the back.

“He held position, and then Chandler reversed him, and then two minutes to go, really, (Chandler) almost knocked him out. Oliveira kind of turtled up and took some shots and then went onto his back. I think if he doesn’t go onto his back, that fight could be stopped with another punch. And so that’s why I did it.”

UFC commentator Joe Rogan has criticized MMA scoring in the past. On an episode of the Joe Rogan Experience podcast, Rogan stated that MMA doesn't need boxing's system. He believes bouts can be scored by looking at volume, the number of strikes provided, submissions, and takedowns.