How did Machida win?

As expected, Lyoto Machida is still undefeated and is still the UFC Light Heavyweight Champion. But what wasn’t expected was the manner of his victory and the chaos it unleashed.

Machida was not himself tonight he wasn’t as quick as usual and seemed to struggle to get into the hypnotic rhythm he possessed against Rashad Evans. He came into the fight underweight (often a sign of an injury during a training camp) and as with all the Light Heavyweight Champions since Chuck Liddell he seemed burdened by the belt. There was in short, the opportunity for a shock upset. And unfortunately for Machida, his opponent made the most of the opportunity.

The rehabilitation of Mauricio ‘Shogun’ Rua continued as the healthy, disciplined and aggressive challenger took the fight to the champion. Shogun showed flashes of his explosive best while always working within a strict game plan of focusing on the body and legs of the champion with draining kicks whilst grappling in the clinch to further wear him down. And whether up close or far away, Shogun was usually at a distance that meant Machida couldn’t effectively connect with the karate strikes that demolished Evans. By the fifth round, Machida looked a broken man…tired, limping and pensive. Joe Rogan even began talking about the next Light Heavyweight Championship fight, which would surely be Anderson Silva trying to avenge his training partner’s defeat. When the bell went, Shogun jumped for joy as a formerly pro-Machida crowd cheered on the new champion whilst the defeated man could only muster a half-hearted celebration.

And then everything went strange…because the defeated Machida was announced as the victor and still champion. Cue disbelief from the commentators and a torrent of abuse from the crowd towards their former favorite.

So what happened, how did the judges get it so wrong?

When I was watching it live, I saw it as a certain Shogun victory. It was pretty even in the first three rounds, and Machida probably had the best spell of those three rounds when in the third round he unleashed a flurry of kicks and punches right at the death. Like pretty much everyone else, I just couldn’t see how anybody could give the fight to Machida. Having watched it again, I still would give it to Shogun (indeed I would probably give him the third round – sure that flurry of strikes by Machida was flashy but Shogun had most of the round before the fifth minute and in any case landed the two hardest strikes in the fifth minute) but it now makes some sense to me why Machida won.

 Okay firstly, let’s look at the judge’s scorecards (taken from

Nelson Hamilton gave Lyoto rounds 2, 3 and 4.

 Cecil Peoples and Marcos Rosales gave him rounds 1, 2 and 3.

Now ignoring Nelson Hamilton, who is just flat out wrong to give the fourth round to Machida (seriously if he really thinks that, he shouldn’t be allowed to watch MMA let alone judge championship fights) we’re basically trying to explain why Cecil Peoples and Marcos Rosales gave the first three rounds to Machida. Now, even watching it live it was clear that those three rounds were pretty close but watching the fight again something that struck me was how you could look at Shogun’s leg kicks and takedown attempts in a less favorable way.

To take the leg kicks first, there have always been two problems with scoring leg kicks. One they’re seen by many as relatively easy to land so judges often treat them as a low-skilled alternative to a real hit. And to be fair often this is true, a fighter is at an impasse and they just throw a nothing leg-kick to eat up some time. Secondly, it’s often difficult to gauge how much damage is being caused by them – if a fighter is walking fine straight after a leg kick its hard to say for certain that it was impactful enough to make an impression on the scoring. Often it will take a couple of rounds before you see the effect of a good set of leg-kicks. This was true in this fight; it was only in the fourth round that it became fully apparent that the leg kicks were having a real effect on Machida.

So if the judges were dismissing the leg kicks for those two reasons, then the call they had to make was even more finally balanced. And here comes the issue with Shogun’s takedown attempts. On first viewing I saw them as basically an excuse to work on Machida in the clinch – the old Couture tactic of pushing the man against the cage and getting some solid body shots in all while making him carry your weight. And given the fact that Machida looked tired in the championship rounds, I think that the tactic worked quite well. Even on this basis, this creates a problem – as we go back to the problem with the leg kicks – by the time it was clear Shogun had gained an advantage from that clinch grappling, it was too late to give him any points for it.

However, if you were looking at them just as takedown attempts then things become even murkier. Because you have to give Machida credit for his takedown defense – he successfully blocked Shogun despite repeated takedown attempts. So perhaps it was the points that Machida picked up for his takedown defense that gave the narrow edge in the first two rounds on the judges score card. Personally I think its crazy to give more credit to Machida for effective defense than to Shogun for being aggressive and pushing the action, but it wouldn’t be the first time that takedown defense has been overemphaised in the judges scoring.

Then we get onto the issue of the ’10 Point Must’ scoring system. I’m convinced that if you had had asked Cecil Peoples and Marcos Rosales at the end of the fight who they thought should be the winner; they would have both said Shogun. But as judges they were never asked that, instead they were asked to make instant calls on five separate rounds.

The ’10-Point must’ system distorted the scoring in this fight in two important ways. Firstly, it makes it difficult to give Shogun’s ‘attritional’ tactics their proper due. As I’ve already said, you can’t properly judge the effectiveness of Shogun’s work in the first three rounds without looking at the toll the leg kicks and the clinch grappling had on Machida in the championship rounds. The ’10-Point Must’ system prevents judges from actually viewing the fight as it unfolds and properly crediting fighters for successfully chipping away at their opponent.

The second way that the ’10-Point Must Scoring System’ distorted the scoring was in the way that very narrow round victories gave a fighter the same amount of points as a clearer round victory. The fight was even in the first three rounds, and I think everyone knew that whichever way you called it somebody else could legitimately call it differently. However, the championship rounds weren’t like that at all. They were clear victories for Shogun, with him showing more aggression, causing more damage and just putting in a more polished performance. And I wasn’t exaggerating at the beginning when I said that in the fifth round Machida looked like a broken man.

But place yourself in poor Cecil Peoples and Marcos Rosales shoes. They got narrow calls wrong in the first three rounds and now the fight is going against the scores on their scorecards. Shogun is now clearly winning the fight, but he’s not winning either championship round by a 10-8 margin. They’re trapped. If it goes to a decision, there’s no way that their scores can reflect the reality of the fight. Their scorecards say that they believe Machida took 48 points to Shogun’s 47 points but deep down they know that Machida doesn’t deserve as many points for (in their eyes) narrowly taking the first three rounds. They know that in reality Shogun took most of the fight, caused more damage and deserves to be champion. But those scorecards have been handed in, and there’s nothing they can do to get them back. So they have to sit there and take the crowd’s boos.

Now don’t get me wrong, I think the two judges didn’t do themselves any favors. They were wrong to give all the opening rounds to Machida, as shown by everyone in the crowd, Goldberg and Rogan on commentary, everyone at home and live bloggers such as Jeremy all calling it right. But this stupid scoring system turned a few bad calls into an injustice. A fight should not be seen as five separate periods of action, but a continuous match where the better man wins. The ’10-Point Must’ scoring system is so ingrained in the Western fight culture that we forget how absurd it is – its irrelevant in one-sided fights and in close fights the attempt to quantify obscures more than it illuminates. Any half-educated MMA fan could have looked at that fight and said ‘pretty even in the first three rounds but Shogun took it in Rounds Four and Five’. Instead we have these obtuse arguments (like in the first half of this column) trying to quantify the bleeding obvious. Again, on second viewing I’d score this fight 50-45 but there’s no way that Shogun was as dominant as George St Pierre was against Thiago Alves at UFC 100.

Last night, Shogun fought with a well-executed strategy and today deserves to be wearing the championship belt around his waist. No one is going to blow away Machida, but Shogun successfully chipped away at the champion eventually breaking his spirit. The bad judging denied him what he deserved and left a sour taste in everybody’s mouth.

Of course, Dana White is already earning his money, spinning everything to his advantage and building a massive PPV around an already signed rematch. And in the grand scheme of things Shogun will be fine as win or lose the rematch will make him a wealthy man and ‘being robbed’ will make him more marketable. Indeed, the result probably does more damage to Machida – after finally getting over as an unstoppable karate master he now will have to endue an uncomfortable few months as a paper champion. However, the sour taste will still remain. What should have been a night that showed everyone why Mixed Martial Arts is such a fantastic sport, what should have been a fight that saw the rebirth of a fighter that most had written off after a slow start to his UFC career and what should have been the moment when the Machida puzzle was finally solved will instead be the night, the fight and the moment remembered for a bad judges’ call.

And unless steps are taken to improve the quality of judging and clarify the criteria they judge by, we’re going to see more injustices like the one we saw tonight.

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