Doug Marshall's Split Decision Win Exposes The Need For Judging Reform

Folks, if you saw Bellator MMA last week you know what this is about.

It's not as if I have anything against Doug Marshall. In fact, I picked him to win this fight. His style is reckless, but relentless. You discard him at your own risk. I thought that his manic stand-up would overwhelm or befuddle Aliev, leading to an early finish.

That didn't happen. Aliev had a game plan and he stuck to it. He dominated the first round with grappling. It wasn't the most exciting round to watch, but them's the breaks. He repeated the process in Round 2, but his calm nearly backfired as Marshall rallied and at one point nearly finished the fight. It was enough for commentator Jimmy Smith to give Marshall the second round, which I did as well though I could reasonably see the second round instead going to Aliev. The third round was a repeat of the first. Marshall, to his credit, didn't do anything wrong. Even in losing, he went in there and did exactly what I expected him to do. Unfortunately, he just had no answer for Aliev's grappling. He fought his fight and he lost.

Except he didn't. When it went to the judges, Lester Griffin had scored it 30-27 for Sultan Aliev while Mike Beltran and Jackie Denkin scored it 29-28 in favor of Doug Marshall, who got the split decision win. The live audience and viewers watching at home were in shock. On the Bellator app, the fans overwhelmingly scored it for Aliev despite the fact that he fought a fight that many of them probably didn't want to see. Even Doug Marshall himself seemed shocked at the decision. His exuberance was equal parts excitement and astonishment.

Outrage, though, quickly gave way to consternation and eventual resignation. Even as the decision was being announced, the oft repeated mantra of "don't leave it to the judges" was being repeated ad nauseum on twitter. There was also the fact that the event was in California, whose commission is in total disarray and has seen more than its fair share of truly awful, terrible decisions over the years.

But it's 2013. The Unified Rules have been in place for sixteen years. Judges are no longer karate instructors who carry animosity towards jiu-jitsu and wrestling or boxing judges that get thrown onto a card in lieu of the Commission knowing any actual MMA experts.

So how is this still happening and why?

Part of the problem is that we obviously have judges who aren't qualified to be judging fights. How and why they're selected still remains something of a mystery. It's still in the hands of the Commissions, which it should be, since having promoters appoint them is a conflict of interest. But not all Commissions have universally rigorous standards or vetting processes to determine who sits at cageside.

The other (perhaps bigger) problem is the idea that MMA judging is a purely subjective endeavor. It's not. Something like art is a purely subjective endeavor. It's subject to the whims of taste, context, and culture. But MMA is not a Jackson Pollack painting. It has a clearly defined set of criteria that are supposed to be weighed in deciding the outcome. How a judge views each specific criteria can vary to some degree, but there are limits.

This becomes a bigger problem when judges have a philosophy more akin to a baseball umpire with a strike zone, so they operate as if they can set the standard themselves. They know the criteria, but they don't like grappling so they give two rounds to Marshall. They know that leg kicks count as effective strikes and aggression, but they don't think they should matter as much. Like some fans and fighters, they have an idea of what they think MMA should be. Maybe they have a point. But that's not what MMA is, and "legislating from the bench" isn't going to change the sport. It's just going to lead to bad decisions.

I'm not sure what the answer is, other than to keep sustained pressure on the various State Athletic Commissions to hold judges accountable. For instance, after a decision like this, the California State Athletic Commission should suspend any further judging from Beltran and Denkin pending a review of their scorecard and how they came to it. They should sit with them, watch the fight again, and ask them to justify it. They should examine their reasoning. If their reasoning goes beyond the set criteria that should be weighed and instead is simply their philosophy encroaching on the process, then they should either tell them they can't do that or dismiss them outright.

In the past, Commissions have been hesitant to hold judges accountable for what fans and the media consider a bad decision for fear of setting a bad precedent. In a sense I understand that argument, but sitting on their hands clearly hasn't done the sport any favors. It's time to educate these judges on what they're supposed to be doing. Or, better yet, find judges that are already educated.

It can't be that hard. Can it?