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UFC 254: Why confusion over takedowns might affect Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Justin Gaethje

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How Khabib gets takedowns against the cage (1:35)

Unlocking Victory breaks down how effective Khabib Nurmagomedov is going for takedowns against the cage and how Justin Gaethje can counter. (1:35)

Jon Jones sat in the bowels of Houston's Toyota Center in the early morning hours of Feb. 9, when he was asked by reporters about his controversial unanimous decision win over Dominick Reyes about 90 minutes earlier in the main event of UFC 247.

The light heavyweight title fight was a close one, a bout many fans scored for Reyes. But Jones said he was confident the judges would give him the nod.

"I got takedowns," Jones said. "He got no takedowns. I got his back. At one point, I put a hook in."

Minutes later, Reyes was sitting in the same place making his case for a victory -- and scoffing at Jones' notion of why he won.

"Those takedowns -- how can you even score those as takedowns?" Reyes said.

The issue of takedowns and how much they are worth in the eyes of mixed martial arts judges is a divisive, complicated topic. Fighters, coaches and fans don't always see eye to eye with how judges score them. And the result can be controversial, unsatisfying decisions at the premier level of MMA -- UFC title fights where millions of dollars and career legacies are hanging in the balance.

Khabib Nurmagomedov, who has had multiple takedowns in every fight since 2013, will defend his lightweight title Saturday against Justin Gaethje in the main event of UFC 254 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Gaethje, known for his striking, will be trying to keep things on the feet, where he wants to damage Nurmagomedov with punches and kicks. The undefeated Nurmagomedov wants to drag Gaethje down to the ground to, as he puts it, "drown" Gaethje.

If it goes to a five-round decision, it'll leave the judges with the task of determining whose style was more effective -- were Gaethje's strikes worth more than Nurmagomedov's takedowns? -- leading to potentially contentious consequences.

"There's a definition of what is supposed to be scored, but you can't take the human out if it," Gaethje said during a recent virtual media day. "It's in the eye of the beholder, per se."


At UFC 247, Jones scored two takedowns in the fight, one in the fourth round and one in the fifth. He didn't keep Reyes down very long either time and didn't do damage or advance to a dominant position. While Jones won those rounds, it wasn't because of the takedowns, according to John McCarthy, a retired MMA official who now helps teach other officials. There is a great disconnect, McCarthy said, between how judges score and how outsiders think they score.

"In Jon's mind, he's probably like, 'Well, judges give a lot of credit to these takedowns.' And it doesn't matter that Reyes just got right back up out of the takedown or [Jones] didn't really do anything with the position," said McCarthy, who began officiating at UFC 2 in 1994 and has been training judges for more than a decade. "It's like, 'I got the takedown, they're gonna give me big credit.'

"And it just perpetuates itself. It's that flow that never stops until someone finally puts a dam on it and says, 'No, no, no.'"

The Unified Rules of MMA scoring criteria were rewritten in 2016 by the Association of Boxing Commissions and Combative Sports (ABC). This was the first update to MMA's scoring criteria since the Unified Rules were first written -- with the help of McCarthy, among others -- in 2001. The idea four years ago was to firm up the scoring language, make it clearer and establish that it was a tiered system.

MMA judges score rounds based on effective striking/grappling, effective aggression and fighting-area control. However, those three things are not scored equally, which regulators say is the biggest misconception among fighters, coaches, fans and broadcasters.

Rounds are scored based primarily on effective striking/grappling. Only if that criterion is 100 percent equal between the two fighters does the judge then move on to effective aggression. If effective aggression is equal, only then does a judge look at fighting-area control. ABC rules and regulations committee chairman Sean Wheelock estimates that 90% of rounds are scored on just effective striking/grappling, about 9% on effective aggression and just 1% on fighting-area control.

A common theme among judges and regulators is that the word "control" is incredibly overused by people in MMA, because it so rarely gets taken into account, per the scoring criteria.

"It's the last criterion that we use," judge Sal D'Amato said. "So it really doesn't come up often that, 'Oh, he had cage control or Octagon control.'"

Per the scoring criteria, effective striking/grappling is defined as "legal blows that have immediate or cumulative impact with the potential to contribute towards the end of the match," with the immediate being weighed more heavily than the cumulative.

"You can punch somebody, hit him 10 times and it has no real effect in the fight," McCarthy said. "You can punch him one time and it has a huge effect. So, the one effective strike is probably going to have more value to the judge than the 10 that showed no true effect."

Which means one big Gaethje punch could mean more to judges than multiple Nurmagomedov takedowns, unless Nurmagomedov is able to capitalize on those takedowns.

Judges are looking for effect and impact, which can be simplified into which fighter is doing more damage. D'Amato said in the striking portion of a round, he looks for blows that stop an opponent's forward motion, make an opponent wince or force him or her to back up. Effect is the key word. Did that strike affect what the opponent was doing? With a striker like Gaethje, the answer is often clear.

With takedowns, a slam, or something else with elevation and velocity, is weighed more heavily than a run-of-the-mill trip or single-leg takedown. When he trains judges, McCarthy likes to hammer home the idea of what is and what is not an attempt to finish the fight. A slam can end it; a regular takedown usually cannot.

Effective striking/grappling is defined as "successful execution of takedowns, submission attempts, reversals and the achievement of advantageous positions that produce immediate or cumulative impact with the potential to contribute to the end of the match."

While a takedown scores, how much is it really worth? Not as much as a damaging blow on the feet, unless something offensive is then done on the ground, like ground-and-pound strikes, submission attempts and advancing into dominant positions. That is something that could come into play in Nurmagomedov vs. Gaethje, McCarthy said.

"Khabib, at times, just gets the takedown," McCarthy said. "His first takedown against Conor [McGregor at UFC 229 in October 2018], when you watch that fight and see what he did and all the work he put into it, eventually, he gets Conor to his back. ... Now what are you going to do with the position once you've attained it?"

Nurmagomedov executed his first takedown 15 seconds into the first round and was able to move McGregor up against the cage, where he stayed on top of McGregor for the final four minutes. Nurmagomedov didn't inflict much damage, but he won the round 10-9 on all three scorecards. He ultimately finished McGregor via fourth-round submission.


D'Amato said when he sees a takedown, he scores it. But then he looks for other things. Does the opponent pop right back up or just lie there? Does the fighter who landed the takedown get into side control or mount or land ground-and-pound? The answers to those questions will determine just how effective that takedown was and how much it is weighed toward the final round score, D'Amato said.

One of the biggest fallacies in scoring -- an MMA urban legend, judges say -- is the idea that a fighter can steal a round at the end with a takedown. Perhaps in a completely even round that could be the case, but those are rare occasions.

"Yeah, you score [the takedown]," Lee said. "But you're not going to ignore everything else that happened in the round. And if you have someone that has gotten kicked and punched all over the place, you're not going to forget that because there was a takedown."

If the effective striking/grappling is completely equal, then judges will look at effective aggression, which means, per the criteria, "aggressively making attempts to finish the fight." The rarely used fighting-area control is defined as assessing "who is dictating the pace, place and position of the match."

When the scoring criteria changed officially in 2017, many judges began using them. But the new language was never really formally or clearly communicated to fighters, coaches and broadcasters. While the ABC is the overseeing body for the Unified Rules of MMA and is an association for athletic commissions, individual commissions all have different ways of doing things set forth by their state or tribal governments. Conveying rules and rule changes to fighters and coaches has always been a disjointed process.

"There's a definition of what is supposed to be scored, but you can't take the human out if it. It's in the eye of the beholder, per se."
Justin Gaethje, on takedowns

Prior to every MMA fight, the referee will meet with each fighter to go over the rules in the bout. But no one in any official capacity ever explains the scoring criteria to fighters or coaches, making the simple idea of how to win in MMA a fuzzy concept to many -- including fighters, broadcasters and fans.

"Judges never come," Nurmagomedov said. "Referees come. Referee always come. I never see judges. In my life, I never see judges in UFC. I don't even know how they look."

Wheelock said the "biggest problem" with scoring in MMA right now isn't the judges, it's the lack of understanding of what the criteria are.

In order to get everyone on the same page with the updated scoring criteria, Wheelock proposed the UFC hold a judging and refereeing seminar for fighters and coaches to attend.

"Whether you fly us to them or them to us, or fly all of us to a neutral location like Las Vegas -- get that information out there," Wheelock said. "This sport is from the top down in terms of knowledge. If the UFC guys know that, then everybody in the gym mysteriously knows that. It's kind of amazing that we're 27 years into the UFC and they've never done that. That would be a massive first step."

That kind of educational process could help fighters like Jones, who might be the greatest mixed martial artist in history, understand if in fact it was his takedown that allowed him to retain his title with a razor-thin decision. If someone with the experience of Jones is wrong in his assumption of how the judges scored it, as McCarthy states, how can any fighter's camp be certain about strategizing takedowns?


Angela Hill was at the postfight news conference following her UFC Fight Night main event loss Sept. 12 to Michelle Waterson. It was Hill's second consecutive split decision defeat and the second straight time she felt strongly that she really had won.

When asked by a reporter about the decision, Hill said she believes she needs to start going for more takedowns. The takedowns and takedown attempts, Hill said, were what earned Waterson the win in the eyes of the judges.

"I don't think damage matters when there's a takedown in the round," Hill told ESPN. "If you look at the damage done, all the damage was done by me on the feet until I got taken down. It's a weird one."

According to UFC Stats data, Waterson landed only one takedown in the fight, in the third round that all three judges had Waterson winning. D'Amato and judge Derek Cleary had the bout for Waterson, while Lee scored it for Hill. It really came down to the fifth round, when Hill seemed to do more damage, but Waterson had more "control."

McCarthy, watching at home, scored the bout for Hill. He thinks she might be extrapolating the wrong information about how judges score takedowns from the loss to Waterson.

"Perception is reality," McCarthy said. "So when someone perceives it to be real, it's real to them. They're not saying something ... that they believe is wrong. Even though it's wrong."

Therein lies another big issue with judging in MMA. Many fighters and coaches are aware of what is written in the criteria. But, like Jones and Hill, they have firsthand experience with conflicting decisions and what leads to them. And many in MMA believe what is written and what regulators say doesn't always happen in practice.

New England Cartel coach Tyson Chartier tells his fighters, such as UFC featherweight contender Calvin Kattar, that what wins rounds and fights is "control" -- that word that regulators and judges hate. Chartier is aware of what the criteria say, but he also goes by what he sees in person and on tape.

"You've gotta control the cage," Chartier said. "How many 10-10 rounds have you seen? They're gonna pick someone [as the round winner]. If that guy is just running around like a dachshund and he's not throwing punches, as long as you're in the middle, you're winning unless he takes the cage back. See how many guys win rounds when they're going backwards all of the time. Even if they are winning the round, the optics are you're losing."

Chartier and Xtreme Couture coach Eric Nicksick both said they tell their fighters to go for takedowns at the end of close rounds. Nicksick said he and UFC featherweight Dan Ige even have a code word Nicksick will yell when he wants Ige to shoot for that last-minute takedown. It's a psychological principle, Nicksick said. People tend to remember what happens most recently more than what happens in the middle of a five-minute round.

"The round might have been very close the whole way," Nicksick said. "How do you seal a round or how do you steal a round? Something aesthetically pleasing to the judges."

How judges score fights is unpopular in MMA. Hill joked that it seems judges determine winners via "flipping a coin" or "I like the cut of his jib." Chartier and Nicksick say they believe there should be more public accountability, perhaps the judge having to explain why he or she scored the rounds the way they did. Nurmagomedov agrees.

"Even not all fights," Nurmagomedov said. "Maybe co-main and main event. After every event, maybe if they explained in public why they scored like this or something like this, it's gonna be interesting for people. Why not?"

UFC play-by-play man Jon Anik said he sat down with McCarthy in early 2016 following a pair of controversial UFC title-fight decisions, but despite that and several other talks with officials, Anik still believes changes need to be made. That could mean adding more judges, open scoring where everyone can see the scores between rounds, or a half-point system rather than judges being forced to score rounds mostly just 10-9 or 10-8.

"I do think that if we all [broadcasters] went to a class, like if you put [UFC color commentator Joe] Rogan and all of us in one of these classes, I'm hopeful that maybe we'd all be able to benefit from it," Anik said. "But I don't know. I really feel like the language needs a serious overhaul. And what's discouraging is that it was just rewritten."

McCarthy, who has been instrumental in creating and altering the scoring criteria since the origin of the sport, also believes change is needed.

The ongoing discussion about judges and scoring could continue at UFC 254. Nurmagomedov has never lost a fight in his career and rarely been damaged by strikes. Half of his 12 UFC fights have been decided by decisions. Gaethje, meanwhile, has not gone the full distance in six years. It's the only foolproof way, he said, to avoid heartbreaking results.

"It's really impossible to figure out the rhyme or reason [why] some of these decisions go a certain way," Gaethje said. "I really haven't figured it out. ... For me, the surest way past that is to knock them out or get knocked out."