What would the kookiest year in combat sports be without a little controversy?
Around this time last year, I made the argument that MMA judging isn’t as bad as it’s chalked up to be, and I stand by that. However (and this is a big however), we can’t talk about the state of scoring 2023 without mentioning two of the most widely discussed title fight outcomes of the year: the Alexa Grasso vs. Valentina Shevchenko rematch, and Henry Cejudo’s comeback fight against Aljamain Sterling.
Both championship contests were standout displays of martial arts that looked to be close matchups on paper and were even closer in practice. In the end, Grasso and Sterling retained their titles, but fans and media were perplexed at the decisions when they had the chance to scrutinize the scorecards.
Let’s start with Grasso vs. Shevchenko 2, which headlined Noche UFC.
Grasso entered the Sept. 16 Fight Night card with gold around her waist after a stunning fourth-round submission of Shevchenko six months earlier, a finish that was unanimously voted MMA Fighting’s 2023 Submission of the Year. The fight-ending choke came about after Shevchenko whiffed on a spin kick, which added to the rematch’s intrigue. Had we witnessed a passing of the torch or was Shevchenko simply the victim of a self-inflicted wound for the ages?
After a highly competitive five rounds, anyone watching would agree that Grasso was a worthy champion and that Shevchenko hadn’t lost a step. The only question was whether the judges felt Grasso did enough to come out on top in her first title defense.
According to the scorecards, Shevchenko was up 39-37 on two of the judges’ cards going into Round 5. As long as Shevchenko wasn’t finished, there was a good chance she’d leave Las Vegas as the champion once again. Then again, there was also the possibility of a wacky 10-8 giving us a completely unexpected result and that’s what happened, as judge Mike Bell broke out that score for Grasso resulting in a split draw rather than a split nod in Shevchenko’s favor. Instead of providing fans with closure, Bell’s card raised more questions.
Personally, I scored the fight 48-47 for Grasso giving her the second, third, and fourth rounds, so I have had no issue with Grasso retaining. I do take issue with the 10-8 score. While Grasso clearly won the final round (once again capitalizing on a Shevchenko mistake to end the fight in dominant position), I didn’t see enough damage nor did I feel that Grasso came near enough to a finish to merit more than a 10-9. If anything, the sequence where Grasso knocked Shevchenko down in Round 2 and followed up with strikes was more impactful than the close of Round 5, making the inconsistency of Bell’s score even more glaring.
To be clear, I don’t officially consider this fight to be a robbery because it’s easy to score the middle three rounds for Grasso and still sleep easily. However (there’s that word again), based on how the fight had been scored after the first 20 minutes, it is near impossible to justify Shevchenko not regaining her title.
Now, let’s talk about Sterling and Cejudo.
Coming off of a three-year retirement, Cejudo gave Sterling everything he could handle for five rounds, reminding everyone why he was one the most hyped MMA prospects ever and one of combat sports’ most accomplished champions. Sterling didn’t roll over for him either and he eventually went on to notch the third successful defense of one of the stranger title runs in recent memory.
Like Grasso vs. Shevchenko, it’s the scoring in the fifth round that raised a few eyebrows, with Sterling earning a lone 10-9 from Derek Cleary to escape with a narrow split decision win (judge Eric Colon scored Round 5 for Cejudo, but had already logged a trio of 10-9 scores in Sterling’s favor).
On first viewing, I scored the fight for Sterling, giving him Rounds 1, 3, and 4, though I’d be lying to you if I said I was confident that the champion was ahead going into Round 5, which I had 10-9 for Cejudo. I remember thinking that Sterling took his foot off the gas in the final five minutes, but after watching that last round again, it’s closer than you’d think. Cejudo scoring a late takedown might have shifted public opinion even though it shouldn’t as it led to no significant offense.
If you care about stats — helpful when we’re talking about a fight that featured several difficult-to-judge exchanges — Cejudo narrowly out-struck Sterling in Round 5, but Sterling had the advantage in head strikes 13-8. Again, it was close!
So I can’t be too hard on Cleary for his fifth-round score, even if it looked egregious and costly in the moment. That’s likely of little comfort to Cejudo, who will always wonder if his comeback would have ended in triumph were it not for that one dissenting card.
Overall, there wasn’t a lot to complain about when it came to judging in 2023, at least at the highest levels of the sport, though there were three fights that I felt compelled to take to the lab. Let’s take a quick look back at those.
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Islam Makhachev vs. Alexander Volkanovski 1
Our 2023 Fight of the Year is so good that reducing it to dreary judging talk does both Islam Makhachev and Alexander Volkanovski a disservice. That’s one reason why I refused to review their UFC 284 meeting immediately after it happened. That said, when the two ended up rematching just eight months later and with the discourse around the first fight still muddied, I realized it was my duty to give it a proper breakdown.
Having watched the fight multiple times, I’m even more disappointed that there was any robbery talk at all. This was four rounds to Makhachev on my card, three at worst.
Volkanovski put on an inspiring performance, but anyone paying attention to the details of the fight has to see that Makhachev was lighting him up on the feet outside of a few thrilling Volkanovski charges and a late knockdown by the featherweight king. The visuals of Volkanovski defiantly roaring as he survived Makhachev’s back control and then ending the fight in top position are indelible, but they don’t tell the story of the fight.
Makhachev doesn’t get enough love for definitively winning this battle of pound-for-pound greats. Then again, I guess the record set itself straight in their rematch.
Amir Albazi vs. Kai Kara-France
Though the stakes weren’t as high for the UFC Vegas 74 headliner between Amir Albazi and Kai Kara-France, the judging was similar to the two title fights discussed at the top of this feature. Two judges scored the fight 48-47 for Albazi, which I have no issue with, but judge Chris Lee’s card was suspect in my eyes.
In a tense five-rounder, neither fighter was able to create much distance until the fourth and fifth rounds that favored Kara-France’s striking. It would appear that Albazi would have to rely on his work in the first three rounds to secure a victory, but Lee actually scored Round 4 for Albazi despite a 27-5 significant strike advantage in Kara-France’s favor. I’m still not sure how this happened.
Albazi did enough to win the fight in my opinion, I just don’t see how one could score the last two rounds for him. So not a robbery, but rather another odd example of judging inconsistency.
Joselyne Edwards vs. Lucie Pudilova
Standing proudly at No. 1 on MMA Decisions’ most disputed calls of 2023, this April 15 preliminary card opener might not leap to the forefront of anyone’s minds when it comes to controversial fights, but if you saw it, then you know that Pudilova got done dirty here.
Unfamiliar judges, a classic grappling vs. striking debate, and a loud fan protest (91 percent of MMA Fighting voters called the decision a robbery) all mix together to paint an unflattering picture of Edwards’ split decision win. Respectfully, it just didn’t look like she did all that much with her striking during the fight, while Pudilova had notable moments of ground-and-pound throughout the contest.
I have no clue what the judges saw that the rest of us didn’t, nor do I expect there to be much widespread uproar when this, to put it kindly, inconsequential bantamweight bout is brought up in the future. But if you want a recent example of a no-doubt robbery, this is the one you want to point to.