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Fox Sports: "Zach Arnold's Fight Opinion site is one of the best spots on the Web for thought-provoking MMA pieces."

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The little engine that could: How Chris McMaster and MMA Decisions changed the game in 10 years

By Zach Arnold | September 23, 2020

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In a combat sports business plagued by politicians, lobbyists, and administrative bureaucrats looking for fame and career enhancement, one outsider stepped up to the plate to change the Mixed Martial Arts scene for the better.

10 years ago, Chris McMaster created MMADecisions.com and placed a factual spotlight on the decision-making process in a sport where losing a fight can mean a substantial pay cut or outright termination.

We are all better off for Mr. McMaster’s trials and tribulations, which were extensively covered in a recent radio interview for Couchside Judges. It is one of the more important interviews to listen to if you are a newer fan of the sport and want to know just how far we’ve come in such a short amount of time.

Congratulations – you’re now considered old

I have recently discovered an unflattering truth about the modern Mixed Martial Arts scene: there is a new generation of fans that have no idea about the history of MMA before 2010.

And if you’re alarmed by this, you’re not alone. I am entering the 25th year of covering combat sports in America and Japan.

It is this as the context in which the evolution and impact of MMADecisions must be measured.

When MMA Decisions was created in 2010, the sport in America was regulated under the “old” Unified Rules created in 2000. In 2016, the trade organization known as the Association of Boxing Commissions updated the playbook for the “new” Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts — which included much-needed liberalization of scoring (more 10-8 rounds) and changes to the definition of what a grounded opponent is.

“There has definitely been a noticeable difference in the use of 10-8s since the changes to the scoring system were approved in 2016,” noted Mr. McMaster. “That was my perception from just being around the scorecards, but I also pulled some numbers from my database which proves it. From 2011-2015 in the UFC, 10-8 rounds accounted for just 2.7% of known round scores. Since 2017, 10-8 rounds have occurred in 5.8% of known round scores.

“Prior to the revamping of the scoring criteria, dead even rounds were far too often being lumped in with completely one-sided rounds by assigning them both 10-9s. And that led to the final score often being a poor reflection of the actual fight. So those changes to the scoring criteria was certainly a big improvement, in my opinion.”

Think about where we’ve come from as a sport. We had dueling scoring systems in America (Unified Rules) and Japan (PRIDE system with soccer ball kicks). Unified Rules 2.0 arrived but with a major implementation problem. A majority of individuals at ABC voted to approve of the new rules but didn’t uniformly implement them in their respective states when they got back home. The result has been intermittent chaos for officials and commission bosses in having to explain the nuances to fighters and trainers who participate in multiple locations.

According to one decision maker (on background), there are at least eight different modified Unified Rules 2.0 rules systems currently active in America.

Under these conditions, MMA Decisions has been an invaluable tool in analyzing the changes that we’ve seen from many high-end judges booked by promoters and athletic commissions.

Proactive vs. reactive

Before there was Twitter, there were message boards. The Underground Forum, Sherdog, and web sites with comment sections like Fight Opinion. Half of the traffic on these platforms was about who was judging the fights. Judges became celebrities overnight. Nelson Hamilton. “Judo” Gene LeBell. Richard Bertrand. Marcos Rosales. Abe Belardo. Sal D’Amato. Doug Crosby. The Honorable Ralph McKnight.

And Cecil Peoples, who may or may not still be telling you to go to hell.

What didn’t exist until the creation of MMA Decisions was an actual platform that gave the public a chance to see the actual data. There was no public database.

In a recent interview with Fight Opinion, Mr. McMaster appropriately described what a masochistic data entry process the project originally entailed.

“When I first started, everything was 100% manual. There was so much cutting and pasting of links and scores that it was quite common for me to be still entering scores from the previous fight while the next fight was already underway. The data entry pages still have a lot of room for improvement, but the early days were particularly painful.

“Also, in the very early days, names of judges were rarely reported with their scores, so I had to put in extra work to figure that out. I spent a ridiculous amount of time watching old fights, pausing the video, and noting the appearance of the people in the judges chairs. From there, my existing knowledge of what certain judges looked like, plus the occasional announced score with judges’ names, and a little bit of deductive reasoning allowed me to piece a lot of it together.”

15 years ago when hot and controversial judging decisions occurred in Vegas, there was often a mad scramble to find pictures of physical score cards on social media to see who worked what fights and how each round was scored. The goose chase became as wild as the actual decisions.

And for members of the media who claimed to be just as good as the judges they praised or ripped? Their scores ended up getting catalogued by MMA Decisions. In an era of ESPN hot takes, a small step towards public accountability is the equivalent of a camel finding water in the Sahara Desert.

As for how officials in the sport have reacted since the creation of MMA Decisions?

“Honestly, the feedback has been almost all positive, from the beginning. The only thing that has changed is that I get a lot more feedback now than the dribs and drabs that I received early on. There has been a little bit of constructive criticism with how the content of “Most Disputed Decisions” was presented, but I feel like even that was coming from a place of positivity.

“I think one of the reasons why I’ve avoided some negative criticism is that I’ve largely avoided the temptation to inject my personal opinion of decisions or judges onto the site. I did this for a couple main reasons: Firstly, I wouldn’t have the time or patience to defend myself to the vocal dissenters. And also, I wasn’t comfortable in producing subjective content (e.g. “Top 10 Worst UFC Judges!”) that could conceivably be used to impact judging assignments. So I generally try to let the data speak for itself, and let others draw conclusions.”

Expansion plans

If Chris McMaster had developed MMA Decisions as a for-profit web site bundled with a consulting business model, not one person would have blamed him for doing so. In many ways, it would have been an ingenius entry point for profit. Think: Fight Metric and CompuBox.

The actual creation of MMA Decisions is, in and of itself, a Herculean effort. Proposing a concept from scratch to financial backers would have been an extraordinarily difficult sell. Now that MMA Decisions actually exists and has a 10-year track record of success, it becomes a viable turnkey opportunity for someone looking to build credibility and influence in the sport.

In our recent Fight Opinion interview, Mr. McMaster expressed his desire to build upon his operations if provided additional resources.

“Ideally, I would love to add a business partner to help push the project forward, and I’m also looking to outsource certain pieces of development work. And getting some assistance with the data entry will also happen soon.

“My future vision of this project is a mobile-friendly website that allows judges, media and regular folks to all log-in and have access to a history of their scorecards, as well as some customized metrics.”

The little engine that could is picking up steam.

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