Groupthink in MMA: The Diego Sanchez Win

Fightland Blog

By Michael Hresko

Oh, judges.

I forgive you. Diego didn’t win because you don’t know how to score a fight, it’s because you fell victim to the flaws we all share as social creatures. Let me explain.

This weekend’s UFC Fight Night in Albuquerque, New Mexico was filled with hometown heroes and Latin American talent. It’s a smart move for any promotion visiting a local market, and it makes the event extra exciting for the hometown fans. Admittedly, I was more excited for this Fight Night than I was for the last Pay-Per-View for this very reason. The feeling at a smaller UFC show, in places like Denver, Cincinnati, or Calgary are a lot more exciting because people appreciate that the UFC came all that way. They make a point to choose hometown fighters, like Diego, that may not be at the top of their respective divisions, but offer a more emotional connection with fans.

When I asked friends which bout they were looking forward to most, I kept hearing the same thing:

“Man, I don’t know, but I really hope Diego wins in front of his fans in Albuquerque.”

Apparently, the judges felt the same way on Saturday night when they gave Diego a split decision win over the obvious winner, Ross Pearson. To the casual fan, this might seem like just another horrible blunder by the infamously uneducated judges that state commissions (of varying quality) license. But, the problem isn’t quite as simple as that.

The fact that the decision was split (one judge thinks fighter A won, the other two think fighter B won) is telling. The unanimous decision is much more common (all three judges agree on who won). Usually when a decision is split, a larger problem is occurring. MMA judging criteria are not that subjective, and the split decision should be as rare as the elusive 10-8 round. Bad calls have been happening for a while, and happening with more frequency. How can it be possible that all judges are so bad? Well, they're not all bad. Most of them actually know the rules and judging criteria. The truth is that erroneous judging happens more often due to social reasons than the sheer incompetence of the individual.

UFC Fight Night Albuquerque is a great example of a larger, sociological issue affecting judging all around the country. Shows in rural areas are the most difficult to regulate because the audiences are smaller, and a lot more lopsided. Over 160 people came specifically to support Diego, and everyone in the Albuquerque audience was rooting for the local boy. Every punch Diego landed was met with louder cheers, bigger reactions, than his counterpart in the Octagon.

His opponent, British fighter Ross Pearson, was clearly winning the fight. Still, the opinion (at least vocally) of the audience never changed from the time Diego walked out, to the time the fight ended.

The more one-sided the crowd is in any arena, the more difficult it is for judges to be objective about what’s actually happening. This bias-causing phenomenon is what social scientists call "groupthink," which attempts to explain why individuals who make collective decisions make errors due to group pressure.

The term was originally coined in Fortune magazine, but influential Sociologist Irving Janis made the term famous in his book, Victims of groupthink; a psychological study of foreign-policy decisions and fiascoes, claiming the term was a reference to the fictional language in George Orwell’s science fiction novel 1984.

Janis defined the phenomenon as, “a quick and easy way to refer to the mode of thinking that persons engage in when concurrence-seeking becomes so dominant in a cohesive ingroup that it tends to override realistic appraisal of alternative courses of action.”

This is most certainly happening in mixed martial arts events. The judge is sitting there, hearing everyone’s bias commentary during the fight, and a diffusion of responsibility occurs. The judge gets lazy, sits back, and succumbs to the emotion of the crowd, rather than the facts of the fight.

Photo via Flickr user MartialArtsNomad

The more people in the crowd rooting for a particular fighter, the more social pressure a judge is exposed to. The more social pressure, the less critical thinking. That may be bit of a stretch, but it’s a decent analogy for the judge surrounded by people not interested in the trutha fighter is getting robbed and it’s heartbreaking!

I was acutely aware of this problem in my previous life as a combat sport commissioner. It was such a problem that I routinely broke accepted regulatory process to avoid it.

Remember, the UFC has nothing to do with the regulation of their events. State commissions are in charge of staffing the events including the referees, judges, inspectors, and medical staff (the UFC will make suggestions for their preferred referees, but those officials are still licensed through the local commission).

At all mixed martial arts events, three judges sit on opposite sites of the Octagon, and score each round on a piece of paper provided by the state. At the end of each round, someone (most often a commissioner, another judge, or a timekeeper) will walk around and collect the scorecards. At the end of the fight, that same person then relays the information to the announcer, who raises the winning fighters hand. This all happens within moments of the end of the fight, and no discussion between officials takes place. The idea is to keep judges isolated to prevent them from swaying each other's opinions.

I usually collected the scorecards myself, so I could communicate with the judges I was trainingtotally breaking the isolation rule. I would walk around the ring checking my judges score cardsand give them a smile or a wink if it was correct. If they had scored it wrong, I would make sure the other two judges had it right to offset the error. Had two of my judges given incorrect assessments, I would had just told the announcer that the rightful fighter had won, instead of what it said on the scorecards. It never actually happened (good job, guys), but no one would have been the wiser, even the judges, since they don't ever see each others' cards.

My opinion as a commissioner, and now as a fan, is that there is way too much on the line to be messing around with inaccurate scoring anymore. Bad judging is reaching epidemic levels, and state commissions need to continue improving scoring methods. Maybe the judges need to start communicating during the fight, or maybe they just need to wear noise-canceling headphones.


Check out this related story:

Judging the Judging Paradox With Nick The Tooth