Laura Sanko Calls for MMA Judging Reform After Yet Another Controversial Decision: ‘The Sample Size Has to Be Bigger’

Laura Sanko hopes to see changes in MMA judging implemented after Kai Kara-France's controversial loss to Amir Albazi

Laura Sanko
Courtesy of @UFCNews on Twitter

Laura Sanko believes there are two viable solutions to correcting the epidemic of controversial decisions in mixed martial arts that have plagued the sport for years.

Last weekend, MMA fans bore witness to yet another questionable decision levied by judges during a UFC Fight Night card in Las Vegas. Top-ten bantamweight contenders Kai Kara-France and Amir Albazi went toe-to-toe for 25 minutes in the evening’s main event. With the stakes high, both fighters were in top form, but after five rounds of action, the general consensus had Kara-France securing the win and potentially a UFC title opportunity.

However, two of the three presiding judges, Chris Lee and Sal D’Amato, saw it differently, scoring the bout 48-47 in favor of Albazi. The result caused another outcry from fans and fighters alike, once again calling for a change in how fights are scored and who is allowed to score them.

Appearing on The Schaub Show with former UFC standout Brendan Schaub, UFC analyst and commentator Laura Sanko shared her thoughts on two ways that the sport can diminish the number of controversial decisions. 

“Well there’s two things: a more immediate solution and there’s a long-term solution,” Sanko began. “The long-term solution is to continue to tweak and perfect the criteria because I think that there are some things about the criteria that could be made better, especially if you got more fighters involved with writing them, but that is a really tough thing to change because you’ve got 50 different cats going 50 different directions with all sorts of different… It’s really tough to get 50 different commissions to move at once.”

Sanko’s other suggestion is a relatively simple one that could be easily implemented by athletic commissions across the board.

“Anytime you want to get more accurate results mathematically, you have to make the numbers bigger,” Sanko continued. “If you’re talking about averages. If you’re talking about medians… I’m guessing we’ve all taken some amount of basic statistics. The sample size has to be bigger. So imagine if you go from three judges to five judges. Imagine if you go from five judges to seven judges. Imagine if you’ve got five judges on-site and another seven judges in a quiet booth off-site somewhere.” 

Laura Sanko Believes Transparency Could Go a Long Way in Quelling the Outcry From Fans and Fighters

Though she admittedly does not always agree with the judges, Sanko recognizes that their job can be especially difficult. Her own experience as an Octagon-side announcer has given her a unique insight into observing and calling fights from the sidelines, a task that can present a number of challenges that almost certainly affects judges just the same.

“Everybody wants to say we’ve got terrible judges. I’m sorry, that’s a lazy thing to say. It really is. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist at all,” Sanko said. “I think there’s been some poor judging that we can point to, but as a generality, I disagree with it. I think it’s a lazy thing that we have a tendency to say. I think a lot of things that people forget about, for instance, one judge sits on the side of the Octagon where the door is. You’re then talking about four turnbuckles. They can’t get up and walk around. 

“Now, they have a screen which frankly most the time when we’ve been like, ‘Oh, these dudes are looking at their phones,’ they’re not looking at their phones. They’re looking at their monitors because they can’t see what’s happening. As someone who calls these fights, sometimes I don’t say things because I’m not really sure what’s happening right now. Both my angle and my reality view as well as what’s being shown to me on the camera is not enough for me to understand if there’s a submission happening or not and you cannot judge what you cannot see.”

Sanko also believes transparency could go a long way toward making fans understand why a specific scorecard was turned in. 

“The other biggest easiest thing to do, and I don’t like the term accountability. It has this connotation that you guys are screwing up and we want to punish you for it. I just want transparency. After a night like [Amir] Albazi versus Kai Kara-France, and it doesn’t even have to be that specific judge. I understand that not everybody feels comfortable being put on a spotlight and grilled by the media or whoever but have a representative just like the NBA does. 

“A referee’s representative that will come out and say, ‘Hey, I had a discussion with these judges. This is exactly why it was judged this way. You could even f*cking bring clips up like, ‘See this? This is what this is.'”

One of the more blatant examples of a controversial scorecard came last year when Sean O’Malley escaped with a split decision win over former UFC bantamweight champion Petr Yan at UFC 280. Many argued that Yan had done enough to win the bout thanks to his takedowns and control time. Sanko revealed that she had spoken to the two judges who favored O’Malley in the match and confirmed that their decision ultimately came down to one very specific moment in the contest. 

“The Sean O’Malley versus Petr Yan fight was a super close one and I ended up talking to two of those judges who scored it in a way that a lot of people here felt was inaccurate. They scored it for Sean and honestly, so much of it came down to… I think it was the first round, there’s a takedown where Petr gets him, elevates him, but Sean posts and then he gets the takedown. 

“Typically when you’re scoring takedowns, they don’t matter at all unless there is elevation, amplitude, and impact. He got the elevation, but he did not have impactful impact because of the way Sean posted.”

What solutions would you like to see implemented to help end the high frequency of questionable decisions in mixed martial arts? 

Published on June 8, 2023 at 3:41 pm
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