California will experiment with a new points system for amateur mixed martial arts bouts beginning in 2011, a move that could lead to significant changes in judging at the professional level.
The test to determine whether the 10-point must scoring system is best suited for dynamic MMA bouts will be conducted by the California Amateur Mixed Martial Arts Organization in conjunction with the California State Athletic Commission.
The new system will be used in amateur bouts in California during the 2011 calendar year, allowing the state to serve as a Petri dish without risking the livelihood of professional mixed martial artists. It figures to be tested in more than 100 bouts.
Fights will be scored under both standards, said Jeremy Lappen, CEO of CAMO, with the intent of delivering "comparative data" that regulators can use to determine whether or not the trial system -- Mixed Martial Arts Specific Scoring (MMAS) -- should eventually apply to the pros.
CAMO, delegated in 2009 with exclusive authority to regulate amateur MMA in California, plans to educate officials in the new system in time to begin as early as January.
"We've used CAMO as a way of going about training officials," said CSAC executive officer George Dodd, "and this is the perfect place to test a half-point system because we can regulate it and evaluate how this system is working prior to us implementing or not implementing the program" for professionals (which would require a regulatory change).
The system, which includes using half points as well as putting increased emphasis on damage, striking and grappling, was developed by Nelson "Doc" Hamilton, a licensed judge and referee and one of the foremost authorities on MMA and regulatory issues. An advocate of the movement to legalize MMA in California in the late 1990s, Hamilton spent the past three years devising a new standard that proponents such as Dodd and referee John McCarthy suggest could alleviate much of the heartache that comes when MMA bouts go the distance.
"I think anything we can do to give the fighters a fairer accounting of what was done in the ring should be done," Hamilton said. "And I think the MMAS system does that."
Hamilton's system, parts of which will be implemented, calls for significant changes in scoring criteria and execution -- a by-product, he said, of controversial decisions in some of the sport's most important bouts and the belief that a process designed for boxing is not suited for a wholly different combat sport that produces far fewer rounds to score.
MMA bouts have been regulated under a set of rules codified by New Jersey a decade ago. The system is similar to boxing's. The 10-point must -- a round's winner earns 10 points while its loser receives 9 or fewer -- has been the means for determining outcomes of MMA bouts that went to the judges. This has become the standard throughout North America, thanks to the set of Unified Rules.
Under current standards, judges are required to score fights through a prism that puts decreasing amounts of emphasis on (A) effective striking, (B) effective grappling, (C) cage control and (D) effective aggression. MMAS will change what judges look for, placing the most weight on damage, followed by equal importance for effective striking and grappling. Cage control, which focuses on how fighters manage a cage or ring, remains a component.
You teach the people out there how to get it. That's the key. Just because someone may not understand it and may have to learn it is not a reason not to implement it.
”-- Nelson "Doc" Hamilton, creator of the MMAS scoring system California will implement in amateur bouts in 2011
The most notable difference between the standards is the use of half points, which Hamilton, the lone dissenter in the Quinton Jackson-Lyoto Machida decision, suggests will deliver a "finer gradient for determining who won a round." While the 10-point must lives, in that the winner of a round still earns 10 points, the margin by which he or she earned that round will change.
A close period yields a tally of 10-9.5. A clear winner 10-9. Rounds delivering damage or domination 10-8.5. Damage and domination will be scored 10-8.
"Presently, you can have a guy winning two rounds marginally and then one round the other guy comes back and clearly wins a 10-9 and he loses the fight," Hamilton said. "That hopefully won't happen with the MMAS system of scoring."
Two 29-28 judges' tallies for Jackson outside Detroit at UFC 123, for example.
The half-point method is not entirely foreign to regulators.
Marc Ratner, the current head of regulatory affairs for the Ultimate Fighting Championship, instituted the use of half points for K-1 kickboxing events during his tenure as executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission. Ratner said he's in favor of moving professional MMA, specifically UFC events, to the half-point scale if evidence shows the scoring standard more accurately reflects the reality of a fight than the one currently in use.
"I'd like to see a commission in America have an experimental time for a year to see how it works," Ratner said. "But I'd also like to see it compared to the regular scores. That's the only way you'd get a valid comparison to see if you're getting any changes."
One consequence of the change could be more draws. With three- and five-round fights being the norm, draws are currently rare in MMA. Half-point scoring would increase the chances of an even fight. To offset that, MMAS calls for a fourth judge, the table judge, to keep tabs of objective technical accomplishments during a bout.
A flash knockdown would be registered as one point. As would a takedown into the guard, or a sweep and escape from the bottom. A takedown into side-control would be worth two, as would be a guard pass. Dominant positions such as mount and back control with hooks or a body triangle would be registered as three points. And a full-fledged knockdown would tally four.
"If at the end of the fight it's announced as a draw, they'll go to the table judge and whomever is winning on that score wins the fight on technical merit," Hamilton said. "That's how you do it in martial arts. There are no draws. Somebody wins, somebody loses. Even in Olympic judo or wrestling, if everything is even down the line, the judges get together, confer and someone gets their hand raised. Period. Well, I don't see why we should be any different."
In addition, ground work -- specifically submission attempts on the bottom -- has always been undervalued by North American officials. MMAS calls for the referee to identify catches and near submissions, which is commonplace in Japanese organizations such as Shooto.
For now, CAMO, which regulates its first state amateur championship Dec. 4 in downtown Los Angeles, will implement half points and the scoring criteria aspects of MMAS, leaving open the option for a fourth judge and the input of referees on the effectiveness of submission attempts.
The key, Hamilton and others say, is whether judges at cageside understand what they're watching.
"You teach the people out there how to get it," Hamilton said. "That's the key. Just because someone may not understand it and may have to learn it is not a reason not to implement it.
"What's the alternative? Don't implement it and continue on the path we're on? In my opinion, that's self-destructive."
California, a bellwether for MMA regulation, agrees enough that next year it will begin exploring alternatives to the ubiquitous 10-point must.
Josh Gross covers MMA for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter at JoshGrossESPN.