Few things infuriate MMA fans more than a fight being scored incorrectly, though the term “robbery” tends to be thrown around carelessly and is often steeped in bias. With Robbery Review, we’ll take a look back at controversial fights and determine whether the judges were rightly criticized for their decision or if pundits need to examine their own knee-jerk reactions.
Nine years ago in Chicago, two of the UFC middleweight division’s stalwarts faced off in a co-main event bout on FOX with immediate title implications. Chael Sonnen was one win away from a rematch with Anderson Silva that was sure to be a box office smash, while Michael Bisping was searching for his first shot at a UFC title coming off of four straight victories.
The fight went to a decision, one that wasn’t without controversy as Sonnen’s usual wrestling attack proved less effective than usual against Bisping, while Bisping did well in the striking but was unable to sustain offense for long with Sonnen all over him.
Sonnen won a decision, but afterwards admitted to MMA Fighting that the bout was much more difficult than he had anticipated.
“I got hit so hard in the first round, he hurt me so bad that it’s one of those deals, I didn’t fully understand where we were, what we were doing,” Sonnen said.
He viewed the fight more as close than a robbery per se and could see how one judge gave him all three rounds, but Sonnen recalled that his immediate reaction post-fight was to acknowledge that maybe Bisping had beaten him.
“I asked him his opinion, I said, ‘What do you think?’” Sonnen said. “This was before the [decision was announced]. He said, ‘You know, I think I got you, I think it was two to one.’
“I said, ‘You might have.’”
Bisping might have won, but did he? Was he in the wrong place at the wrong time, a legitimate contender standing in the way of a lucrative rematch? Or did Sonnen do enough to deserve another fight with “The Spider?”
Let’s make this an official Robbery Review:
What was the official result?
Chael Sonnen def. Michael Bisping via unanimous decision.
How did the fight go?
In classic Sonnen fashion, he immediately got in Bisping’s face and scored a takedown, landing some ground-and-pound as Bisping scrambled to recover. This happened a couple of times in the opening minutes and each time Bisping avoided being held down. He repeatedly landed counters as Bisping swarmed with wild strikes to close the distance.
Lots of grappling against the fence, with Bisping actually doing a good job of reversing position and putting the pressure on Sonnen. When he was able to create separation, Bisping found a home for combinations. Sonnen was throwing as well, but scoring less consistently.
Round two was more of the same as Sonnen still struggled to assert himself with his wrestling as he had so many times in the past. He did stay active in the clinch even when Bisping had him stuck on the fence, landing short, mostly ineffective punches to give the judges something to look at. Volume was key for Sonnen and he matched the endless workrate of Bisping even as he appeared to be losing the striking. A takedown midway through the round led to little offense for Sonnen as Bisping once again showed strong counter-wrestling.
Sonnen stuck to his game plan into the third and an early takedown put Bisping on the defensive again. He prevented Sonnen from getting any significant ground-and-pound going, but Sonnen advanced position a couple of times, first to back control and then full mount. A squirrelly Bisping stayed out of any serious danger, but spent almost the entire third round with Sonnen on top of him. Perhaps to prove a point, Bisping snuck in a takedown of his own in the closing seconds.
What did the judges say?
Clay Goodman scored it 30-27 Sonnen.
Brad Odum scored it 29-28 Sonnen.
Otto Torriero scored it 29-28 Sonnen.
Odum and Torriero agreed that Sonnen won rounds one and three.
What did the numbers say?
(Statistics per UFC Stats)
The numbers back up a Sonnen victory. Damaging strikes were few and far between in this encounter, but statistically Sonnen had a comfortable lead in significant strikes 40-30. He won rounds one (24-13) and three (5-2… eep), which jibes with the 29-28 scorecards. Bisping won round two 15-11.
Sonnen scored four takedowns in the fight, two in the first round. Eleven of his significant strikes came on the ground, with six in round one and four in round three. He also had the advantage in head (24-17), body (12-11), and leg (4-2) strikes.
What did the media say?
Of the seven media scores tallied on MMA Decisions, four had it for Sonnen, one scored it a draw, and the other two had it for Bisping.
What did the people say?
For the most part, the public is fine with Sonnen’s win. The highest voted result on MMA Decisions is 46.3 percent for 29-28 Sonnen, with an additional 12.4 percent having it 30-27 Sonnen. Bisping has his fair share of support here as well, with just under 30 percent thinking a 29-28 score for “The Count” was the way to go.
The replies to a tweet by MMA History Today from 2016 give some indication that viewers leaned more towards Bisping in retrospect.
As for fighters, only a few had a regular social media presence back in the day, but here’s a handful of instant reactions:
“@calelliott19: Do you think Sonnen did enough to get the win?? I had @bisping winning the first two rounds!”I did I think he won 1&3
— Efrain Escudero (@effyescudero) January 29, 2012
And one from Bisping’s future broadcasting partner:
Scored Bisping-Sonnen 29-28 for @bisping. 1st round could’ve gone either way. Inspiring performance by Bisping, who is forever underrated.
— Jon Anik (@Jon_Anik) January 29, 2012
How did I score it?
Look, if there’s one thing people know about me it’s that I love stats and I love rules. So far be it from me to argue with the official scoring numbers, but I am struggling to see how Sonnen landed more significant strikes than Bisping. As I was re-watching the fight (the first time I’d seen it since it first aired, by the way), I thought Bisping won all the exchanges on the feet. Sonnen was busy, yes, but how many of those looping punches actually did any damage?
Aside from the third round that Sonnen clearly won by neutralizing Bisping, I didn’t find his moments of top control in rounds one and two to be particularly convincing. Those baby punches he landed in the clinch shouldn’t be scored as significant, and the time Bisping spent in control against the cage should make effective grappling a wash. Based on that, I feel effective striking should be prioritized and that gives Bisping rounds one and two on my scorecard.
Forgive me, stats, on this occasion we disagree.
Was it a robbery?
Let’s keep in mind, this was in 2012 so the phrasing of scoring was a little different. Here’s how the judging section looked back then:
“Scoring evaluations shall be made giving equal weight to effective striking and effective grappling. It will be determined on a sliding scale. If a round is more affected by striking, then striking will be weighed more heavily. If a round is more affected by grappling than [sic] grappling will be weighed more heavily.”
Here’s how the section has been tweaked now:
“Legal blows that have immediate or cumulative impact with the potential to contribute towards the end of the match with the IMMEDIATE weighing in more heavily than the cumulative impact. Successful execution of takedowns, submission attempts, reversals and the achievement of advantageous positions that produce immediate or cumulative impact with the potential to contribute to the end of the match, with the IMMEDIATE weighing more heavily than the cumulative impact.
“It shall be noted that a successful takedown is not merely a changing of position, but the establishment of an attack from the use of the takedown.”
Also, from the Dominance section:
“As MMA is an offensive based sport, dominance of a round can be seen in striking when the losing fighter is forced to continually defend, with no counters or reaction taken when openings present themselves. Dominance in the grappling phase can be seen by fighters taking dominant positions in the fight and utilizing those positions to attempt fight ending submissions or attacks. Merely holding a dominant position(s) shall not be a primary factor in assessing dominance. What the fighter does with those positions is what must be assessed.
“In the absence of dominance in the grappling phase, as set forth in paragraph 3 of the promulgated rules, to be considered dominate [sic], there must be a singularly or in combination, some types of submission attempts, strikes, or an overwhelming pace which is measured by improved or aggressive positional changes that cause the losing fighter to consistently be in a defensive or reactive mode.”
Too long; didn’t read: Did Sonnen do enough with his wrestling to make effective grappling the primary criteria by which that fight should have been judged? I personally don’t think so and even by the 2012 edition of the rules I think Bisping’s striking made more of a difference than Sonnen’s wrestling.
One last note here regarding commentary. I have been critical of Joe Rogan’s analysis, especially in recent years, but he did a great job here of not overselling Sonnen’s aggression and takedown attempts. If anything, he may have oversold Bisping’s striking, but overall he gave an accurate breakdown of the fight and made a legitimate case for a Bisping victory.
The final verdict
Robbery. Especially when reviewed through a modern lens.
Was Chael Sonnen’s win over Michael Bisping a robbery?
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