Snap Decisions

It’s unanimous. No job is more thankless than being an MMA referee or judge. They are constantly under the spotlight, rarely receive praise for a job well done, and the only time they’re mentioned in the media is when they screw up. Doesn’t that sound like a great gig?

MMA is in dire need of qualified referees and judges. I felt it was important as a MMA reporter to educate myself on these two critical positions, so I signed up for a training course in Illinois from 17-year referee and judge Robert Hinds.

One of the biggest misconceptions in mixed martial arts is that there is a single governing body overseeing the sport and it’s responsible for assigning judges and referees for an event. That’s not the case— it’s the individual state athletic commission that hires qualified officials. But what qualifies these officials and how are they found?

Incredibly, most athletic commissions do not require mandatory training for their MMA officials. The Association of Boxing Commissions (ABC) is widely recognized as the closest thing the sport has to a governing body (they handle all combat sports including MMA), and the ABC approves nine different training courses, including seminars run by John McCarthy, Herb Dean, and Robert Hinds. These courses continue the education of current officials and supply aspiring officials with the tools they need to properly officiate and judge MMA.

“There are a few commissions that host training seminars on a yearly basis and make it mandatory to attend if an official plans to work for their commission,” says Tim Lueckenhoff, president of the ABC. “We encourage our member commissions to require training, but, unfortunately, due to budget constraints, that is not possible at this time.”

Attending a session and passing the test doesn’t mean your next stop is in the UFC. Individuals must then apply for licensure with the commission they want to work for. The ABC is only a “recommending governing entity” and they don’t have absolute power over a state commission. The UFC can request and supply commissions with the names of officials they would like to work a show, but, ultimately, it’s the athletic commissions’ call.

The seminar by Hinds was an eye-opening and educational two-day session that proved to me that one of the biggest issues with the sport is that the athletic commissions are not all on the same page with their rules.


“The goal of this training is to get all of the judges who are watching a fight to use the same criteria when making their decision,” says Hinds. “Although the states are using the Unified Rules, the rules can and do differ from state to state—so it’s challenging.”

There needs to be cohesiveness in the rules from state to state. Imagine what it would be like to watch NFL games if the rules were different from city to city. For MMA to be accepted by mainstream America, there needs to be one set of rules.

The ABC passed unified judging criteria that MMA officials should follow if they are judging a bout. They are:

• effective striking/grappling

• control of the fighting area

• effective aggressiveness

• effective defense

A judge should score a fight by using the criteria outlined in the order in which the techniques appear and with the 10-point-must scoring system (10 points for winner/9 points for the loser of the round or 8 points if the fighter was completely dominated and there was significant damage done).

If you go to any state athletic commission’s website, however, their scoring criteria can be different. For example, per the Illinois Department of Financial & Professional Regulation website, the following shall be considered by judges while scoring:

• clean blows, not otherwise prohibited by this Part, in proportion to their damaging effects

• aggressiveness

• defensive maneuvers for avoiding or blocking a blow

• conspicuous command of the arena

Not only is the order of the techniques different from the unified judging criteria, but also there is no mention of grappling. According to these rules, if a fight goes to the ground, you’re not supposed to score grappling or submission attempts.

Did anyone inform Fedor Emelianenko or Dan Henderson about the Illinois criteria for judging before their fight in Hoffman Estates?

One of the biggest benefits of Hinds’ course was the fight video he used to show examples of close rounds, which created some interesting discussion among the attendees. We were then required to judge fights, including the UFC 119 bout between Sean Sherk and Evan Dunham.

Following the Unified Rules criteria, I awarded Sherk the first round and Dunham rounds two and three, giving Dunham a 29-28 victory. The judges at UFC 119 disagreed and awarded Sherk the split-decision win. Go figure.


– If MMA is going to attract mainstream sports fans and not confuse them, they need to have judges following the same set of rules when judging a fight, no matter where that fight takes place.

– Being a judge is a brutal position that requires educated people who can handle pressure. I was sweating it out having to judge a fight with other students in a classroom. I can’t imagine what it’s like to judge a UFC title fight with 15,000 screaming fans.


Everyone loves John McCarthy and Herb Dean…that is until they make a questionable call during a fight. To be the third man in the cage requires athletic ability, a keen understanding of the MMA rules, and very thick skin.

Hinds’ referee training is intense and focuses on the rules of the sport and what the referees’ responsibilities are. PowerPoint presentations, videos, and hands-on activities are part of the eight-hour curriculum, which is enough to keep your head spinning. Topics include fouls, challenges that referees face during a bout, equipment requirements, and conducting a proper rules meeting.

I also got to execute a pre-fight pat down of the fighter. This included watching the fighter’s cornerman apply Vaseline, checking for a mouthpiece, inspecting the gloves, and checking the cup—I let the fighter do that one himself.


– The responsibilities of the referees are not limited to their duties during a fight. There are several pre- and post-fight obligations as well, but the most important job the referee has is to ensure the fighter’s safety at all times.

– Even though I completed the MMA referee and judging class and was awarded with the official certificate, it doesn’t mean that I will be quitting my day job as a reporter for Inside MMA. But the training has given me a new appreciation of how difficult these jobs are and has educated me on the challenges these individuals—and the sport as a whole—are facing.  

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