Judgement Day

A new breed of fighter is ensuring that the sport of MMA continues to evolve, but there’s also a new breed of judge—and Ricardo Almeida is leading the way.

You don’t need to earn a third-degree black belt from Renzo Gracie to become an MMA judge—but if offi cials were required to do so, controversial decisions could become a thing of the past. While that may be asking a bit too much, all too often, athletic commissions license judges without much regard for their knowledge of or experience in the sport. One new judge who has a résumé tailored for the job is former PRIDE and UFC fighter Ricardo Almeida. The first of his kind, Almeida is transferring 11 years of professional fi ghting and a lifetime of coaching experience from the cage to the judges’ table.

“To me, being a judge is about giving back to a sport that gave me so much and making sure I do everything I can to make MMA better,” says Almeida. “MMA should be about the fighters—not the judges.”

It took a controversial unanimous-decision loss to Mike Pyle at UFC 128 in his own backyard of New Jersey to get “Big Dog” fired up enough to retire from fighting and start a new chapter in his life.

“I’ve been on the bad end of a couple of decisions that I thought I won,” Almeida says. “I don’t want to be the person looking in from the outside saying it can be better. I can’t make all judging better, but I can make myself a better judge. The issue is not really with the rules or the 10-point-must scoring system—it’s inconsistencies, because most of the judges have never trained.”

As a licensed fighter, manager, and coach in New Jersey, Almeida was already active with the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board, and he helped them draft the rules for their progressive amateur mixed martial arts program. He has believed for a long time that the current judging system has been in need of a major overhaul.

The obvious benefit of having a fighter’s perspective in scoring a bout is: been there, done that. They have a deeper understanding and knowledge of what is actually happening in the cage, and, hopefully, that can transfer into a fair outcome if the fight goes the distance.

“I don’t think all fi ghters are going to make good referees or judges,” says Nick Lembo, New Jersey deputy attorney general and council to the athletic control board. “But as a base, judging starts with the detailed understanding and knowledge of striking, positioning on the ground, and submissions, as well as getting a feel for who’s controlling the pace and dictating the fight. From
his experience as a trainer, cornerman, and fighter, Almeida is ready.”

As the highest profile fighter to make the switch to judging, Almeida is already getting an endorsement from the man at the top of the MMA heap.

“I commend him for going out there, stepping up, and being one of the first highlevel fighters to become a ref or judge,” says UFC president Dana White. “I would love to see more of it. We need it.”

Although the promising trend of fighters becoming judges is receiving its fair share of praise from fans and the MMA community alike, it’s not a cure-all solution without some controversy. Some pundits question if a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu specialist will be more biased to the ground game, or if a knockout artist will favor stand-up fighting when scoring a bout. There’s also the potential conflict of interest if a judge is assigned to work a fight of a former training partner or teammate.

Lembo believes there is a simple solution.

“The conflict of interest issue has to be constantly reviewed,” he says. “People have mentioned that they don’t think Ricardo is a good choice because what if he judges a fight of longtime training partner Frankie Edgar. Well, of course, he’s not going to judge a Frankie Edgar fight. Almeida is the first guy to bring something like that to our attention.”

Almeida got his feet wet working several local MMA promotions, and then he received the call to make his UFC judging debut at UFC on FOX 3 on May 5. The highest profile fight Almeida was assigned to that night was the welterweight bout between Josh Koscheck and Johny Hendricks. In a razor-thin outcome, Hendricks outlasted Koscheck to take a split-decision victory. Almeida happens to be the lone judge who scored the fight for Koscheck—judges Jeff Blatnick and Cardo Urso scored the bout 29-28 for Hendricks.

“The fight was very even…I still think Koscheck did more to win, even though Hendricks connected with more strikes standing,” said Almeida to Brazilian media outlet Globo Sport TV after the fight. “Hendricks stood against the fence and let in at least eight strikes. And when Hendricks took Koscheck down, he couldn’t do much. Koscheck was able to connect with cleaner strikes.”

FightMetric results showed Hendricks outscored Koscheck, but the fight outcome predictions on media row were split 50-50. With the current scoring systems in place, MMA judging will remain subjective, and no matter who is filling out the scorecards, opinions will vary. Retired fighters making the transition into judging may be the best chance for competitors to get a just victory. Then again, if a former fighter screws up, the condemnation from the MMA world will be relentless.

“There’s a lot of pressure on him because Ricardo is a test-pilot case,” says Lembo. “He’s the most prominent fighter transitioning into being a judge, but he’s ready for the challenge.”

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