What fight were you watching? It’s the question no mixed martial arts judge ever wants to hear, yet one that’s being asked more frequently.
In 2010, a string of controversial judging decisions divided educated fans, enraged promoters, and disheartened fighters, casting a critical spotlight on the state of MMA officiating, how it’s effecting the sport’s growth, and where it’s going. Promoter surging fighters not to “leave it in the hands of the judges” became as common a slogan as “intelligently defending oneself,” which begs one to ask just who is getting these influential assignments?
But as disgruntled viewers point fingers at repeat offenders, U.S. commissions are quietly moving to bolster the strength of their existing officiating rosters, as the next generation prepares itself through a training system previously unavailable to its predecessors.
THE JUDGE’S CHAIR
Like every other aspect of MMA, officiating has evolved from its humble beginnings. Judges didn’t become a facet of the sport until the UFC’s eighth event, two years after the promotion debuted in 1993. Back then, a simple invitation from Semaphore Entertainment Group, the UFC’s previous owners, garnered a martial arts teacher or some other adequate candidate a cageside seat.
Initially, judges weren’t given any instructions as to how they should watch and grade a fight. Winners were revealed during the early pay-per-view broadcasts when the judge held a piece of paper up with the victor’s name on it.
Today, becoming an MMA judge in any of the 44 states where it’s legalized and regulated by a state body is a lengthier process. Just 10 years ago, commissions often found themselves mining judges from their boxing and kickboxing rosters out of necessity. And while some of these officials remain active—which has led to debates in some circles—a new breed of official is being prepared for the coveted position.
In New Jersey, Nevada, and California—all leaders in MMA regulation, as they cumulatively handle a sizable bulk of events stateside—becoming a judge entails the completion of multiple requirements. Since 2005, when the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board (NJSACB) instituted its amateur MMA program, all prospective judges begin their training there. Judges start out as a “shadow inspector” for at least two amateur events and must complete at least one, multi-day, judging instruction seminar course approved by the Association of Boxing Commissions. NJSACB counsel Nick Lembo then tests prospective officials by having them grade controversial past fights. If the candidate passes, he or she will be placed at an amateur event as a “shadow judge” and will be asked to score the night’s bouts.
“You’re the fourth judge sitting cageside, and the referee actually picks up your scores for each round, though obviously, the scores don’t count,” says Lembo. “They are monitored, and from there, you can get a shot at a smaller show.”
After months to years on the amateur circuit, if one is called up to the pros, the novice official will sit, practice-score, and interact with a veteran judge—like 1984 Olympic wrestling gold medalist Jeff Blatnick or 10-year staple Douglas Crosby—for at least one event. If Lembo feels assured by what he sees, the judge may finally get a crack at a pro event as well as a chance to be added to his list of 12 active judges that he currently has in rotation for the 20 pro shows and 30 amateur shows the state hosts each year.
Lembo is very specific about the candidate he wants sitting in the judge’s chair at events that his agency oversees. In 2006, he separated the NJSACB’s boxing and MMA judging rosters. He says all of the MMA judges currently licensed in the state have a martial arts background, whether he or she is a former fighter, competitive grappler, or owns a school. Boxing officials who want to cross over into MMA are asked to enter the amateur training and study up on the ground game inherent to MMA.
“I had a couple of boxing judges come give it a shot,” says Lembo, “and they decided on their own that they shouldn’t be judging MMA.”
Nevada State Athletic Commission Executive Director Keith Kizer recommends judging candidates start training with the three recognized sanctioning bodies that oversee approximately two amateur MMA events per month in the state: KICK International, the International Sport Combat Federation (ISCF), and the International Sport Karate Federation (ISKF).
“I tell them that they need to go there and do that for a while, at least for a couple of years to get the work in, to get the knowledge in,” says Kizer, who notes that some of the amateur judges have been called to work pro events in other states and on tribal land. In January, with the recommendation of all three sanctioning organizations, Kizer graduated the first amateur-trained judge to the professional ranks, where he joined a roster of both out-of-state and local-based officials.
Unlike Lembo, Kizer allows judges to officiate both boxing and MMA events in Nevada, and a handful have done this for years. During a live televised show in December, UFC commentator Joe Rogan openly criticized this practice after the judges handed down a highly questionable decision many people didn’t agree with. Kizer countered that the very judges that Rogan be rated were the ones the UFC regularly hires to staff the self-regulated events that they promote overseas.
“I’d never discriminate against somebody because they have a boxing background, but I’ve had boxing referees and judges express interest in working MMA events, and I give them contact numbers for the amateurs,” says Kizer. “They’d have to go through the amateurs like everyone else.”
The new kid on the block, George Dodd was appointed as the executive officer to the California State Athletic Commission in February 2010. In his first year, Dodd reviewed and drafted revised qualifications for judging MMA events in California.
In the past, candidates had only been required to judge 50 combat sport events to gain licensure as an MMA judge. The revised requirements, which were presented to the commission in February and will likely go to a vote mid-year, ask that prospective judges complete at least one recommended instructional judging course and accrue three years’ experience in the amateur and professional ranks under a mentoring program.
While the process of training and hiring the right officials continues to develop, commissions are also investigating ways to provide its existing judges with additional tools that could help them score bouts more effectively.
Both New Jersey and California have allowed capable promotions to set up TV monitors at judging stations at their own discretion. Nevada Executive Director Kizer says he’s also inquiring into experimenting with the technology, though all three commissions spoke against making it a unilateral requirement for all promotions.
“When we talked to the judges, they were in favor if it,” says Dodd, who observed his officials using monitors on retractable arms below the cage’s lip at the last three UFC shows. “I think they feel more confident in their scores because of it.”
Lembo, who was the first regulator to introduce the use of instant-replay monitors in early 2007, is comfortable with the practice as well.
“I don’t think you want the judge to look at the monitor a lot, but I’m sure there’re instances where it could help,” he says. “Sometimes you can get a better feel from the live fight rather than just watching it on TV.”
As the regulatory newcomer, CSAC officer Dodd took another bold step this year by deviating away from the 10-point must system that has guided the sport since its introduction at UFC 21 in July 1999. At January’s Strikeforce event the CSAC test-ran Mixed Martial Arts Specific Scoring (MMAS)—a new system that utilizes half-point increments to grade bouts—on three amateur fights.
Three judges tallied their scores, implementing a new criteria palette that included damage, cage control, and an equal emphasis on effective striking and grappling. A fourth “table judge” graded the fights with an entirely different set of criteria, tallying up specific advances, including flash knockdowns, sweeps, and near-submission “catches” with pre-determined values between 1-4 points. In addition to being a tiebreaker, should the initial three scores yield a draw, it was also determined during the trial run that the table judge could function as a “checks and balances” system to monitor judging performances.
Nelson “Doc” Hamilton, a long standing MMA official who developed the system over his double-digit tenure with the sport, believes the complexity of the proposed system will weed out the less experienced judges. California’s amateur MMA system will experiment with MMAS throughout 2011, says Dodd, to collect comparative data that can then be shared with other regulatory bodies.
“In MMA, there doesn’t seem to be enough set criteria,” says Dodd. “For instance, in boxing, if there’s a knockdown, judges know to score it a 10-8 round, but we don’t have that specificity in MMA to complement all of its elements. If we can get some data on how MMAS affects judging—good and bad—I’d like to do it.”