7 Ways to Fix What's Broken with Judging

Fixing a Fractured System

By Jake Rossen Nov 30, 2009
Years before the UFC and mixed martial arts learned to walk erect in polite society, judges were considered useless. A no-time-limit atmosphere guaranteed one fighter in every bout would end his evening as a bloody carcass against the fence, neatly folded and cooperatively dazed for easy transport to the emergency room. Huge talent disparities meant that most fights ended this way in five minutes or less. The UFC needed crime scene clean-up, not a scoring table.

This was Rorion Gracie’s preference, but even something as ugly and primitive as sadism needs to accommodate capitalism. Television schedules eventually insisted on a clock, which Ken Shamrock was prone to exhausting: In two of his three “Superfights” in 1995, he and his opponent settled for draws. No muscular, hematoma-heavy competition needed something as antiquated as a scorekeeper.

In an effort to catch up to Shamrock, though, other fighters were getting better, and it became more and more difficult to apply a finish. In December 1995, figuring that their all-star tournament would be unmanageable without clear winners in the early rounds, the promotion finally installed judges at ringside. Because the UFC insisted on being tacky, the men wouldn’t turn in tabulated cards: they would hold up Octagon-shaped signs on which they had written their winner. (These cards, if they ever surfaced, would be instant collector’s items, and could look forward to a long and climate-controlled life in an acid-free plastic bag.)

Dan Severn became the first athlete in the UFC to win a decision, pinning down David “Tank” Abbott in the quarterfinals of that tournament; Forrest Griffin is the most recent, having convinced judges that he bested Tito Ortiz on Nov. 21. In between, there has been slowly escalating concern that judges have been skipping optometrist appointments. Lax professionalism may have cost Mauricio Rua the title against Lyoto Machida in October; Randy Couture’s grand-old-man celebrity may have impressed more than Brandon Vera crumpling him with body shots in Manchester.

The problem with begging for reform -- which has become a regular bell for critics and fans to ring -- is that it ignores the significant aversion humans have to admitting error. If an athletic commission institutes changes in what is clearly a flawed system, the subtext is that they didn’t know what they were doing in the first place. Good luck with that.

People who seek positions of influence tend to want to control situations, not follow instructions by layman’s committee. What we’re left with are decisions by judges of suspect credentials and observation who could potentially be altering the course of careers -- all while commissions shrug and point to the subjective nature of the role.

This space will take the expected tact of suggesting ways to fix a fractured system. But in attempting to address some obvious glitches in the way fights are calculated, we’ll be taking a more rational approach. Any one of these patches could be easily applied without sacrificing administrative egos or deleting entire passages.

As my intellectual property, I would ask for only a small percentage of the gate in return. Five ways to invite reform without inviting contempt:

1. Five judges, not three.

In addition to creating a market for lousy T-shirts and an inexplicable fetish for dragons, MMA’s growth has also seen a sharp rise in the number of people who are interested in participating on an administrative level. People want to be referees and judges, despite a poor compensation base, little gratitude and -- in the event of a blown call -- 20 ounces of flying concession beer with your name on it.

The current system, which calls for three pairs of eyes, means that only two individuals need to botch a scorecard to see a fighter to tears. Having five judges reduces the likelihood of one or two hiccupping brain having an adverse effect on the action. This is the method used in amateur Olympic boxing, though those officials are charged with pressing buttons in response to what they perceive as effective hits. We can do without the game-show theatrics, but the hive mentality is a sound one.

2. Surveillance.

There is anecdotal information to suggest that some judges of prizefighting are more occupied with what’s inside their nose than what’s inside the ring. Having the commission install a stationary camera trained on their table for the duration of the event would severely reduce the potential for any of them to become preoccupied with ring girl rear. In the event of a truly egregious decision, members could review videotape to make certain their attention was fixed in place.

3. Random testing.

This is the great perception error of judging: As employed by the commission, they may appear exempt from the kind of performance auditing applied to fighters. But if the end game is to arrive at a just decision in a prizefight, judges need to be treated like the combatants: prone to human error and in need of observation. The commission should be, at a moment’s notice, able and willing to call in any judge and administer a written or oral test on the rules and regulations of their duties, including the scoring of a little-seen fight on videotape. If they possess a cratered or incomplete understanding of the job, they need remedial work -- or re-assignment to watching someone pee in a cup.
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