File photo: Stephen Albanese | Tailstar.com
There are certain things -- good, bad and ugly -- that go with following the development of mixed martial arts. Thankfully, the excitement of being in on the ground floor of an emerging sport full of dynamic athletes and personalities is typically enough upside to make up for the myriad issues facing MMA.
However, if the fallout from UFC 119 is any indication, many people are losing their patience with the galling failures at the judges’ table. In all fairness, judging is a thankless job in which the pinnacle of performance is never being mentioned by name, save for when your scores are announced. That so many judges in this sport are synonymous with poor scoring is one thing, but the fact that the quality work of judges like Kelvin Caldwell is going unnoticed is perhaps even worse.
Caldwell was the dissenting judge in both the Sean Sherk-Evan Dunham and Melvin Guillard/Jeremy Stephens bouts, and his record in Zuffa events is flawless. Compare that to veteran boxing and MMA scorer Glenn Trowbridge, who helped rob Dunham of the biggest win of his career. The next generation of judges did no better on Saturday at the Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, as Otto Torriero inexplicably gave Guillard all three rounds over Stephens.
Pillorying the individuals in this case is pointless, though, since the problem is systemic and only compounding itself over time. The sport’s dependence on bureaucratic athletic commissions to provide judges and referees is the root of the problem. Long-term, the question becomes whether or not Zuffa LLC will use its centralized power structure to do something about it or continue to act as a passive bystander in a sport it practically runs.
Changing any bureaucracy is a taxing, time-consuming task with no guarantee of success, but the alternative is nightmarish. This sport is already at the point where any mildly competitive bout comes with the expectation that there will be at least one unjustifiable scorecard. In the past 12 months alone, two title bouts -- Lyoto Machida-Mauricio “Shogun” Rua 1 and B.J. Penn-Frankie Edgar 1 -- were marred by controversial decisions, and there have been several more questionable, if not outright wrong, decisions that garnered less publicity.
Dropping this problem at Zuffa’s feet is probably unfair. This is the same organization that saved the sport of MMA and continues to deliver the best quality product out there through the UFC and World Extreme Cagefighting. In all fairness, though, the financial windfall has been massive for the company, and being the de facto leader of an entire sport comes with certain responsibilities.
In any sport dominated by a single brand, the brand bears the burden of enacting change. Unfortunately, the UFC does not have the all-encompassing power of an NFL or NBA due to its give-and-take relationship with athletic commissions. However, an inability to enact immediate change is no excuse for total inaction, and passing the buck onto athletic commissions will end with no change whatsoever.
No one is saying Zuffa should set aside its goals of gaining sanctioned status in all 50 states or continuing its global expansion. Those are all smart, necessary initiatives that will continue to pay dividends for the sport as a whole. However, after UFC 119, the need for meaningful change in how judges -- and referees, for that matter -- are selected and assigned has become painfully obvious.
Zuffa has a solid relationship with both the Nevada and California state athletic commissions. Given the number of events Zuffa puts on in those two states, it would not hurt to at least try and work with those commissions to develop a more just system. Basic steps like allowing judges to use monitors while scoring fights and encouraging more liberal usage of 10-10 and 10-8 rounds would make a huge difference overnight.
Installing a performance-based review system and cutting through the nepotism that permeates many commissions are likely to remain pipe dreams, but there has to be a realistic path to reform. Otherwise, the problems put on full display at UFC 119 will fester and, eventually, create a problem that cannot be dismissed with something as simple as, “Don’t let it go to the judges.”