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A number of controversial decisions at Ultimate Fighting Championship events during the first five months of 2020 piqued my interest: Jon Jones vs. Dominick Reyes, Dan Hooker vs. Paul Felder, Israel Adesanya vs. Yoel Romero and Claudia Gadelha vs. Angela Hill being the prime examples.
How can we improve such an important part of the sport? The subject of judging must be taken seriously and steps must be taken to protect those who pay the price, the fighters themselves. Many changes have already been suggested by journalists, managers and fighters, from employing five judges instead of three and open scoring between rounds to increasing the presence of former competitors inside athletic commissions. All such suggestions should be evaluated, but I do not think they would change the sport for the better. Everyone is aware of the absurd bureaucratic process one has to undertake in order to get changes approved by the Association of Boxing Commissions and all governing bodies.
It might sound insane, but as a color commentator for Combate TV in Brazil, I have to call fighters, trainers and managers before every event to see if they will be competing under “new” or “old” rules. Generally, they find out just a few days beforehand. Think about it. Fighters are told how they can use knee strikes the week of a fight, mostly because athletic commissions cannot get their act together. Besides being absurd from a practical standpoint, it also wreaks of disrespect for fighters and fans. It reminds me of my days covering vale tudo in Brazil back in the 1990s, when rules meetings often turned into rule-making sessions. We are in 2020 now and talking about a sport where, a few years ago, the UFC was sold for billions. It does not make any sense to have this kind of lunacy going on today.
The Need for Meritocracy
The best way to improve judging in MMA is to apply meritocracy to the process of selecting judges and referees. When we talk about the Olympics, are the best referees and judges not chosen to officiate? Why does it work differently in the most visible combat sport in the world? The statistics are available, so it is quite easy to identify the best professionals. The time has come for fighters, managers and promotions to push athletic commissions in that direction.
It is totally unacceptable that most referees sanctioned by the 98 athletic commissions are not forced to graduate from one of the three official courses, taught by John McCarthy, Herb Dean or Marc Goddard. If an official course for MMA judging is not mandatory, imagine what an annual review might look like. As such, the proposed five-judges system is definitely not the solution. The only guarantee we would have by deploying five uncredentialed officials for the same fight would be an increase in controversial decisions. In Jones-Reyes, for example, all three judges saw the fight differently.
Valuing Former Fighters, Importance of the 10-7 Round
In a complex sport like MMA, where effective grappling and striking are supposed to carry the same weight on the scorecards, fights should be judged by professionals who have clear knowledge of both the ground and standup arenas. It seems clear that retired mixed martial artists should be utilized more by athletic commissions. That would be a positive first step but not the only solution. I have seen fighters on social media scoring fights in real times, and they appear to be reluctant to award 10-8 rounds. Most pay too much attention to the statistics instead of focusing on the importance of damage and effectiveness in the modern reading of the rules.
A more malleable points system ranks as probably the best improvement made to MMA rules lately. It does not make any sense for a complex sport that includes many disciplines to be scored under the same rigid 10-9 system as boxing. It was promising to see judges putting out 10-8 rounds with more frequency, and I truly believe the rare 10-7 round will me used more in the future.
Provide Media Access to Judges
Many facets of judging have changed over the years and need to be understood by media, fighters, trainers and fans. An effective way to do so would be for athletic commissions to authorize judges and referees to talk to the press. Allow them to re-educate those who due not participate in ABC discussions on rules or in the aforementioned courses taught by McCarthy, Dean or Goddard.
As a journalist who has covered the sport since 1992, I have to admit reading Guilherme Bravo’s “In the Hands of the Judges”—McCarthy provided the insight—completely changed my way of judging fights. The book was published in Portuguese and English, with a digital version available an Amazon. I strongly recommend it for journalists, fighters and fans.
The Case for Open Scoring
Concerning the idea of revealing official scores between rounds, I do not believe this is a way to improve judging. However, it would represent a positive change for fighters, who could adjust their approach according to the reality with which they are faced. We often see in close fight trainers tell fighters whether or not they are winning or losing, which obviously impacts the adjustments they choose to make. The problem? Rarely do the three judges and the trainer have the same reading on close fights, which leads to surprise and disappointment when results are announced. If fighters and trainers knew the score of a bout in real time, at least they could not longer complain about what they could have done.
Choose the 25 Best Referees, Judges
The easiest way to reduce the discrepancy in scoring and, consequently, the number of mistakes and unfair decisions is to choose the best of the best. It is no coincidence that the officials who statistically make fewer mistakes participate in renewal courses on an annual basis. To that end, it is not difficult to pick the best judges in the sport today. They are Sal D’Amato (United States), Derek Cleary (United States), Michael Bell (United States), Mark Collett (England), Guilherme Bravo (Brazil), Dave Tirelli (United States), Ben Cartlidge (England), Howard Hughes (England), Ron McCarthy (United States) and Chris Lee (United States).
In regards to referees, the pool is even larger. The best in the game are Goddard (England), Dean (United States), Jason Herzog (United States), Leon Roberts (England), Osiris Maia (Brazil), George Allen (United States), Mike Beltran (United States), Jerin Valel (Canada), Kevin MacDonald (United States), Keith Peterson (United States), Yves Lavigne (Canada), Josh Rosenthal (United States), Dan Miragliotta (United States) and Frank Trigg (United States).
It is understandable for athletic commissions to want to remain loyal to their local officials, but this is a business. Fighters dedicate their lives and sacrifice time with their friends and family to engage in long, taxing training camps ahead of their bouts. They do so without receiving a monthly salary, and the majority of them get paid only two or three times a year. In an industry where one loss can cost a fighter his or her job, it is absurd that their lives can be impacted by non-professionals who were chosen based on local politics. The UFC, Bellator MMA and all other promotions should have no fewer than five of the highest-regarded officials present at all of their events out of respect for fans and fighters.
Accountability Essential to the Process
The Association of Boxing Commissions should put some kind of accountability system in place, where judges and referees with superior grades are chosen for main events and the most important fights. Frequency and gravity of mistakes should be made known. For instance, a judge who awarded all five rounds to Jones over Reyes or submitted a scorecard in favor of Michael Bisping against Matt Hamill would be temporarily suspended until he completes mandated training.
Another important move to make in order for this to work would involve athletic commissions paying basic fees for all judges summoned to an event, along with additional per-fight fees and bonuses for those selected to judge main events or title fights. Currently, judges and referees receive a flat fee, no matter how many fights they officiate at a given show. That does not encourage improvement the same way good competition and more money do. If those changes are implemented, I bet you would see a record number of enrollees involved in training courses with all 98 athletic commissions.
Of course, mistakes and questionable decisions will always be part of the sport, but there is no reason why we cannot take steps to limit those instances. They are far too common nowadays. Professional mixed martial artists need professional MMA judges, not crossovers from boxing. Fighters, fans, managers and promotions—which pay millions of dollars to the athletic commissions—have the right and the duty to demand that improvements be made.
It would be amazing if fighters never had to leave it in the hands of the judges, but the quality of the fighters and their training improves with each passing year. That lends itself to more closely contested bouts. The best fighters in the world deserved to be scored by the best judges in the world.
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