There are lots of proposed solutions to fix what's wrong in MMA judging. One such solution is to get, by hook or by crook, more former fighters to sit in the judge's seat. Some do, but very few. Even fewer do it who have fought at the elite level.
Perhaps that's why it's so remarkable former UFC middleweight and welterweight Ricardo Almeida has done just that, taking up judging in his home state of New Jersey as part of that state's athletic commission. He hasn't judged much, but most observers agree his decisions are usually good and always defensible.
Interestingly, however, Almeida doesn't necessarily believe his background in fighting makes him uniquely qualified for the job.
"It doesn't necessarily mean that because I was a fighter I know more than everybody else," Almeida told Ariel Helwani on Monday's The MMA Hour. "I've been in a lot of the positions in there and I'm certainly not scared to call it how I see it. I definitely feel like I have more experience in martial arts than a lot of the judges, but I don't think you necessarily have to have been a fighter."
Almeida might believe people from many different kinds of backgrounds can do competent jobs of judging, but he also agrees the state of MMA judging is a serious issue in need of a solution.
"That said, if we're talking the state of MMA judging, it's pretty out of control," he stated. "We just spent a few months ago, filming the next season of The Ultimate Fighter. Some of the judges they have over there in Nevada, you could just tell they didn't know much more than the boxing element of the fight game. I think that's sort of the state of across the country, outside of a handful of athletic commissions. They bring boxing or kickboxing judges and they really have no idea about the takedown aspects or even the knee strikes and elbow strikes and what's going on in the cage. It's pretty sad."
If Almeida believes fighters can be good judges but good judges don't first need to be good fighters and acknowledges judging across the country is an issue, what would he suggest is the way to fix the problem? In the mind of the jiu-jitsu black belt, it starts with the folks running the commission show. For Almeida, that means look no further than his own New Jersey State Athletic Control Board, the governing body of combat sports in New Jersey.
The NJSACB is one the most respected commissions in the country and Almeida contends that's because they're big on training, finding the right talent and leading by example.
"I think New Jersey has been a leadership state as far as MMA with the first rules being here in Jersey and the first couple of UFCs during the Zuffa ownership," said Almeida.
"Actually, two weeks ago, the whole staff of everyone who is going to work the UFC when the UFC comes in town next weekend, we all got together. [NJSACB counsel] Nick Lembo brought everyone in, talked to the judges, talked to the staff who is going to work around it. We had a chance, the whole team, to watch a bunch of fights, talk about how we would've judged. There's always controversial matches.
"I just thought it was great initiative," Almeida noted. "Most of the guys who work for the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board are former martial artists. Not all are former fighters, but they're all like martial artists who have their schools. They know the sport. I think it's pretty great what the guys are doing here in Jersey."
In fact, it was that very leadership and proactive attitude from Lembo that Almeida says got him into judging. He and Lembo, he says, have had a long-standing relationship. When Lembo discovered Almeida was retiring, he reached out to the former fighter to recruit him as a judge. It worked and New Jersey is the only state where Almeida currently practices his new craft.
Some might wonder why he does it. There's very little money in it. Almeida still trains top fighters like Frankie Edgar and is a coach and gym owner. With all of those responsibilities, judging would seem to be as much a job as a distraction. Almeida contends it's his way of keeping his involvement in the sport he loves.
"It's one of those things. You're not working for the UFC, you're not working for the event. You're basically a state-hired worker. I'm not expecting to make millions of dollars," Almeida contended.
"It's about doing what's right. Sometimes it's not just about the money. Every one of the judges there, they have their jobs. Most of them have their own schools because they're involved in martial arts. They do other things. I'm not expecting to get rich off of being a judge. I'm just trying to do my part and still be involved in the sport. I'm still very active as a coach. I have guys fighting in the UFC. I have guys coming up the ranks. It's something that I enjoy doing and truthfully, being a judge and being involved in the sport that way, it makes me a better coach for my guys, too."
Almeida also believes the way fights are scored could and should be changed, although not majorly overhauled. He admits to being fond of the PRIDE rules of judging a fight as a whole. He believes the 10-point must-system with longer, but shorter number of rounds can make decisions unfair. He also thinks folks value the wrong things, but believes a good judge should still be able to sort all of that even under the current system.
"You always hear the fans talk about damage, about somebody's face being damaged and that's just not always the case," Almeida said. "There are certain controversial situations that people kind of see the fight one way, but it's just not even how it is in the rules. It becomes controversial that way. The judges always have a tough job. The referees also have a tough job, but like I said, it's common sense. If you understand the sport and if you've been around it - I've been around it for a very long time in jiu-jitsu, of course, and then as a fighter and as a coach the past 10 or 15 years. If you've been around it, you know what you're looking at. You know what's going on. If you haven't been around it and you haven't been involved, someway or somehow, it'll make things more difficult."
As for Saturday, Almeida will be judging in the main and co-main event of UFC 169. In other words, the card's two title fights. One might wonder, though, if there's any conflict of interest. After all, Almeida's student in Edgar has fought Aldo before. They also just completed shooting a season of The Ultimate Fighter opposite B.J. Penn, who is associated with Aldo's Nova Uniao camp.
Almeida says he and the NJSACB work collaboratively to ensure every fighter gets the fair shake they deserve.
"When they show me the assignments, I told Nick, 'Hey Nick, we just recorded the show against B.J. Penn. Frankie fought Aldo. I just want to let you know of this in case any controversy comes up down the line' and he's like '`You know, Ricardo, I brought the assignments to both camps and they were ok with it.' To me, as long as they're ok, I'm a fan of fighting. I like great fighters and I want to see the guy who wins, win.
"If Frankie fights his heart out and he's had some tough decisions come his way. For me, I just want to do a good job when I'm in there just like I did when I was a fighter."
Almeida is insistent he harbors no ill will or bias towards Nova Uniao and points to his history as a teenager in Brazil for proof.
"I did compete against those guys since I was 15 years old when I was in Brazil," Almeida explained. "I know everyone well and they've always had a great team and they've always been on the other side as competitors, but I have nothing but respect for those guys. I've always loved watching Urijah Faber from the times he was on WEC. I just want to be there and do my job as those guys want to be there and do their jobs. I have nothing but respect and admiration. May the best man win that night."
Between Almeida's own humility about his abilities and potential conflicts of interest, does Almeida believe more fighters should be judges? Ultimately, yes. Some won't choose to and he's fine with that. Ideally, however, some will take the plunge for the same reasons he did: to stay involved in the sport and give fighters the best chance to succeed.
"A lot of other fighters, fighting to them is a job. When fighting is done, they go do something else. It might not necessarily totally be involved with martial arts or with MMA. Some of them become coaches. Some of them don't even like to coach. That's ok. Everyone chooses their own path.
"I think I'd like to see more guys do it. We have some guys being commentators and things like that," Almeida said. "I'm assuming that probably a commentator makes more money than a judge, so I guess it goes back down to that."