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New Jersey to experiment with MMA judges in soundproof room watching fights on monitor

E. Casey Leydon, MMA Fighting

The most important observers to a mixed martial arts bout are the men and women who will inevitably decide the winner. But do judges cageside actually have the best vantage point? The New Jersey State Athletic Control Board (NJSACB) wants to find out.

With the hopes of compiling substantive data, a group of judges will score the Cage Fury Fighting Championships fights from a separate, soundproof room Oct. 31 in Atlantic City, CFFC announced in a press release this week. The judges will watch the action on a television monitor without sound.

The scorecards from this group will have no bearing on the outcome of the fights. But the NJSACB will compare and analyze the scores from the group watching on a monitor to the ones from the judges scoring the same fights at cageside.

"It's just an effort to try and improve scoring and get it right," NJSACB counsel Nick Lembo told MMA Fighting. "We owe it to the fighters. The judges should have the best available angle."

There are a lot of variables involved for judges watching cageside that many fans are not aware of. Depending on the seat and the sight line, judges can miss things that happen during the fight. In almost every seat, there is a percentage of the cage that cannot be seen clearly. Add in the photographers scurrying about, television cameramen and sometimes deceiving crowd noise and judging is a more difficult practice than most realize.

To offset some of those things, many states allow promoters to add a television monitor to every judge station so the judge can watch the action on a screen as well. New Jersey allows it, but does not require promoters to have monitors. However, judges can also miss important sequences in the fight looking back and forth between live action and the screen.

"You watch Joe Rogan and Mike Goldberg and they're right there at the cage and pretty much the entire time they're looking down at a monitor," Lembo said. "Same thing with Dana White. We're happy with the judging, but you look around and you see your judges looking up at a monitor or getting up out of their seat and moving. Maybe afterwards, one judge that seemed a little off in the round, you talk to him and he says, 'Well I couldn't see that, that was on the other side of the cage from me.'

"Sometimes if there's a controversial score or even a controversial fight, if it's judges in New Jersey or judges that I know from other jurisdictions, I'll ask them to watch it on TV. Sometimes they'll make the comment, 'It seemed different on TV.'"

Lembo and NJSACB commissioner Larry Hazzard have had the idea to have judges score from an isolated room for some time and CFFC CEO Rob Haydak had no problem with his promotion being the guinea pig, especially since it won't affect any of the fighters.

Haydak said that CFFC will incur some extra costs to setup a production area outside of the venue, but it was worth it for the sake of innovation.

"A lot of times you'll see the judges straining, rubbernecking around a corner to get a better angle," Haydak said. "I think by and large everyone wants to see the best fighter win. This will be an interesting experiment to see if a lack of crowd noise and better angles will change how a fight is judged.

"I feel like we constantly as a promotion are looking to always up the game a little bit. At the end of the day, the fights might be scored exactly the same or maybe they'll be scored differently. But you don't know unless you try."

Sean Wheelock, the chairman for the Association of Boxing Commissions' new MMA rules and regulations committee, said he'll be keeping a close eye on the NJSACB's findings.

"I'm very interested in seeing the results," Wheelock said. "Any time somebody wants to do something other than the norm and the status quo and do something innovative, I'm all for it. It's definitely an interesting concept and I'm interested to see how it plays out."

Lembo is not sure what will come of this experiment, if anything. Any prospective rules changes would have to be approved by the Association of Boxing Commissions and then recommended to the separate state athletic commissions. But finding the correct winner of fights is of the utmost importance and this is a pivot in that direction.

"I think it's at the very introductory, exploratory step and we'll see what comes of it," Lembo said. "This is just a first step, a first analysis. It seems that it's one of the greater concerns in the sport, the judging decisions."

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