It’ll be well into the afternoon by the time we get around to the Russian Mermaid Spa in Sea Gate on the western tip of Coney Island, and everything we pass, it turns out, has a history. Just off from the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the driver points out a small green island that used to be a haven for spies during the Revolutionary War but is now a bird sanctuary. Like a tour guide, he knows every point of interest. Over there is the cannon, he says, and over there, just across the river, facing us? — more cannon at Fort Wadsworth, so that whenever unwelcomed parties happened through the Narrows a couple hundred years ago both sides could "blow them to shit."
The driver, a native New Yorker, can talk a blue streak. He drives like an asshole. It’s not hard to like him.
He points out pieces of the past now fading from presentation, the stuff that’s just below the surface or lost to concrete overpasses, traces of a bygone day that the metropolis has long since grown around. He knows all about the warts, too. The bleak look-alike buildings in Coney Island, jutting fretfully into a skyline? Those are the original projects, conceived by Robert Moses, the cold mastermind behind much of New York’s ultimate design.
In fact, "There’s a book called The Power Broker, by Robert Caro, and it’s one of my favorites," the driver says. "It’s a fascinating read. Caro is a brilliant writer — he did one of Lyndon B. Johnson, too, but it’s a great way to get to know about Moses. He actually won a Pulitzer for it."
The car we’re in is a gold Chrysler Limited convertible, and the top is down. There is stuff all over, including a tall redheaded girl who we just made room for. Her name is Natalie. She works with him in the movies. We picked her up in Bay Ridge. There are empty Styrofoam cups, blankets, books, water bottles, a child seat with a dog leash attached, golf balls, air pumps, loose clothing, props. The driver has on sunglasses, and he’s angling his car into a tight spot that really isn’t a spot so much as a space shaped like a lab flask between a dumpster and a truck. The sea-themed Russian spa, as the name suggests, has a mermaid on the sign. He takes fighters here on occasion. Sometimes actors. Sometimes Natalie, who is pretty quiet.
"These are the 1960s Ray-Ban Drifters," he says, adjusting his shades as he’s wedging in. "Not the Wayfarers like the Blues Brothers wore."
He gets out and grabs some robes from the back, some flip-flops, some trunks. He’s a regular to this Russian banya. The idea of being slapped with birch leaves in a steaming sauna by humorless Russian men doesn’t bother him in the least. He turns to the redhead.
"Hey, do me a favor, Nat, see that dumpster there?" He takes off his glasses after a few cool strides, his eyes wide, blue and lucid. "Look and see if my reputation is in there, will you? I seem to have lost my reputation. Can you see if it’s in there? Will you do that for me, Nat?"
She laughs, and he does too. He laughs a lot. Big deep-gut laughter. The thing is, Douglas Crosby is keenly aware of all that’s going on around him.
He’s very aware, for instance, that you hate him.
If you don’t know by now, Douglas Crosby is, among other things, an MMA judge. He’s a judge whose official scorecards are sometimes at odds with the scorecards in the realm of public opinion, which makes him a target of constant derision within the MMA community. Like most officials, you usually only hear about him when it’s believed that he’s screwed something up. Whenever a haywire score comes back after a fight people wonder, almost by default, if Crosby was the one with his eyes crossed. The problem is, his is the only vote that counts. People have opinions; he has authority. He can affect livelihoods; everyone else is left retweeting little deposits of bewilderment. He has it within his power to set parlays on fire.
Because of these things, Crosby is a man fight fans love to hate.
The words most associated with Crosby are "inappropriate," "unqualified," "incompetent," and "inept," though some have also rolled out the word "delusional." People are confounded by his scores under MMA’s boxing-borrowed 10-point "must" system, and are eager to let him know. Still, not many know what Crosby looks like, which gives him just enough anonymity to walk undetected among his most vocal haters.
He is, in essence, the moving eyes behind the gallery painting.
In January, when Cathal Pendred got a unanimous decision against Sean Spencer, it ignited an uproar. The initial thinking was that Pendred, being Irish and fighting in Boston, was getting preferential treatment. Then, when it was realized that Crosby was behind one of the 30-27 scorecards that saw it for Pendred, a collective sigh went up. Crosby strikes again. Yet while the media was still condemning him as an affront to the game, Crosby strode right up to press row and plunked himself down next to my spot on the end to say hello. He was in the tall clover, completely oblivious to the 10-minute firestorm going on around him. And nobody noticed him either — neither fans nor media — because practically nobody knows what Douglas Crosby looks like.
He is nothing more than a ghost with a pencil. He has been for 16 years.
And sometimes his judging of fights is only part of what irritates people. Sometimes it’s his broader judgment that gets him into hot water.
Crosby was in Abu Dhabi when Frankie Edgar took B.J. Penn’s lightweight title at UFC 112, and, when he got home to Brooklyn, he went to the MMA Underground — a public forum — to address the mob that didn’t appreciate his 50-45 score for Edgar. Using his own name, he referred to his detractors as ghouls in RVCA shirts, blasted forth into a diatribe about the very nature of ridicule, and even quoted Shakespeare in all caps. None of this did him any favors. One commenter said it was "the most pretentious, nonsensical series of brain farts" he’d ever read. Others expressed less favorable sentiments.
There are other episodes.
Despite being in an ongoing feud with Long Island-based gym owner/trainer Ray Longo, he was a cageside judge when Longo’s fighter Al Iaquinta took on Jorge Masvidal in Fairfax. He scored the fight for Masvidal 30-27, with the other two judges giving it to Iaquinta 29-28.
That, too, went into the sordid Crosby file. Iaquinta made a stink about it in victory, and so did Longo, and so did many in the media. This was a glaring conflict of interest, judging a fight in which there were pre-existing personal ties, even if the consensus was he got the score essentially right.
So what did he do?
Crosby, one of the few judges who occasionally surfaces in the media, appeared on Chael Sonnen’s podcast, "You’re Welcome," to explain himself. Or did he? Like a thick band of fog he drifted through the interview, shrouding every detail and revealing almost nothing. He broke into tangents at turns, and he answered direct questions by asking questions of his own. It was all a little lunatic for the way people want to think of judges. People want to think of judges as sober professionals with straightforward, transparent logic. Crosby bobbed and weaved. Sonnen called him out for his trolling. To this, Crosby chuckled while conversing with a woman sitting with him on the other end, herself laughing in the background. Because of his odd behavior, people have compared Crosby to the eccentric comedian Andy Kaufman, which is perhaps the last person an MMA judge should want to share company with.
Yet, not all judges are Crosby.
And in MMA, the troll game has many layers, so that often you’re left wondering what’s real and what’s not.
Crosby and Sonnen have been friends for years. It was Crosby who collaborated with Sonnen on some of his memorable one-liners during the height of the Anderson Silva series. Like Drew Bundini Brown gave Muhammad Ali his famous line, "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, your hands can’t hit what your eyes can’t see" Crosby is full of material, and he’s always willing to share. To what extent he contributed to Sonnen’s overall repertoire Crosby can only smile, but when Sonnen asked him about competing in Metamoris after being suspended for drug use by the Nevada Athletic Commission, it was Crosby who suggested he come out in a Lucha Libre mask, with the name "El Jugo" on his shirt — which is Spanish for, "The Juice."
Sonnen didn’t do it, but he has a warm spot for the ornery judge. Lots of fighters do. When one time Sonnen was interviewing Conor McGregor at ESPN in Bristol, Connecticut, Crosby caught wind and texted Sonnen to ask a question that he knew would rile McGregor up.
"This is what he does," Sonnen laughed, pointing at his phone. "Doug lights a bomb, hands it to you, and then he runs away. He’s a terrorist!"
Everybody has a word for Douglas Crosby, who judges MMA bouts on a part-time basis. He is beloved in his primary profession as a stunt coordinator in film, which is how he and Sonnen came to be friends. These crafts are somewhat intertwined. Crosby has coordinated stunts in over 250 films spread over 28 years, and judged hundreds of fights going back to the pre-sanctioning Dark Ages of 1999.
If there’s one constant overlapping his work, it’s actually an underlapping —he’s always a pivotal piece of the backdrop in worlds designed to commandeer your sense of awe.
He’s the conscience or the adrenaline, but never the face.
As you might expect, Crosby’s a bit hard to pin down.
In fact, when you try to interview him, he first wants to interview you. On occasion he’s even gone so far as to request clips from inquisitive journalists to gauge their level of intelligence. Sometimes he has his stunt assistant — "Jen" — make such a request, with Jen using his cell phone when he’s (presumably) out of town on a shoot. In this way, you’re never sure if you’re texting back and forth with Crosby or Jen, or if Jen is even a real person or a figment of Crosby’s imagination. For all you know in early exchanges, there could be a full banquet of personalities coming out of one mind.
If and when you do meet him, you quickly learn that the arbiter can cock his eyebrow higher, and to a sharper degree of suspicion, than any simple journalist can.
Several months before I was invited to the Russian spa, I was asked to come to Brooklyn for one such informal talk. I met him in Williamsburg, at his brownstone studio on 7th Street. There was graffiti on the door and a poster of Darren Aronofsky’s Pi on the wall, one of the films he coordinated the stunts for. He warned me beforehand that his dog was vicious — a Presa Canario — and for me to above all things refrain from showing any fear, which the dog would surely detect. Yet he came in carrying a little Brussels Griffon named Mancino, whom he communicated with using baby talk while making introductions.
The name Mancino, he informed me, had at least two meanings. In part the name came from "Manson" — as in Charles — which couldn’t be more inappropriate for a sweet little dog (and therefore perfect); and in part because the manufacturer of gym mats, Mancino, used to train in grappling and gymnastics. The latter, he said, was more coincidence than anything.
Crosby is 50 years old, and robust. He walks and talks fast. He slings information in every direction, much of it flies right over your head. You quickly pick up that any topic of conversation is a rabbit hole into his intelligence. The thing is, you’re led to believe he knows the root of the matter, and he cuts right for it. That is, unless he’s presented a direct question, in which times he commonly begins down a side street where some much needed context can be found. Much of Crosby’s conversation begins with glittery asides.
Yet he has anecdotes that suggest he has already given the matter, whatever it might be, considerable thought, and there is commonly a book he can recommend on the topic, should you be interested, which he can just as easily cite and quote. Above everything else he is a voracious reader. Very well informed, from the hard topics down to the liner notes. He has maxims for days, most of them remarkably adherent to the subject at hand — he’s a wellspring of parables. And the thing that strikes you is the judge’s capacity to remember detail, in books, in movies, in points of fights that naked eyes might not see.
On this topic, though we’re still months away from getting into how he looks at a fight, he paraphrases the great Wayne Gretzky. "‘I skate to where the puck is going,’" he says, "‘not where it has been.’"
And Crosby’s way of getting to know me was by having me run errands with him all over New York City, during which we touched on everything from early punk music … to repurposing old railroad tracks into golf clubs and putters … to a script he just finished … to his renunciation of capitalism … to the problem of having too many options in modern society.
("You should read The Paradox of Choice, by Barry Schwartz" he says, "a book about the dilemma of being presented too many options where one simple option will do, which actually cripples your ability to make choices you feel good about.")
As a stuntman who at one point test-drove Porches in Germany, he doesn’t overly concern himself with the laws of the road. He drives like a NYC cabbie. He flips the bird at an aggressive furniture truck as he cuts through and narrowly avoids being sideswiped. "Fucking mook," he says. He drifts into congested intersections while reciting the Old Testament, chitchatting about politics, delving into the great wars. He likes to mash tenses. Small talk becomes big talk. He loves to drop revelations off at your doorstep.
All the while, somehow he’s observing everything.
When a tall woman in a red dress cruises through a red light on her bicycle, Crosby pauses his train of thought, steers hard right and casually brakes to a stop to avoid smashing her, then says to her disbelieving face right in the middle of the intersection, "Now, you see? That’s how hipsters get killed." They stare at each other for a few moments before he begins rolling forward again, picking up where he left off as if nothing happened, talking about his grandfather who served in World War II, who was there on D-Day at Omaha Beach. He has a book in the back of his car, as a matter of fact, called The Longest Day, by an Irishman named Cornelius Ryan, which is all about that particular episode.
The lady in red is barely out of our rearview mirror and Crosby — who spared her of disaster — is back in 1944.
Where are we going? Where aren’t we. Wherever the puck is going.
He stops at a used bookstore to pick up some books for his son, then shoots across the Brooklyn Bridge to a place called Fabulous Fanny’s on E. 9th Street, an antique shop that specializes in European sunglasses. Crosby double-parks and reaches into the backseat to grab a pair of ridiculously outsized sunglasses — gimmick sunglasses, the kind you wear with a costume — that he picked up at a swap meet. Having come across them randomly, he felt compelled to snatch them up as a gift for the owners, a gay couple whom he’s known for a long time. A little act of kindness.
"They’ll get a kick out of these," he says thoughtfully. "Mancino will keep you company." Mancino, whom he affectionately refers to as that "little fucker," seems used to Crosby’s itinerant nature.
And it’s not until we get around to Renzo Gracie’s gym on W. 30th that mixed martial arts are brought up at all. Crosby is thinking of starting up a Metamoris-like jiu-jitsu event for the East Coast, and he wants to speak to John Danaher, an Ivy League eccentric who coaches jiu-jitsu there, about potentially lending a hand. Crosby’s carrying Mancino, and once inside, he asks the woman at the front if they have jiu-jitsu classes for dogs. She looks baffled. Right at home in this awkward tension, Crosby repeats the question, lifting one of Mancino’s sad paws to show he’s limber and willing to learn jiu-jitsu. Again the baby talk. When he breaks the dumbfounded silence by asking, "well, what about dolphins?" she realizes she’s having her leg pulled.
"Oh my god— I thought you were serious!" she says, doubling over in laughter.
This exchange, you come to realize, is classic Crosby. He told the parking attendant just minutes earlier that he was "a little drunk," if she wouldn’t mind parking his car for him. She too laughed, after an initial moment of bewilderment.
When he spots Danaher, who is sitting cross-legged near a big fan, Crosby says he wants his event to be a chandelier exclusive, $300 a ticket, somewhere in Long Island. "I want to do a Shakedown Street," he says, borrowing elaborately from the Grateful Dead’s 1978 album. That causes Danaher to flash a smile. Danaher is amused by this jolly fellow who’s come bounding in, talking a mile a minute while holding his dog like a ventriloquist would his dummy. They’ve known each other a long time. There’s a lot of respect both ways. Coincidentally, Crosby points out the Mancino mats at Renzo’s, since we had talked about them before and he’s holding Mancino currently.
"Life is a series of coincidences with everybody," Danaher says with a sage-like grin, as if he’s got the secret of life’s holdings contained therein. "It’s just that with you, it’s bigger coincidences."
But the judge has got to run.
On the drive back to Grand Central, Crosby suddenly stops his car in the middle of the street, careless of the traffic he might be holding up behind him. He kicks it in reverse and backs up a little. There is a black man sitting outside of a café, reading a newspaper. Crosby leans over his steering wheel, lowers his sunglasses and regards the man as horns begin honking. He is awed, it seems — completely absorbed — by the fellow’s sartorial manner.
"Wow, would you look at that, you know what they call that hat he’s wearing?" the judge says warmly. "That’s a vintage stingy-brim fedora. See the short rim on the front of that thing? That the real deal right there."
New York is Crosby’s stage. It’s full of props and extras and profound beauty. His subjectivity is equally profound, which is a hell of a thing for a judge.
As he drops me off, six hours after I met him in Williamsburg, he says he’ll get back to me regarding that interview. He drives off with his right arm leisurely hugging the passenger seat.
Three months later we are in robes, fresh out of the hot tub, surrounded by burly, shirtless men playing cards in a displaced Russian bathhouse. This is where he has chosen to talk about judging fights. And this time he’s eager to dial in. In the intervening stretch since the first meeting, Crosby has taken fresh lumps for judging the Iaquinta fight in Virginia, as well as his subsequent appearances on Sonnen’s podcast. His name has a new coat of mud. He’s read all the accusations of humbuggery. But the judge is as jolly as ever, and just as optimistic.
This time everything is on limits.
He says that a judge should recognize the patterns that are developing in a fight, and that to ignore those patterns is to do a fight a disservice. And in fact, it is not instinctive to completely part ways with knowledge you just gained just moments before. A fight is a tapestry.
"What I feel is that when you approach the observed event that you’re judging, you’ve got to compare what you’re watching to something," he says. "You’re comparing it to your reference set, which is composed of your memories of previous fights, which helps to shape your approach to what you’re watching. However, as time goes on, your ability to ascertain and tease out useful data from things you’ve observed in the past becomes subordinate to things you’re observing in the present. This has to do with assigning value to different data."
We have a pitcher of kompot, a fruit drink that is first boiled then simmered with water and sugar, and which Crosby says with no small amount of authority is good for you. He sips it as he references Bayes’ theorem, which deals in the concepts of understanding probability and chance, in relation to judging.
"Part of Bayes’ theorem has to do with figuring out how to approach the data you have, and use it in a comparative analysis to the observed event," he says. "I’ve always felt that using one round to compare to the next round is much fresher data sample than comparing it to my database. That doesn’t mean that I discount my database, but I allow my database to function as the interpretive engine that takes the fresh data and applies it to the current circumstances."
He’s eating ukha, which is a fish soup, and a platter of meat. The portions at the spa match the patrons. We are almost certainly the only people discussing Bayes’ theorem as it pertains to a fight in the mixed techniques. Natalie, the redhead, is helping herself to Crosby’s plate. He says a three-round fight is like a musical suite, "like three movements in a symphony — you’re always comparing the second to the first."
He breaks it down even simpler.
"The freshest data in round two is round one. The freshest data in round three is round two and one. We go on. The freshest data in round five is round four, three, two and one. That includes the two people whom I’m observing in the same setting as — and in — the same time frame that I’m observing them in. That’s the freshest and most relevant data sample. It’s been hard to convince people to use that data because they somehow feel that contaminates your thinking, rather than enhances your thinking."
Years ago I asked Nelson "Doc" Hamilton — a longtime boxing and MMA judge — the simplest way to think about judging an MMA fight. He said to regard a three-round fight as three individual fights, and a five-round fight as five individual fights. For each round a judge should be wiped clean of memory. Each round is independent of everything that stood before it — each round begins without a history.
Crosby respects his fellow judges, many of whom subscribe to what Hamilton believes, but says that human nature is to form (and use) context. That it’s against our hard-wiring to do otherwise.
"The hierarchy of memory just winds up outpacing detail," he says. "The gist of what you saw has more value than the detail of what you saw. Only in your freshest data samples do gist and detail share the field equally. I think that’s another reason for making the current data sample the most important governing device for your ability to judge a fight properly."
Men around us have glasses of beer. Replenishing their databases. Crosby sometimes watches the pay-per-views at the banya, if he’s not on assignment. It’s an MMA friendly place, and in here you can let it all hang out. There’s no judgment here.
"I understand there are certain standards, and you need to have a finely honed critical gaze to judge the first round…but once it exists and you’ve observed it, pretending it doesn’t exist seems to me a less productive way of coming to a decision, as far as the rest of the fight is concerned. It might require a sharper critical eye, but if you do it that way you come to a better understanding of the proper score."
MMA is essentially around 22 years old, with unified rules that go back only to 2001. Throughout that span, judging has been — and remains — one of the most controversial and least understood aspects of the sport, to the point that UFC president Dana White religiously admonishes his fighters to "never leave it in the hands of the judges," as if doing that is akin to latching your fate to a roulette wheel. Of all the red flags in fighting, judging remains the deepest shade. It’s still the Wild West. And that, of course, is mind-boggling. This is a sport began of a taboo. Yet in its evolution, we no longer wince as blood streams out of gaping head wounds or when hemotomas distort a fighter’s features, but we still watch through our fingers as the judge’s scorecards are read.
There’s no such thing as desensitizing ourselves when it comes to the official scorecards. Even with seminars, classes and experience, criteria is still largely a product of druthers.
One take, which is also part of Crosby’s view, is that the 10-point "must" system doesn’t tell the whole story of a round in martial arts — that it can be dishonest. In the first round, a fighter can score a knockdown and be in control for five minutes, enough to clearly win the round but not convincing enough to make it a 10-8. In the second, his opponent can tie him up on the fence and stall the action. Control. In the current system, this fight is tied 19-19, which is simultaneously correct and a lie.
Crosby is aware of what he calls these types of "ambiguities," and he thinks it’s dangerous to ignore them. Again he uses music as an example, saying that a judge’s task is to make the truth take form out of the gray matter.
"Part of the problem with the modern model of releasing singles in the music industry, is it gives you no continuity of context," he says. "It’s just here, here’s Lady Gaga’s latest. No context. If you listen to an album like Animals by Pink Floyd, every song on that album is there for a reason, and it’s all leading somewhere. Then you’ve got your great songs like ‘Dogs’ inside of that, but they all exist inside a suite or a composition. Fights are no different. A fight is a composition. And it’s a performance, as much as it is an athletic contest, it’s also a performance.
"That’s one of the reasons why judging is necessary — it’s because they are performing as well as competing. And there are certain ambiguities that we’re charged with dividing. Human nature does play a part. You’re entitled to your own opinion, but you’re not entitled to your own facts. Somewhere in between those two is where judgment comes in."
Where we sit, in Coney Island, New York, MMA is currently illegal. We are speaking of esoteric ways in which to judge a crime. Most of the people in the banya are wearing felt hats to help regulate their body temperatures. One such hat is of the Ushanka military design, yet another is like a pilot’s, and yet another is a checked wool job that looks like it should have a propeller on top. Little Moscow.
Crosby is right at home, though. He’s got a thousand words for each question. There’s ore at the bottom of everything. There’s a magic picture in play; stare long enough at it and the submerged image comes into focus. Once he gets rolling, it’s easy to see why people like Randy Couture say, "he’s one of the smartest guys I’ve met in my life."
His intellect is affectionate, almost teacherly; he wants you to see the merits of the big picture. To share in those merits. To meet him atop the hill.
And maybe it’s part of his expansive charm, but as he explains how fights play out on various levels and contain momentums and patterns, it becomes a bit of a perfume trail. Suddenly it’s not so hard to see, at least a little bit, a larger pattern that might be playing out — almost mystically — towards what he’s saying…as if there just might be more going on than what’s most obvious and apparent.
The first Penn-Edgar fight was close, and therefore Crosby took heat for his 50-45 score. In the subsequent bouts with Penn, Edgar widened the divide, winning each fight more emphatically. Maybe that’s where the puck was going. In the first fight between Johny Hendricks and Robbie Lawler at UFC 171, Crosby was criticized for scoring the fifth and decisive round 10-10, even with the late takedown that ultimately secured the victory for Hendricks.
"I thought Hendricks got tired," he says. Lawler won the rematch nine months later to win the title. Was the gist stronger than the detail?
If one round is connected to the next, as Crosby says, then so is one fight to the next between the same combatants. Then again, maybe it’s the kompot playing tricks. Maybe, as Danaher said, there are just bigger coincidences with Crosby. He has a way of making you think about larger arcs, of making you rub your third eye. He knows that logic can be stretched into different shapes.
In the case of Masvidal and Iaquinta, who fought in April, most media agreed with Crosby’s scorecard — yet they also agreed he should never have worked that fight. It stems from his personal beef with Longo. Though he doesn’t tell me his side of what happened between him and Longo while the recorder is on — he saved that story for the ice sauna — the crux is that there’s a person in the middle whom he says he "doesn’t want to compromise," a person whom he was close with, and who now is close with Longo. This made for hard feelings, protestations, a bout of depression and an eventual restraining order. Crosby has a black eye from that whole episode. He wears it without proclaiming his innocence in the ordeal. The only thing he insists on is that his "heart was in the right place."
Still, the idea that he ignored the very tenants of objectivity by judging the fight strikes him as absurd. When it’s brought up, Crosby says that insecurity — which he says is flowing underneath the surface in this case — leads to paranoia.
"My decision in that fight was based upon the event I observed, and I need to divorce myself any and all distractions when I do that," he says. "Now, if a guy from Iaquinta’s camp somehow built into that some personal grudge I had against Al or him, and thinks that would influence things, that says more about him than it does me. Al Iaquinta went in there to fight, and he fought, and the best thing I can do for Al Iaquinta is be honest with him. St. Paul said, I think it was Galatians 4:16, ‘Am I therefore become thine enemy because I tell thee the truth?’"
Crosby lets that hang in the air for just a moment.
"I don’t become Al Iaquinta’s enemy by telling him the truth. If anything that type of feedback is what makes him a better fighter. When those guys bring him home and tell him, ‘oh, you won Al, that guy Crosby was trying to wreck ya’" — here he does a comically spot-on Longo impression — "the guy who’s wrecking him is the guy who isn’t teaching him to slip left jabs. But it’s impossible to go home and tell Al Iaquinta that without pointing a finger at yourself."
Crosby doesn’t call Longo by name, but usually, "that guy in Long Island." As in, "That guy in Long Island is like dealing in a bad episode of The Sopranos," or, "That guy in Long Island doesn’t have the syllabus of experience to draw upon." Mostly, he avoids talking about him.
We have a drink of the kompot. "It’s kind of the Kool-Aid of the Russian steppes," the judge says. "The Kool-Aid of the Russian taiga." Here I am drinking the Kool-Aid with Douglas Crosby. If that seems funny, it’s not lost on Crosby. The game is much bigger than the game. There’s the surface and what’s underneath.
And with all the talk about MMA judging, you almost forget that it’s just a sideline gig for Crosby. That he nearly died on the set of Men In Black III when a pulley was miscomputed and shot him through the girders, squeezing him so tight he lost sensation in his body below the chest, or that he has, in fact, been on fire — voluntarily, and on multiple occasions — or that he has plunged from several stories, crashed through windows and purposely wrecked cars. The puppet master in the world of daredevils. You forget for a minute that judging is just a "passion," that he says pays him in the neighborhood of $800 per event, and sometimes less. Judging is a passion and a persecution. One balances out the other, like the scales of justice.
Judging fights is the least interesting part of how Crosby fills his days.
"I also rescue dogs," Crosby says. "Not many people know that."
"Not to mention human beings," Natalie chimes in.
Which is odd, because she hasn’t said two words all day.
That’s the other thing. Some people actually love Crosby.
Back in the late-1980s, before he was studying judo under Gene LeBell or practicing jiu-jitsu with Rickson Gracie — or before there was even a UFC — Crosby was writing lyrics for the punk rock band, The Cro-Mags. Always behind the scenes. One of the members, singer John "Bloodclot" Joseph, says Crosby not only penned the lyrics for the album Best Wishes, but that he never accepted credit for his contributions.
"I’ve known Doug going on 34 years," Joseph says. "He worked with the Cro-Mags, kept the hooligans in line on the live performances. Doug actually wrote a lot of the lyrics on that record although he wasn’t credited it for it. That’s Doug. He’s always willing to help everybody out. Doug’s always been real spiritual, too. Another thing people don’t know about him. He wrote those lyrics, and he knew where we were coming from with the Hare Krishna thing."
Joseph says that Crosby also helped save his life on multiple occasions, that he has continually extended a hand to him whenever he’s found himself in the gutter.
"I mean, I’m a New Yorker, I’ve been on these streets since ‘76 and I’ve seen thousands of people out here come and go and he’s one of the good ones, man," he says. "I was going through a lot of shit, working out shit. I was institutionalized my whole life. So Doug has always kind of been like the big brother. He’s like some kind of fucking Buddhist master, always looking at what the repercussions could be from what you’re doing."
That’s the other side of Crosby. Talk to people who have worked with him in the fight game or in film, and for some of them it’s as if they’ve been graced by a saint.
"He helped me get my SAG card," Couture says. "I did a SAG commercial for Nike quite a few years back, so I was half-heartedly in, but I’d never paid my dues, I never got my SAG card. Doug reached out to me because he’d helped Frank Shamrock, Matt Lindland, Jeff Blatnick, Chael Sonnen, and so many others. He’s brought them all in as stunt players.
"For me it was [the television show] Oz — he brought me in for Oz. And being involved in that allowed me to basically get my SAG card, and from there I basically moved out of stunts and into actual acting jobs. He was instrumental in helping me do that."
Without Crosby, Couture would never have been in The Expendables. Nor would triple amputee Bryan Anderson have been in The Wrestler. After seeing the Esquire cover of the Iraq war veteran, Crosby called Anderson up out of the blue to see if he would play a role in Aronofsky’s film.
"Doug was just always good about soldiers and wanting to help, and help people get to follow their dreams, and he knew it was a dream of mine that I really wanted to be a stuntman and an actor so he was like, shit, man, I’ll give you a try, so come on out," Anderson says. "He pulled me out, he paid for everything, got me out to South Philly and he started me working on The Wrestler with Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei."
"I don’t know," Anderson says. "He’s not really looking for praise or anything. He just does it because it’s a good thing to do."
A common refrain from those who really know him is that Crosby just likes to help people. He has helped as many as 35 fighters get into the Screen Actors Guild — from Don Frye to Dan Henderson to a fighter named Myles Humphus, whom he found in a regional show in New Jersey, and who now doubles "The Rock," Dwayne Johnson, on every film he does — which provides them insurance and security beyond the cage. He is a thankless pipeline from the cage to Hollywood, a segue into another life. He doesn’t do it for publicity. In fact, he downplays things when you ask him about it.
Even established actors get a kick out of Crosby, and credit him for going the extra mile. When on the set of Géla Babluani’s film 13, it was Crosby who slapped method actor Mickey Rourke into character one day when he was struggling. They have worked together long enough that there’s a trust, and Rourke — who has been to the Russian spa with Crosby — considers him an important person in the craft.
"Douglas is more concerned with artist well-being and safety than any director demands," Rourke says. "His experience enables me to trust and respect him. An example of this, he told Darren Aronofsky during The Wrestler, ‘Darren, go back and sit in the office and let me handle things.’ And guess what, he handled things."
Some of his fellow officials might roll their eyes, but there are those who are big Crosby fans. Referees Dan Miragliotta and Keith Peterson can’t say enough good things about Crosby — yet, being officials, they aren’t overly keen about talking on the record. One official willing to talk on record was referee Kevin Mulhall, who has known Crosby for years.
"There’s only one Douglas, you know?" Mulhall says. "He’s an eccentric type of guy, he’s incredibly smart, entertaining, always a good word. He’s someone that really just thinks outside the box and tries to keep things for what they really are, not just how they are presented."
Mulhall says that Crosby has conviction in everything he does, including judging.
"I think Douglas has kind of put himself out there because he’s not afraid to step outside the box and do what is not normally done," he says. "And he’s not afraid to back it up and stand behind it. He’s very good that way. Not everybody agrees with him, but that doesn’t change Douglas. Douglas does what he believes in, even if it’s not popular. And I think that’s a very powerful stance to take and I got to say I respect him for not folding and standing for what he believes."
MMA is young enough that it can be difficult to separate the charlatans from the revolutionaries, the visionaries from the madcaps, the frauds from the genuine articles. The game is full of misfits. It’s full of misunderstood people, renegades, philanthropists. People from all walks of life, for one motivation or another. MMA officials are no different.
"Doc" Hamilton worked as a chiropractor in North Hollywood to make ends meet, judging on the side. As with Crosby, judging is a passion. Cecil Peoples teaches a martial arts school in Van Nuys. Tony Weeks is a prison guard in Victorville, California. Marcos Rosales is also a prison guard, working at a maximum-security facility in Central California. Josh Rosenthal? He just got out of the federal hoosegow after serving time for a marijuana bust. But he’s generally considered a competent official.
Everybody in the sport is two people. Sometimes more. It’s a hobby, it’s a passion, and it’s a privilege. For others, it’s a burden. We judge the fighters. We judge the judges. Judgment is contagious.
"I think he’s one of the best judges I’ve seen," Couture says of Crosby. "He understands the sport, he understands the athletes. He knows what he’s looking at. Outside of John McCarthy I don’t think there’s a more knowledgeable guy out there. He’s a great judge. He’s judged some of my fights, and we’re good friends. And he’s never ever given me a score I didn’t deserve."
Mulhall sees a guy trying to change the sport for the better.
"I think Douglas has a lot to offer," he says. "I don’t think everybody completely understands what Douglas is trying to do or say, but I don’t think that makes him wrong either. He has some valid points to what he is saying. I think the people that are in the game right now don’t really like that because they feel like, ‘We kind of made the rules, we’re the people who are doing this right now, we’re kind of setting the precedent, and that’s the way it should be. Our way is the right way.’ And Douglas is saying that there’s still room for work. We can improve upon what we’re doing now."
Then again, nobody kicks the needle off the record quite like Crosby himself.
In August, Crosby worked a card in Nashville. He was one of the judges that gave Beneil Dariush a split-decision victory over Michael Johnson, a fight that everyone else — almost universally — saw for Johnson. Douglas Crosby once again resurfaced as a scourge on the game. The words most associated with him directly after were "incompetent" and "inept." It’s his passion and his persecution. The hierarchy of memory just blows up all the finer details.
Crosby strikes again.
Jen, it turns out, is real.
Crosby makes a point to stop and introduce me on the way back from the Russian bathhouse. She’s a firecracker from Philly, not a figment of his imagination. They make a date to play golf later in the week, a little nine-hole that they go to. He’ll text me a picture when they do. They also joke that there’s this absurd idea out there that she’s somehow imaginary, that the "MMA media" — that demimonde of basement dwellers — is a paranoid lot.
"Nope, I’m an actual person," she says, putting her hands in the air to present herself as proof.
Crosby is aware of how he’s perceived as a judge. He says he hears the criticism. "But one thing to remember is, criticism without accountability isn’t really criticism," he says. He’s referring to his anonymous critics, like the ones who prompted him to defend his Penn-Edgar score on the Underground using his own name.
"That character I had created on the Internet — I didn’t come home from Abu Dhabi with that character, that character already existed," he says. "It was kind of a tongue-in-cheek kind of way to have fun with it. That’s what I thought it was supposed to be about.
"But what you find is that you’re not in a position to have fun. That as a judge having fun isn’t part of the deal."
That is of course problematic. If you’re able to track down the slippery judge, if you’re able to navigate your way to his New York, if you’re able to get him to look you square in the eye, you realize that Douglas Crosby is incapable of being anybody other than Douglas Crosby. He’s one of a kind. He’s a figure that years from now — when things become more homogenized, and MMA judges get on the same page, and everyone agrees on what they’re looking at — will feel like a tall tale in the fight game.
In some ways, he already is.
And before he drops me off, he shares a parable that his "intellectual mentor" Jacques Vallee — the famed ufologist — passed along to him. Wisdom is meant to be a baton, after all, and this one has to do with elevation.
"Just imagine there’s a train car at the end of World War I, and there’s four people sitting across from each other," Crosby says as zooms by Battery Park. "On one side is this old French general, and next to him is this handsome young private, and across from them is this old woman, as well as a gorgeous young country girl. They don’t know each other but they’re sitting there on the train car together.
"The train goes into a tunnel and it’s pitch black, and you hear somebody get kissed, and then somebody get smacked. The train emerges into daylight and nobody says anything, and there’s this incredibly tense, embarrassed silence."
The judge has got his right arm leisurely hugging the passenger seat. This time I’m in it. New York is his oyster.
"And the old lady thinks to herself, damn, that young private took liberties with that girl and she smacked him right in the face. Good for her. And the young girl goes, Jesus, why did that young private kiss the old lady instead of me? And the General goes, ain’t this a motherfucker — he kissed her and she smacked me. Of course, the only one who knows the full story is the private.
"And the private says, this is a great day — tomorrow I get discharged from the Army, and today I kissed the back of my hand and smacked the general in the face and I’m not going to get in trouble for it."
Crosby laughs. Like all his parables, this one’s teeming with parallels.
"In life, you’re usually one of the other three people in that train car," he says. "I try to be that private as many times as I can. As many times as fate and my own foreseen cunning will allow. I try to be that guy that knows what goes on."
As he cuts through Midtown, he says there’s a book that he really likes called, As They See ‘Em, by a fellow named Bruce Weber. It is about professional baseball umpires, the thankless task of being one. He says you never hear a pitcher commend an umpire after a no-hitter for really calling the balls and strikes well.
"Same thing [in MMA]," he says. "When has anybody in the cage — they’ll thank friends, family, God, Jesus, Buddha, fucking unnamed demon gods from the 15th century, before they’ll say, ‘oh yeah, thanks for the judges for getting in there and doing it right.’ You never hear that. If you’re looking for an ‘atta boy’ in this business, the only one you’re going to get is your next assignment."
Yet the judge confesses there may not be too many more assignments. The truth is, he’s ready to get out. He senses the game might not want him around any longer, either. He understands the gist, and isn’t getting hung up on the details.
"I live my life in very bold strokes," he says. "Judging is not a job particularly well-suited for someone who is outspoken and lives their life in bold strokes. In fact, it’s the opposite. If you do a comparative analysis of my scores, I’m proud of my legacy as a judge. I would love to continue with it, because I love doing it. But…"
For the first time, the judge doesn’t have anything more to add. Judging was a passion. As he bids me farewell, it’s clear he really does know the score. It’s time to go. And Douglas Crosby, that rare figure who sees fights as movements in a symphony, can tell that’s music to your ears.
Text: Chuck Mindenhall
Art: Kyle Haase
Photos: Douglas Crosby
Design & Development: Graham MacAree