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Judge not, lest ye be judged: My night with the California State Athletic Commission

E. Casey Leydon, MMA Fighting

IRVINE, Calif. -- Photographers jockeyed for position to my left. The referee passed in front of me. Thousands of fans screamed.

From my chair alongside judge Mike Beltran, the only two things I was supposed to focus on were the men inside the cage in front of me. In my left hand was a scorecard and a notepad. In my right was a pen. My lap held my iPhone, glowing white and blue with the Twitter app open.

Right before the first bell, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Cory Schafer, Bellator's director of regulatory affairs. He didn't look happy.

"I thought you were here to judge," Schafer said, looking down at my phone disapprovingly. "I can give someone else your seat if you're not ready to do it."

Schafer was mostly busting my chops. But his point hit home. Judging fights? This is serious business. There's no time to mess around on social media when the difference between a win and a loss -- and a fighter's finances -- are at stake.

Slipping my phone into my pocket, I felt alone. Beltran was next to me and there were thousands of screaming fans inside the Bren Events Center. But really, it was just me and the fighters. And I was the one -- or at least one of the ones -- deciding who would be the winner based solely on my observations in real time.

That's a massive responsibility and a daunting feeling. You miss something in a close round and that could be the difference of five figures for a fighter.

It might look easy sitting at home watching on Spike TV or FOX Sports 1 or pay-per-view. It's not. It's easier to screw up than you think. Believe me, I did it.

On Friday night, California State Athletic Commission executive director Andy Foster opened up his government organization's fight-night procedures to media. Foster explained in depth the CSAC's drug-testing protocols and reporters were given a walk-through of what doctors and EMTs do during MMA events.

The most enlightening moments came, though, during a judging seminar run by John McCarthy and the practice of actually judging the fights ourselves.

McCarthy, the godfather of MMA refereeing and one of the men who helped write the unified rules of the sport, explained the process differently than most fans have been led to believe. Effective striking and effective grappling are the two most important things in every round, McCarthy said. Only if those two things are equal do you take into account details like cage control and aggression.

In other words, the fighter who does the most damage or attempts to finish the fight with submission attempts should win the round -- not the fighter who spends the most time in top position or pushing his opponent against the fence.

"It's not who lands the most strikes," McCarthy told us. "Where do they land and what effect do they have on the fight?"

Sounds like a simple and easy theory to apply, right? Not so much. On a TV screen, McCarthy showed us the third round of the fight between Gilbert Melendez and Diego Sanchez from UFC 166 in October 2013 without commentary or crowd noise. Melendez lands more and seems to do more damage, but Sanchez has a major flurry in the middle of the round when he drops Melendez with a big uppercut and takes Melendez's back.

Of the five journalists in attendance during the McCarthy judging crash course, three scored the round for Melendez and two scored it for Sanchez. I was one of the latter and McCarthy explained to me why I was wrong. Sanchez had the best strike of the round, but Melendez never lost any of his faculties -- he braced his fall on the knockdown -- and Sanchez never came close to finishing on the ground.

Melendez landed more and opened up a nasty cut over Sanchez's eye. He should have won that round. But two judges, presumably interpreting it like I did, scored the round for Sanchez at UFC 166. Melendez won the fight, winning the first two rounds, but he should have won them all.

There's a reason why it's called "judging." There is some subjectivity to it. But it's the judge's job to know what to look for, be educated on the sport and understand how to score certain things. And there's no time to mull it over. Your scorecard is collected immediately after the round is over. You have to be judging as the round goes.

Bellator 136 could not have been a better event for this exercise. There were an incredible amount of close rounds and even what should have been a 10-8 -- Joey Beltran's near finish of Brian Rogers in the second round of their fight.

None of the journalists present could pull the trigger on the 10-8, and we should have. As McCarthy explained it, a 10-8 must have a combination of dominance (a lack of offense from the fighter on the losing end) and damage. There are cases when there is so much damage -- like with Beltran on Rogers -- or dominance that a 10-8 is warranted even when the other one is not present.

McCarthy used last year's fight between Patrick Cummins and Kyle Kingsbury as an example of sheer dominance, but not an incredible amount of damage. Cummins earned multiple 10-8s in that one due to a lack of offense from Kingsbury. And that's the key. Little to no offense from an opponent is the definition of damage in this context.

On Friday night, three fights -- Tony Johnson over Alexander Volkov, Rafael Carvalho over Joe Schilling and a prelim won by John Teixeira over Fabricio Guerrero -- went to split decision. Beltran's victory over Rogers was a majority decision. McCarthy ruled it a draw, because he thought Rogers won the first and third rounds and Beltran took the second 10-8.

There were also close rounds in fights between Saad Awad and Rob Sinclair, the main event pitting Will Brooks and Dave Jansen, as well as multiple prelims. But though there were some differing scorecards between the judges (and media, too), there was nothing controversial nor glaring. Nothing that was going to draw a headline on an MMA site for being a bad decision.

Foster said in the post-fight commission meeting that all the fighters who should have won did. His lone criticisms came from the Beltran-Rogers fight. One judge, Milan Ayers, scored the second round 10-9 for Beltran.

"If you can't score a 10-8 in that fight, then we can't help you," Foster told his judges.

Foster also joked that he wanted to send a paper airplane to referee Mike Beltran with a message to stop the Beltran-Rogers fight in the second round. McCarthy also thought it should have been waved off when Joey Beltran was pouring on the strikes.

Mike Beltran defended himself in the meeting, saying Rogers was telling him the whole time that he was fine. The ref also said he had the best view of what was going on, which was true.

"I hold them accountable," Foster said of his referees and judges. "This is not just going out and having fun on a Friday night. This is people's careers."

It's not to be taken lightly and it's not as easy as it looks. The fighters can venture into a part of the cage that's difficult to see and, as a judge, if you miss one thing it could change your scorecard in a close round. Monitors help, but not every state allows them.

Not every state would allow media to enter into the commission's domain, either. Foster's transparency is not only admirable, but exactly what is needed. Many fans don't understand what commissions even do and the only time a referee or judge is in the news is because he or she messed up.

Most of us don't judge a fight when we're at home on the couch. We watch it with our laptops open, social media scrolling on our phones and maybe a beer in our hand. No pressure. Who cares if we make a mistake? It doesn't affect anything.

"I will bet my money every time on the three people on the planet that felt the burden and the responsibility that in preparation and execution, dedicated themselves to 100 percent of their effort," Schafer said. "It's a difficult task to make a judgment and not give an opinion. That's the difference there."

There are judging issues in MMA and you surely can list a handful of terrible decisions off the top of your head. McCarthy said somewhere between 3 to 5 percent of fights are scored incorrectly with the wrong fighter winning. He'd prefer it to be less than 1 percent.

But let's not fool ourselves into thinking this is easy or that we could all do a better job. I'd prefer to leave the judging to the judges, flaws and all. And the next time there's a boneheaded decision, I'll think to myself that under certain circumstances, I probably wouldn't have done any better.

I'll even write it on Twitter.

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