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Click Debate: Why is there such a disconnect between fighters and athletic commissions?

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UFC 209 photos
In a rare move, Bob Bennett spoke at the UFC 209 press conference earlier this month.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Dominick Cruz, one of the best fighters of all time in his division, was on color commentary for UFC 209 last weekend. The former bantamweight champion is so diligent in his second job as a broadcaster that he actually attended media day to interview fighters, so he could correctly get across their stories to the viewers on television and pay-per-view.

One of the things Cruz said during the event, though, was somewhat surprising from a sporting perspective. In discussing rules changes in MMA, particularly new language for judging, Cruz says he wasn’t exactly sure what actions constituted winning rounds anymore.

“And I’m a fighter,” Cruz said.

Imagine LeBron James saying something along the lines of, “I don’t know what’s a 3-pointer anymore — and I’m a basketball player.” Cruz was saying he is not clear on how to actually win at his sport. That seems unimaginable. But he’s not alone; in fact, he’s the majority.

This is no knock on Cruz or on fighters. While more could be done from a fighter’s perspective to seek out information from athletic commissions and promoters, it’s certainly not mostly on them.

For too long, commissions have been intentionally opaque, letting things go unsaid and uncorrected. Every time I hear a commentator refer to “three points of contact,” I slap my hand against my forehead. That is and has never been the rule for a grounded fighter. But it has been said over and over again by broadcasters, so now it has become the narrative from the perspective of fans, fighters and coaches.

Last year, Tim Means admitted to not knowing the rule for a grounded fighter when he nailed Alex Oliveira with a pair of illegal knees. Oliveira had both knees on the ground — clearly a grounded fighter by rule. The rule, before it was changed by the Association of Boxing Commissions and Combative Sports (ABC), was that anything other than the soles of the feet on the floor makes for a grounded fighter. Even under the new rules (and I’ll get to those in a bit), a knee down means a fighter is down.

Means didn’t know, though. UFC color commentator Joe Rogan and UFC regulatory head Marc Ratner also got it wrong on the broadcast, saying Means’ knees were legal. Rogan corrected himself after speaking to legendary referee John McCarthy moments later. Luckily, referee Dan Miragliotta was on top of it and made the correct call that the blows were illegal.

No commission issued a written explanation, though. Nor did the ABC. So confusion remains. The knee-jerk reaction is always that the referee or judge is incompetent. Even when that’s not the case, that becomes the narrative because of a lack of education.

The same thing has happened over the years with scoring. The words “Octagon control” and “aggression” have been repeated so many times by broadcasters that a lot of fans and fighters believe those are the ways you win rounds. They’re not — not under the old rules or the new rules. Effective striking/grappling is the primary determination. The other two are only tiebreakers, when effective striking/grappling is completely equal. Effective aggression is the first tiebreaker and cage control is the second.

Commissions and the ABC need to do a better job of educating fighters, especially. And those doing play-by-play and analysis on television should get more up to speed on rules and judging. It was only last year that the UFC added to its scoring introduction on broadcasts that the three criteria were used in order, from effective striking/grappling on down.

Now more than ever, education is needed. Because there is a lot of confusion between the old rules and new rules, which many commissions have yet to adopt. There was a lack of understanding even before there was an alteration to the Unified Rules of MMA. Believe it or not, it has gotten worse — shocking, right?

ABC president Mike Mazzulli has done well in his two years leading the overseeing body, though is in a precarious position because state commissions do not have to follow the ABC. The organization is more of a handshake agreement than anything else. State governments still ultimately decide their respective rules.

But what the ABC can do is control the education and understanding of rules and scoring. Mazzulli installed Sean Wheelock as chairman of the new MMA rules and regulations committee, which recommended the package of rules changes that got passed last year. Maybe the next step is adopting a committee of fighters — 10 athletes who will be in direct communication with the ABC, other committees and commissions.

Fighters need more of a voice when it comes to athletic commissions, which manager Alex Davis wrote about recently for MMAjunkie. Randy Couture, Matt Hughes and Jeremy Horn are on the ABC rules committee, but input from active fighters is necessary, too, ideally with their own committee.

One of the main missions for an athletic commission is to be an advocate for the fighter and not just on the health and safety level. As it is now, commissions communicate almost solely with promoters and matchmakers. The fighters need a seat at the table. This might not be as effective as a union or association for the athletes, but it’s a start.

At the very least, regulators need to get in a room with a group of fighters (and maybe coaches and managers) and explain fully the rules changes and the scoring criteria. They need to explain what makes a fighter grounded and the tiered system of scoring.

It’s a crime for someone as intelligent, pro-active and skilled as Cruz to admit that he isn’t clear on how rounds are won. Maybe some kind of fighter summit can be set up, much in the same way the California State Athletic Commission (CSAC) held a weight-cutting summit in 2015.

MMA is a billion-dollar sport now. We’ve come too far to continue having misguided conversations about judging and in-cage rules. Fighters (and fans, too) need more than just McCarthy explaining regulations and scoring on Twitter and Nevada Athletic Commission executive director Bob Bennett answering questions at a press conference.

Both of those things are a breath of fresh air. They should be the rule, not the exception.