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Keeping score: Did MMA judges get it right in 2019?

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

According to longtime UFC commentator Joe Rogan, MMA judging is as bad as it’s ever been. Several prominent regulators disagree.

When John McCarthy, one of the most experienced and respected officials in MMA, took a job as a commentator for Bellator, he thought you couldn’t call a fight and judge it at the same time. Doing one was hard enough; two was asking for mistakes.

Then his new employer asked him to do exactly that.

”You’re not giving the exact amount of concentration on the fight as the judge, and you could be wrong and not see something, because you’re talking or trying to point out something that’s occurring,” he told MMA Fighting.

These days, McCarthy tries his best to multitask, knowing his scores probably won’t be as sharp as the three judges whose primary job is to evaluate the action each round – he’s trained many of them, after all. McCarthy is one of many people behind the scenes who’ve helped refine judging criteria, and he knows what they go through just to deliver those scores. It’s an evolving process, which is why he takes exception when the UFC’s most popular commentator badmouths them.

Four days after UFC 245, Joe Rogan indicated MMA judges are grossly negligent and willfully incompetent, obtaining driver’s licenses for cars they’d never driven, as he recently put it on his popular podcast. If you only listened to his interview with now-former featherweight champ Max Holloway, you’d conclude nothing in MMA officiating had changed in the past year, let alone the past decade.

“A lot of these judges, they’re not even fans,” he said. “They’re just people that are doing it for a job. They’re getting a paycheck.”

McCarthy concedes there are problems with judging that need to be addressed. There are even systemic issues that ensure the same ones reoccur. But it’s a lot better than it used to be.

”If you’re thinking judges don’t care, you’re crazy,” he said. “They care. The good judges all consistently watch fights. They all interact with each other. Guys that people see all the time, Sal D’Amato, Chris Lee, Derek Cleary, my son, they’re all on a text (thread) all the time, saying, ‘Hey, watch this round, tell me what you think.’ They talk about it, they argue about it, they go back and forth. They do these things because that’s what’s going to make them better.

”Then when they have someone like Joe say, ‘These guys suck, they should all be fired, well, you know what? That’s nice for Joe to say. He’s got a big mouthpiece. He’s got a huge microphone and everyone listens to him. But what he’s saying is not fair and it’s not right. They are scoring fights off a criteria.”

But how do the people who hire those much-maligned officials know that? How do they make sure that, on balance, the right calls are being made? How can they know they’re getting better?

MMA Fighting spoke to four longtime MMA regulators – Andy Foster, Greg Sirb, Nick Lembo and Michael Mazzulli, who respectively lead influential commissions in California, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and the Mohegan Indian Reservation – and asked the question: Have things gotten better or worse in 2019?

For Foster, the answer is unquestionably yes, especially when you look at where things started. Until the UFC became a regular presence in Nevada, he said, there wasn’t a very large pool of people available to officiate MMA fights, let alone certify the ones that could. Commissions were playing catchup all the way.

”You’re developing an officials core for a sport that has not existed,” he said. “So, of course, there were some bad decisions back then. Things evolve, and I think the judging has gotten vastly better.”

One measure of improvement on which Foster relies is the percentage of MMA rounds where judges agree on a 10-8 score. In August 2016, the Association of Boxing Commissions adopted language that requires a 10-8 if a fighter meets three criteria: impact (damage), dominance and duration. A higher percentage means more judges are seeing the same thing and making the appropriate call.

”Back in 2013, there were less than 1 percent of 10-8 rounds that judges agreed on,” he said. “I think that number’s well over 30 percent now, so there’s a quantifiable analytical gauge you can use.”

Foster also uses a tool called the “Pod Index,” which tracks the judges who are in the minority on decisions. Those with a higher percentage are further evaluated to make sure they’re applying the correct criteria.

Sirb, the executive director of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission, puts his judges’ scores up on a screen every year. He looks at how many rounds they’ve scored and how often they’re in the minority. If he doesn’t like what he sees, an interrogation follows.

”If you statistically look at a judge and have 10 rounds, that means nothing to me,” he said. “But if you give me 100 rounds, and you’re continually in the minority, then you’re seeing something the other two aren’t seeing, and that’s a concern.”

Part of Rogan’s criticism is that the same judges continue to deliver the same lousy scores. He claims many are boxing holdovers that don’t understand the sport of MMA, and thus they continue to disappoint at the most crucial moments. To Mazzulli, who heads the Mohegan Tribe Department of Athletics and recently ended his term as the president of the Association of Boxing Commissions, that opinion is not only lazy, but factually incorrect.

”This always comes up every single time something like this happens,” Mazzulli said. “These guys are world-renowned judges. To say they’ve never rolled is totally incorrect. A fine example is Eric Colon, who has a jiu-jitsu school. So before people go out say they’ve never been involved in the sport, get your facts straight.”

McCarthy said with a limited number of major events, it simply takes time for newer MMA judges to be established. That often creates the impression that commissioners are not using the best talent available, though in some cases, it’s true that regulators aren’t the most imaginative with their assignments.

”There are very few boxing people still judging MMA,” he said. “I can’t say there’s nobody, because we have a system within the sport where we have way too many rulers, being that we have a system of athletic commissions. Sometimes they use people I don’t agree with, and maybe Joe doesn’t agree with them, but that doesn’t mean Joe and I are the authorities in saying it’s the judge.”

Lembo, chief counsel for the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board, oversees a training program for prospective judges, who are thoroughly vetted through the amateur system before getting the chance to score professionally. To him, creating an environment for unbiased evaluation is just as important as the personnel. He made headlines several years ago for sticking judges in a soundproof booth with soundless monitors. These days, he’s still “experimenting” with new positions and panels of up to five judges; Rogan advocated heavily for more judges during his interview with Holloway.

”There will never be a perfect scoring system for any type of combat sport,” Lembo wrote in an email. “However, we need to continue to be open to new ideas and concepts to improve.”

Or maybe just provide a clear line of sight. If commissions and promoters want better scores, McCarthy said, they should start by eliminating visual obstructions.

”You have the two gates of the UFC, and those are two permanent spots for judges,” he said. “So you have one judge that has the spot where the ring card girls sit, because god knows the ring card girls need a spot, and that’s the good seat to be a judge if you’re judging a fight for the UFC. The other two spots suck.”

Sirb, a regulator of over 30 years, believes it’s an awful lot to ask when you’re required to remember and evaluate every aspect of often frenetic and difficult to decipher action in a noisy, distraction-filled place for up to five, five-minute intervals.

”That five minutes is a huge attention span,” Sirb said. “You have to mesmerize yourself to score. That’s very difficult. I don’t think the general public realizes that.”

And, like it or not, judges do bring their backgrounds into scoring. Those with a jiu-jitsu background may favor more heavily the fighters who impose their will on the mat, while striking aficionados favor work on the feet.

”It’s always going to be subjective based upon what you personally look at in a fight as important and what you say landed,” McCarthy said. “Sometimes, you don’t see something the other judge does.”

That’s one reason why McCarthy believes MMA regulation should be federalized. With one central commission, rules and regulations can be standardized across the country, and judges can be evaluated on objective measures that ensure the right people are being hired.

”You want this thing to run right, then we have an actual commission that runs MMA, same as MLB runs baseball,” he said. “When they change a rule, that rule is set everywhere. When they open up a weight class, that weight class is available everywhere. When they evaluate officials, they have a scoring sequence they evaluate officials on, and that goes on a database that everyone can see.”

This year, Foster plans to invite Rogan and other commentators to a training and education day similar to one held for the MMA media. He hopes that by bringing these influential voices into the process, they might be more inclined to give judges the benefit of the doubt when scores diverge from expectation.

At the very least, it might make them understand that the people tasked with the pivotal job of determining winners and losers are doing their best within a system that’s ultimately imperfect.

“There are many fights that are really close, close fights, and I don’t think it’s especially productive to say the commentators or judges are wrong,” he said. “How about this: ‘It was a close fight.’ There’s been quite a few close fights, and some people are using the ‘r’ word. Nobody got robbed. It was just a close fight.”