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A night of judging fights in California

4/14/2015



The California State Athletic Commission hosted a "media day" last week, during Bellator 136 at Bren Events Center in Irvine, California.

CSAC executive director Andy Foster offered a 30-minute presentation on the commission's evolving drug-testing efforts, while longtime official John McCarthy offered a mini seminar on proper judging under the unified rules.

Myself and four others were then allowed to sit alongside CSAC-licensed judges during the live fights and fill out scorecards, in order to get a concept of how it feels to score a mixed martial arts contest.

Throughout the night, media scores were compared to the judges' marks. I never secured a full list of the comparisons, but from what I was told to me as the evening progressed, let's just say results varied.

The experience re-enforced several notions I had regarding scoring a fight and it opened my eyes to some things I hadn't considered before.

In terms of the actual act of judging, my main takeaway was that it is more mentally exhausting than people realize. I have sat at press row for more than 100 live events and 'judged' rounds from that vantage point, but it's different when it's your sole responsibility.

Dedicating 100 percent of your concentration to something for five minutes is actually more challenging than it sounds. At times, I found myself thinking about what happened in the previous round and if I scored it correctly. Doing so for even a second could distract me enough to miss something in the cage. Other times, I was thinking about this column, mentally filing things away to write about later. Another potential distraction. I assume all judges respectively deal with this self-distraction on some level.

And when you're concentrating on a fight, constantly keeping a running score (which we all do from the sidelines, but not with the same intensity), I can tell you that rounds get longer. Five minutes starts to feel like 15 minutes.

As one regulatory official told the media at one point, 'if you don't have a headache by the end of this, you're doing it wrong.'

And that brings up an interesting point. Common sense suggests MMA judges would be the most mentally fatigued at the end of the night -- which happens to be when the most important fights take place. On the East Coast, main events can start after midnight local time. During international events where officials are flown in, judges are likely dealing with general travel fatigue, which is then magnified by a long night of scoring responsibilities.

In other words, the situation lends itself to an atmosphere in which judges are potentially not at the top of their game by the time the big money title fight gets underway.

"I have seen my judges' performances decline as some nights go on," Foster admitted. "In boxing, if there is a major money fight, the three judges scoring the title fight -- that could be the only fight they judge all night. In MMA, these guys are judging almost every fight. I hate to say it's like that just because that's how it's always been, but that's how it's always been. It's something we're looking at."

It's ironic that boxing judges get a pass on prelims to save focus for the main event because, frankly, judging mixed martial arts is infinitely more difficult than judging boxing.

That doesn't mean one is better than the other, it's just a fact that's really not up for debate. In boxing, athletes have a left hand and a right to monitor. They have two targets in their opponent's body and head.

In MMA, multiply that by about six -- then add elements of grappling. And then try to weigh one aspect against the other in a round that sees a bit of everything. It results in a complicated formula judges can struggle with.

"With MMA, it's almost like punching is having a .22 caliber weapon," McCarthy said. "I hit you with an elbow? I now have a .9 millimeter. I hit you with a kick? That's a .40 caliber. The weight of the tools being used is different."

Not to mention a 10-8 round in boxing is defined by a knockdown. It doesn't matter how vicious the knockdown is, if a fighter touches the canvas in boxing, that's pretty much an automatic 10-8.

In MMA, defining a 10-8 round is a multi-layered conversation in and of itself -- one that can continue for days and still not get settled.

These kinds of things led to what was the overarching conclusion of the night for me, and that is that MMA needs a better, more specific scoring system.

This is not a new claim. Some have been demanding this for years. The system is out-dated. To help get MMA sanctioned by athletic commissions during the sport's infancy, boxing's 10-point must system was a beneficial pitch. It was familiar. These days, it's a detriment.

It's easy for fans to label a judge as inept. It happens all the time. And sometimes, yeah, judges turn in truly pitiful scores that can't be defended. But at the same time, judges are currently using a system that often times lends itself to controversy.

There is a common saying amongst the more rational observers of this sport that goes something to the effect of "that fight could have gone either way." And under the current scoring system, that is 100 percent accurate. 'Effective striking' is taken into account with 'effective grappling.' If all things are equal, 'effective aggression' can be considered, but one should really refrain from doing so. These are vague terms that can be widely interpreted.

I asked McCarthy what percentage of fights this saying applies to. Under the current scoring system, do 10 percent of professional fights end, literally, without a clearly definable winner? Twenty percent? Thirty?

"Yeah, I would say 20 to 25 percent," McCarthy answered. "At least."

You realize what that means? It means that right now, one out of every four fights that goes to a decision doesn't have a 'right' winner . In most cases, winning or losing represents a difference of half a paycheck (due to win bonuses) -- and 25 percent of the time, we're saying that outcome is decided by, essentially, a coin flip.

That seems unacceptably high, does it now? Cory Schafer, president of International Sport Karate Association and Bellator director of regulatory affairs, believes so.

"In my opinion, the 10-point-must system, as used similar to boxing, was adopted when the sport began to get regulated," Schafer said. "I get that and that's fine, but that's not where the sport is now. Where we're at now, I think the athletes and the sophistication of what they do mandates a more refined scoring system.

"You have to have numerical scoring that better guarantees that at the end of a round, the points will reflect the action. Right now, 10-9 covers too much territory. In my mind, there's marginal victory, clear victory, dominant victory and overwhelming victory. That's four options. So, I think a much more appropriate scoring system would provide four options. Particularly in five-round fights, it's obvious 10-9 covers too much ground. When one guy wins two rounds big but the other wins three close, that's when you have controversy.

"I would like to eventually see MMA move to a scoring system that is more gradient. Would it require more instruction? Yeah. Will it be harder to learn? Yeah. Are our athletes worth it? Uh, yeah."

There has been a movement in recent years to score more 10-8 rounds in MMA, which would at least provide judges two options. One can say judges currently have four options (10-10, 10-9, 10-8, 10-7), but the Association of Boxing Commissions (ABC) clearly states in its unified rules that 10-10 and 10-7 rounds 'should be rarely used.'

Foster admits the current system is not perfect, but believes a wider use of 10-8 rounds will vastly improve scoring. Until he is presented with a better option, it's really the only answer.

"I've been saying we have a problem for a long time, but show me something better," Foster said. "I really think that getting guys educated and consistent in writing down the 10-8s is a large part of it. But yeah, we have three rounds. We have 30 points. Boxing starts at 40 points (four-round fight) and goes up to 120 (12 rounds). We use a boxing system. People can call it whatever they want but it came from boxing."

Foster said the definition of a 10-8, which is defined by the ABC as occurring when one fighter wins by a 'large' margin, is typically left to the interpretation of commission directors. So, the 'large' margin that exists in California under Foster that constitutes a 10-8, could very well be different from the 'large' margin that exists in any other state.

"That's why it comes down to broad education," Foster said. "But it's also worth mentioning that my guys do this every weekend. We'll be somewhere next week, scoring a fight. Sometimes a promotion goes to one of these other places and they hardly score, ever."

Sitting next to veteran judge Marcos Rosales, I asked if he's reached a point where it doesn't bother him to be on an island in a split decision. If the other two judges watching a fight went against his score, does a knot immediately form in his stomach?

He shook his head. "That just means I get to argue with John McCarthy after the event," Rosales said.

Rosales was joking, but it illustrated a point. Rosales has 37 years of experience in combat sports. He has worked as a referee and judge in several different martial arts and has more than a decade of professional MMA judging experience.

And he and McCarthy still don't agree about rounds on a halfway regular basis. Leaving the Irvine arena on Friday, that struck me as odd.

If two veteran, competent, highly invested officials can't agree on who won a round more than 75 percent of the time, isn't it indicative of a more fundamental problem? If I score a round different from my judging counterpart across the cage and neither of us are wrong -- does the system we've been told to implement actually work? You tell me.

Note: A special thanks to the CSAC for providing this kind of access to the commission's procedures and officials. The importance of transparency can not be understated regarding the roles of athletic commissions.