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Combat Sports Insider: Four ways to improve officiating and judging in MMA

My opening statement to this opinion/editorial piece probably isn’t much different than what you’ve been reading elsewhere: that last night’s World Extreme Cagefighting main event between Donald Cerrone and Benson Henderson was perhaps the fight of the year but at the same time, also one of the biggest miscarriages of justice as well.

The flawed judging of Cerrone vs. Henderson comes on the heels of published reports about questionable scoring in the Javier Vazquez vs. Deividas Taurosevicius featherweight preliminary bout from earlier in the night and of course, Mike Easton’s controversial decision victory over Chase Beebe at the UWC last weekend.

Judging MMA is not an exact science in comparison to point sparring in some traditional martial arts or Olympic Boxing where point values are assigned to specific moves that are executed during the course of a match. In MMA, with the 10 point must system, an impartial judge is supposed to watch a round and award the ten points to the fighter the judge perceives as the winner. The loser of the round can get anywhere between 1-9 points, depending on how well he or she fared.

In the past, I’ve read articles where pundits have claimed the 10 point must system is flawed. I’ve read these complaints but very often have not seen a solution to remedy the situation. From my perspective, the 10-point must is really the only way to score MMA. An MMA fight has too many disciplines incorporated into its style and the fights move too fast.

In an ideal world you could say a jab equals one point, a right cross equals two, a takedown equals three, a submission attempt equals four, a knockdown equals five, etc. But even if such a system were adopted, it would cause even more problems and be even more subjective than the current 10 point must. For example, there would be a huge debate as to whether a submission attempt should be equal or greater in value than a knockdown. Also, you’d still be relying on human judgment — what if a judge blinks and misses a clean jab and doesn’t award the point while the other two judges do?

As long as there is a human element, there will always be questions about judging. Even in grappling tournaments where the scoring is not subjective and point values are assigned, there are still many arguments in regard to when points should be awarded. For example, a grappler will receive points for holding a dominant position if they can achieve the poisition and keep their opponent in it for more than a few seconds. I’ve witnessed many arguments during actual grappling bouts as to whether a guard pass was held long enough to be awarded points.

So from my perspective, the ten point must should stay. It’s some of the judges and officials who have not been properly educated in the many disciplines that comprise MMA that need to go. In the past, I’ve written articles for this site as a columnist/reporter but now write this editorial as a licensed matchmaker in the states of Kansas in Pennsylvania. My objective journalism days are over but having worked on shows both big and small from behind the scenes in many states in the U.S. and all over the world, I feel I can offer some valuable insight.

I’ve pointed out the problems, so now let me point of some of the solutions.

1) Get rid of the “old boys” network – Because of the position I now serve in, I have to walk a fine line with my constructive critcism. I am dependent on the commissions in order to earn a living. At the same time, I want to see the sport of MMA improve and grow. While not getting into specifics, I can honestly tell you that I’ve been around several commissions in which some of the inspectors, judges, and referees simply were not qualified to hold the position of power they held.

How do judges, inspectors, and referees get hired, you ask? Well, they are usually appointed by an executive director of a commission. However, applications are usually not neccessary, as a commissioner will often rely on a network of associates they have worked with in the past. Such a hiring practice can either be a blessing or a curse.

A commissioner has a high-pressure job. They are employees of the state that have been appointed by a publicly elected official. The revenue performance of their department is monitored by a government oversight committee. A sports athletic department has to earn its keep and must maintain a clean program. Any sins committed by a subordinate is a reflection of the executive director. And in high-pressure situations, there is a tendency to work with people you’ve dealt with on some level in the past so that you can eliminate as many uncertain variables as possible.

What you have in many situations when it comes to the hiring of referees, medical personnel, judges, and inspectors is the “old boys network.” Friends and acquaintences are being hired because they are familiar to the person who has the weight of the world in accountability on their shoulders. Sometimes this system works if the commissioner has qualified friends. Other times this method of hiring is a complete disaster if their friends aren’t qualified.

The reality is that I’ve been approached by several people in the past who had the desire to become judges and or referees. In some cases, I felt these people could be an asset to the sport. I’ve referred them to specific athletic commissions and have received followup communication from some of these people informing me that they can’t even get their calls returned.

In some cases, an unqualified judge or referee gets their job because of who they know and they keep that position because of a long-standing friendship with the person in charge of hiring and firing personnel. Until the hiring practices of many commissions around the U.S. becomes more open, you’re going to see a continuation of ineffective or unqualified personnel being hired to serve in crucial positions. To me, that’s not fair to a fighter. I have seen too many fights recently where the contest hasn’t been a case of one-on-one, but rather two-on-one when you factor in a bad official into the mix. Introduce a poor judging crew, and sometimes a fighter finds themselves in a situation where it is 5-on-1.

2) Reach out to former MMA fighters and encourage them to become referees, judges, and inspectors – When I first started writing, I ignorantly believed that most MMA judges were former boxing judges. That wasn’t entirely incorrect, as it was only half-true. The reality is that when I speak to many judges, more often than not I find that their backgrounds are in traditional martial arts — most specifically, Karate. Many judges and referees actually have their roots in point sparring. As someone who used to be a participant in point sparring tournaments, I can tell you that comparing point sparring to full-contact MMA is like comparing apples to oranges.

But you’ve got to start somewhere, right? I mean, you can’t just hire a random fan who sends in an application and then say, “Wow, you’ve watched every UFC since 1993 and you clearly know your MMA — here’s a striped shirt, we’ll see you in the cage next Friday.” As a commissioner, you want to hire people that have some sort of track record of officiating a combat sport of some kind. But the issue I have is that going from point sparring to MMA — or boxing for that matter — is too big of a leap. What we need in this sport are judges and referees that are true MMA people.

So how to you get more “true MMA people” involved in the sport? Simple, reach out to former fighters and encourage them to go to semifars and get certified by people such as John McCarthy and Doc Hamilton. Once they are certified, the states should bring them on as volunteer employees and reach out to local MMA gyms and allow them to referee and judge smokers. Have commission officials present and evaluate their performance. If someone makes the grade, allow them to start working all-amateur shows and if they continue to make the grade, promote them to pro shows.

How many times have we seen a referee fail to recognize a fighter had been choked unconscious? Who better to understand and recognize what truly is transpiring in an MMA fight than someone who has actually competed in an MMA fight?

3) Use a national MMA registry for certification – In speaking to some of the people I’ve referred to athletic commissions that have gotten a call back, they’ve told me that they were told to attend seminars for Karate officials and to get certified as a point sparring official and then begin to work point sparring tournaments and work their way up the ladder. Not to beat a dead horse, but point sparring credentials mean very little to me when you are talking about making the transition to MMA. My advice would be to render certifications in Karate, Kung Fu, and Tae Kwon Do officiating as irrelevant when seeking application to become an MMA official.

The only certification that should be recognized is that from a qualified MMA official. A national registry of qualified MMA officials whose certifications are recognized by major athletic bodies should be created. Furthermore, the standards of MMA certification should be written out and regulated by the ABC. In some cases, someone can be certified following a two-day seminar. It should take more hours than that to receive a formal certification.

Certification standards should be explored and a standard should be written and enforced. When I was a Real Estate agent, I had to go through a six week course to get licensed and pass a series of stringent testing in the state of Pennsylvania. In MMA, where people’s lives are at stake, such stringent certification standards should be adopted as well.

4) Have a national body grade and rate officials and judges – Those who ignore history are destined to repeat it. When it comes to some of the biggest travesties committed in the sport, it is the usual suspects making the same mistakes over and over. Even the best judge or referee can have an off night. But what about repeat offenders? Why are they not held accountable for a pattern of poor performance? It’s because there is no known formal system in place to evaluate the performance of judges and referees.

In the NFL and MLB, officials and umpires are graded on a game-by-game basis. Those who have the highest grades at the end of the season are chosen to preside over post-season play. Those that grade out the poorest are replaced at the end of the season by those who are rated at the top of the class in either the NBDL or Class AAA. Why can’t a similar system be put in place for MMA?

So there you have it folks, my four suggestions on how to possibly improve the current level of MMA officiating and judging in America. Are my ideas completely feasible and realistic? Hard to say for certain, but at least it’s a start. Pointing out the problem is no longer enough, we need to start coming up with sound solutions.

As an aside, I would also like to congratulate Dave Jansen on his victory last night against Richard Crunkilton. My consulting company, Combat Sports Media, has worked with M-1 in the past and I was able to work with Dave from a public relations perpsective. He is an outstanding talent who worked hard to get his shot at the WEC. As great of a fighter he is, he’s also just as great of a person. There’s nothing better than seeing a fighter who works their tail off receive an opportunity at the big-time and then see that fighter make the most of it. Congrats Dave!

Another fighter who worked hard to get his opportunity on the big show is Indiana native Shamar Bailey. Public reports surfaced yesterday that Shamar will be taking on TUF alum John Kolosci on the Nov. 7 undercard of the Fedor vs. Rogers event to be televised on CBS. In recent months, I have gotten a chance to know Shamar a little bit. At 11-1, this opportunity has been a long time coming for him. Remember the name Shamar Bailey because he’s going to be a force in the Strikeforce welterweight division for years to come. Shamar is managed by columnist Mike Camp of F1 Management. Mike is one of the true good guys in this sport so congratulations are in order for him as well.

  • Vogairian says:

    I agree that something needs to be done with the refs. I’d say the biggest problem isn’t the 10 point must, it’s the fact that we have judges judging things differently. Some judges see a takedown followed by little else and mentally give a point, some judges see that same takedown and do to the lack of action dismiss it. Honestly the best thing they can do is try to get a clearer idea of what winning the fight is and I’d say the best way to do it is the way you suggested, with a governing body of some sort over seeing the judges and refs.

  • BigDave says:

    First off the judges got it right benson won that fight no question. I agree with your article other then that though.let guys that have actually competed in mma judge and ref the sport.

  • metalmulisha says:

    BigDave: First off the judges got it right benson won that fight no question.


  • moosebaby02 says:

    great read and something that really does need to be addressed

  • Rich S. says:

    The biggest problem for me is their grasp on CONTROL. Take round 2 of last night’s main event.. That’s control. Although Don was throwing up subs, Ben was able to avoid them rather easily, maintain his position, and actually inflict damage..

    Now, look at Curran/Mizugaki.. I don’t quite remember if it was round 2 or 3.. Either way, Mizugaki was on top.. On top doesn’t always mean in control.. That just means you’re on top.. Not only was he not able to do damage, but it actually got to the point to where he COULDN’T punch because he was having to dodge Curran’s punches, FROM THE BOTTOM! That’s control..

    I don’t care how many takedowns you get, if you are getting punched more than you are punching, and if you are in constant danger of submission or sweeps, you are not in control, and there for should lose that round..

    It’s really a shame today’s judges have this problem.. Because it kind of nullifies the purpose of Jiu Jitsu.. I mean, I know it’s the fighters responsibility to not get taken down, and to not let the fight go to the judges.. But, quite frankly, some guys are at an advantageous position while on their backs.. And I’d say not being able to finish somebody with a sub from bottom is the same as a wrestler not being able to finish someone while on top.. They would still take the decision..

    What’s worse is, I don’t see this changing anytime soon..

    By the way, what was up with the ref in the Crunkilton/Jansen fight? Some of those stand-ups were in the middle of punches, and some were just after like 5-10 seconds..
    We want action, sure, but that was ludicrous.. Especially, seeing as how Crunkilton seemed to have the huge advantage on the feet..

  • Ronin says:

    I had Henderson winning, this was not a miscarriage of justice.

  • Ronin says:

    BTW Olympic Boxing is the worst judging on the planet!!, have you even watch Olympic Boxing?
    Says it was posted by Sam Caplan but he said he has separated himself from the website due his involvement with a new mma promotion. This must be Brady writing this.

  • neijia says:

    I’d like to see some combination of IKF San Shou rules and ADCC rules. What to do about strikes on the ground, though…

  • hindsightufuk says:

    Rich S.:
    By the way, what was up with the ref in the Crunkilton/Jansen fight? Some of those stand-ups were in the middle of punches, and some were just after like 5-10 seconds..
    We want action, sure, but that was ludicrous.. Especially, seeing as how Crunkilton seemed to have the huge advantage on the feet..

    yep, same as with one of the other fights, I think it was Page/Campuzano, Page got Wills back and the ref is saying improve your position. to what? other than mount or standing over your unconcious opponent, there is no equal. bollocks

  • fraz says:

    When Cerrone himself says that he lost , it can harldly be considered one of the “biggest” miscarrages of justice.
    There are plenty of examples where somebody decisively lost and yet was awarded a win by inept judges. This isn’t one of those cases.

    Enjoyed the article though. It is about time for the system to be revamped and these are some pro-active ways to get the ball rolling.

  • jj says:

    The 10 point must system in fundamentally flawed. Firstly there should be tie rounds allowed because just about every event the commentators talk about how even a round was and how it could go to either person. Also, If you have 2 stagnate rounds that a fighter wins by not doing a whole lot and then have a totally insane 3rd round with a bajillion damage points scored by the other fighter, why should the fighter who barely eked out the first 2 rounds win the fight regardless of all the damage being done in the later round.

    I like the Japanese scoring system that scores a fight across the whole bout. I think it’s a good idea that fighters are awarded points for how strongly they finish. Also I think we need to get rid of this stupid wrestling take down point fetish. If you take someone down and use it to only stagnate the fight then the take down should could against you. If you take someone down and do some serious damage, _then_ you should get the damage points. There are so many boring wrestlers in MMA that win fights by taking people down and smothering them for 15 minutes ala Clay Guida. Clay is talented but he needs to do more to earn his victories than merely put people on their back and stick his dirty mop in their face. This is a FIGHT not a wrestling match and it should be scored as such.

    In Saturdays main event Ben was getting real sloppy at the end and Cerrone was finding his rhythm and starting to dominate. I don’t think there’s any question who finished the fight stronger, and in reality you shouldn’t be winning fights because of what you did in the first opening minutes, but rather what you achieved in the last few minutes and this fight was a great example of that.

  • TerribleT says:

    I know Cerrone says he lost but he doesn’t want to sound like a whiner because he knows deep down that he won and that the majority of all who watched agree he won anyway.If somebody agrees that Henderson won then they would have to have given him round 5 which would be absolutely ridiculous!

  • Saying the decision is a “miscarriage of justice” is insulting to Henderson and Cerrone, for that matter.

    With a fight this close, where solid arguments could be made for each fighter, the result just can’t be ridiculous seeing as how it could have gone either way.

  • edub says:

    Im gonna be in the minority here but I dont think just because they used to compete that ex fighters would qualify for judging or officiating. Im not saying they would do this neccesarily, but some fighters tend to favor of other fighters that they either have a relationship with or train with.
    Like Im not sure if Id want say Frank Mir to be judging a fight with Miguel Torres in it. It just seems he would favor the things Torres does more than the person who he is fighting who he is unfamiliar with.

    However I still think ex fighters should be given the most oppurtunities to get the jobs. I just think they should be put through training and watch a certain # of hours of fight footage before they’re “given” the jobs.

  • chickenheart says:

    I am a novice, but a big fan of MMA, I started watching it about 2 years ago. I think I might be able to add something to this discussion simply because I am a novice.

    I read an article that talked about the judging of the Cerrone/Henderson fight and the article showed me that it made sense that Henderson won, because of the wording of the criteria the judges use to score the fight.

    However before reading that article, I asked myself were the judges even watching the same fight I did?

    After thinking about it, I realized that as a novice, I generally thought “if this fight went another 2 rounds, who would probably have won?” and all the times I can think of, the winner of the fight was the person who I would have picked. BUT not in this fight. I cannot see how Henderson could have continued to get hyper extended and choked for another 2 rounds and hope to survive. I watched Cerrone vs Varner and in that one Cerrone got hit so much more, and so much harder, and kept coming, in fact he went faster and harder in the last 3 minutes than the rest of the fight IMHO. I could definately see Cerrone surviving another 2 rounds, no question, because he just didn’t look hurt.

    But Henderson won.

    I also thought maybe the viewing audience could send in their opinions via the internet on the winner, just to see how close the judging was to popular opinion by the masses including novices like me.

    One last naive idea: wouldn’t it be cool if the judges scored the round after it ended, and their scores were displayed on the TV as captions, and on a teletype machine at ringside so the crowd and even the fighters could see the standings. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see how the fighters responded if they knew how the fight was going points-wise before the next round began.

    Just sharing thoughts on a great sport that I feel sometimes frustrated with. I fear that fighters are eventually going to figure out what judges are looking for and do that, not try to win a fight against an opponent, but try to earn points by doing what they think is worth the most. That is not what the sport is about–my 2 cents.

  • metalmulisha says:

    Right on about Shamar Bailey. I just wish that Strikeforce would start putting their prelim fights on YouTube like Bellator put fights on there to get some guys a little exposure, because the guy is extremely talented.
    Which obviously nobody knows because I was home over the weekend and I checked out a lot of different MMA sites I usually never have the time to do and most of the comments I read from the posters on these sites seemed to think that Strikeforce was trying to build up TUF reject Kolosci by scheduling this fight. lol.

  • metalmulisha says:

    metalmulisha: Right on about Shamar Bailey. I just wish that Strikeforce would start putting their prelim fights on YouTube like Bellator put fights on there to get some guys a little exposure, because the guy is extremely talented.
    Which obviously nobody knows because I was home over the weekend and I checked out a lot of different MMA sites I usually never have the time to do and most of the comments I read from the posters on these sites seemed to think that Strikeforce was trying to build up TUF reject Kolosci by scheduling this fight. lol.

    lol a thumbs down vote for this post. Apparently there’s already a Shamar Bailey hater out there.

  • edub says:

    Whos Shamar Bailey Mulisha?

  • edub says:

    Damn work network security. Gotta wait til i get home. Thx Metal.


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