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5 Oz. Exclusive: NJACB legal counsel Nick Lembo explains stoppages on Saturday Night Fights

Nick Lembo is the legal counsel for the New Jersey Athletic Control Board and was the commission’s highest-ranking official in attendance of Saturday’s debut of EliteXC on CBS in Newark, N.J. at the Prudential Center.

Lembo granted an interview earlier this evening in which he openly explained the commission’s position on the decision to stop several fights before they had reached a conclusion. His comments were illuminating and could cause people to view the stoppages in a different light.

Below is the transcript of the interview.

Sam Caplan: There’s been a lot of criticism from the hardcore MMA fanbase in regards to Saturday’s show. A lot of people aren’t happy with some how some of the fights turned out. I wanted to talk about some of the stoppages and hear the position of the commission as to whether the stoppages were early. I wanted to start out with the Gina Carano vs. Kaitlin Young stoppage. Can you tell us why that fight was stopped?

Nick Lembo: The referee called over the doctor, I believe at the end of the second round, and Dr. Wulkan — Dr. Sherry Wulkan — who is a long-time MMA and kickboxing doctor, who trains herself, she felt there was a possibility of an orbital fracture. Of course, that could not be determined on the spot; there was no machine that could be used to examine the injury at that point. However, she was concerned about the laceration and the hematoma that was forming under Kaitlin’s eye, and she was concerned that it would affect her ability to see and the ability to protect herself and see punches coming from that side. I asked her if Kaitlin was medically able to continue and she said no.

Sam Caplan: Did Dr. Wulkan speak with Kaitlin Young?

Nick Lembo: Dr. Wulkan asked Kaitlin where she was three times. The first time, Kaitlin did not respond. During the second and third attempts, the doctor indicated that Kaitlin’s response was garbled.

Sam Caplan: I wanted to talk about the stoppage behind the Robbie Lawler vs. Scott Smith fight and why Smith wasn’t given five minutes to recuperate after the foul.

Nick Lembo: There was necessary stoppage from a finger in the eye. The referee, Dan Miragliotta, went up to Scott and said he got poked in the eye and called an accidental foul, put the fighters in their neutral corners, and went over to Scott and said “Are you okay? You have up to five minutes.” At that point, Scott said “I can’t see out of my eye.” Then at that point Dan said to him “I’m going to call in the doctor to look at you. I’m telling you that if you tell the doctors that you can’t see, they are going to stop the fight.” Dr. Angela Gagliardi went in there first to examine Scott and she said that “He said he could not see.” And then she came back and told me that and I said, “Of course he can’t see, he just got poked in the eye.”

At that point, I called for Dr. Sherry Wulkan, who again, is a top MMA doctor for us and was working as the nearby cage entrance. And I called her in to say “Hey, this is a championship fight, I want you specifically to look at Scott because nobody wants a fighter that can’t continue medically to continue but you have the most experience with MMA.” She goes up to Scott and asks, “How’s your vision?” He goes, “I can’t see at all.” And she said to him “What do you mean you can’t see?” And he responded “I mean I can’t see.” Next, she said to him, “What does that mean? Is it blurry? Is it fuzzy?” And he goes, “I told you, I can’t see at all. I could get knocked out.” At that point in time she asked “Is your vision improving? After a poke in the eye, your vision should be improving by now.” And Scott said his vision wasn’t improving at all and said “I can’t see.”

With those statements combined with the fact that it was pretty apparent that he had a broken foot from throwing a kick, I turned to Dr. Wulkan and asked what her medical opinion was and she said “He should not continue because he stated his vision was not improving and by now, from a poke in his vision should be improving and I’ve given him every opportunity for him to tell me something other than I can’t see at all. And he has a broken foot and should not continue.” And the decision was made.

As far as having five minutes, it’s not guaranteed to you to have five minutes. It’s at the discretion of the chief ring official, who was the referee at the time, and then once he calls in the doctor, it’s the doctor’s discretion. That being said, I don’t know of any ringside physician that I’ve spoken to in this jurisdiction or commissioners in other jurisdictions, that have had fighters repeatedly say “I can’t see” — there is no way any commission is going to allow that fighter to continue. If Scott had said differently what he said, “My vision is improving” or “It’s just a little weird” or “Can you give me some time? It will clear up” or “It’s getting better,” then he would have been granted the time. But combined with the fact that he had a broken foot and he was repeatedly stating that he can’t see at all, there was no reason to allow that fight to continue.

I just wanted to add that it was a great fight. It was a fantastic fight and nobody wanted to see the fight end that way. I’m sure Scott didn’t want it to end that way (and) I’m sure Robbie didn’t want it to end that way. The fans didn’t want to see it end that way. But at that point, based on the conversations and the broken foot, our hands were tied.

Sam Caplan: I wanted to move on and discuss the questions some fans have about the Kimbo Slice vs. James Thomspon fight.

Nick Lembo: The questions, being what?

Sam Caplan: The first question being that we quoted someone earlier today as counting 22 unanswered elbows delivered by Thompson when he had Kimbo’s arm trapped in a crucifix position.

Nick Lembo: I think you mean that a fan in the crowd stated that? I can only say that it was exactly right in front of me from my seat at the cage and Dan (Miragliotta) was right over the action and there was no damage from those strikes whatsoever. Those blows were very, very gentle. They were taps, they weren’t doing any damage and there was no reason to stop the fight at that point.

Sam Caplan: The other question pertaining to that fight was the stoppage itself. The feeling by some people, and I guess it’s my feeling too, was that James Thompson could have possibly continued.

Nick Lembo: Well, I say it’s kind of funny because you’re damned if you do; damned if you don’t. Before the fight I received calls from the press and gave interviews to publications like Full Contact Fighter, where I am on record being criticised for allowing the fight to happen because people were telling me that James Thompson had no business being in the cage with Kimbo. And now it’s being criticised that the fight was stopped prematurely because it was such a competitive fight. At the end of the second round, Dan came up to me and said “Both fighters are completely exhausted.” And he didn’t think they were going to complete the next round and basically he stood them up because, again, there was no damage and he thought whoever connected with some decent punches standing that the fight was going to end. At that point, I immediately went into see him and asked him why did you stop the fight? And he said “Thompson’s eyes looked odd. His head went back and he dropped his hands.” And then we he swatted at Dan, I asked him “Do you want me to recommend a suspension for James?” And he said, “Nick, I don’t even think he knew who I was at that point.” And once he regrouped, he immediately apologized.

That being said, both fighters were exhausted. Kimbo was helped to the dressing room and was tended to by a doctor in his dressing room. He was completely exhausted and Thompson was taken from the press conference by the paramedics and our ringside physician to the local hospital for observation based on their examination of him. So both fighters were completely exhausted and at that point it could have went the other way.

And I’ve read some columns that have said, “Oh, it was an obvious fix” and to that, I just say that’s pretty incredulous to me because James could have won that fight at any second and to let Kimbo be on the close edge of losing that fight, that’s a heck of a way to fix a fight. The outcome in my mind and most people’s minds, Thompson was definitely winning the fight on the scorecards and anyone could have been knocked out at any second.

Sam Caplan: You just mentioned that some critics have introduced the baseless accusation that a fix was involved and you also have a lot of people new to the sport who seem to think that the referees are employed by EliteXC. Can you take us through the process about how referees are assigned to fights and who employs them?

Nick Lembo: Anybody that has followed New Jersey mixed martial arts from the beginning, going back to the old BAMMA Fight Nights in South Plainfield, back around 2000, know that Dan and Kevin (Mulhall) have been a staple as referees in New Jersey. Our third referee is Yves Lavinge; we’ve also used Jeff Blatnick once; and we’ve also used Kimberly Winslow a couple of times. But if we need two referees, the first choice is Dan Miragliotta and the second choice is Kevin Mulhall. They’ve worked every show that has come to New Jersey; from the small shows to the big shows. Kevin and Dan have even worked other shows in other jurisdictions, most recently the IFL at the Mohegan; Dan has worked several UFCs and he’s on his way in the next 48 hours to London to work the next UFC.

In my mind, Dan Miragliotta is the best referee in the world and when the next big show comes to New Jersey, I have no problems giving Dan the biggest match on that card too. And I would ask that people look at his whole body of work. If you think it was a quick stoppage or a premature stoppage, I’m not going to argue that; you’re entitled to your opinion. But to say that there is anything more than that is patently false. CBS and EliteXC had actually suggested other referees for that particular bout and they were denied and they did not even know who Dan Miragliotta was. I picked Dan Miragliotta and had no pressure from CBS or EliteXC; like I said, that’s not even who they had officially suggested (editor’s note: learned from a source unrelated to the NJACB over the weekend that EliteXC and CBS officials had tried to secure John McCarthy as an official for the fight) and they weren’t familiar with him.

The referees are assigned by the Athletic Control Board in New Jersey. They are not assigned by the promoter. They have no interest or relationship with the promoter. Like I said, these two guys that worked that show have been around the block and they’ve worked every show to come to New Jersey from UFCs, the IFLs, to Bodogs, to MFCs, Ring of Combats, you name it and they’ll continue to work. There was nothing different; the unified rules were applied and they called the fights how they saw it. There was no pressure or influence from any outside source.

Sam Caplan: I quoted an article on 5 Oz. earlier today from Bernard Fernandez of the Philadelphia Daily News. Fernandez basically asserted that there was a different level of caution applied to stopping the fights in comparison to fights not televised on national television.

Nick Lembo: Well, I believe he used the word “apparently” when he said that. So that was just his opinion, which again he’s entitled to. And no disrespect to Bernard, he’s an award-winning caliber and long-time veteran boxing writer, but he’s very new to the sport of mixed martial arts and I just don’t think he’s as educated about the sport as some of the other writers. The referees did not receive any instructions to be extra cautious. Dan stopped the fight because he thought that Thompson was exhausted, had taken two good shots, and he didn’t like the way he reacted to them and that it was over. And the stoppage had nothing to do with the ear; that had no role in the decision to stop the fight.

I also just wanted to add that it is my preference to always talk about a fight that was stopped too early as opposed to a fight that was stopped too late

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