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Judgment Day for Judges: Phan vs. Garcia

Another event, another controversial decision. One of our newest team-members, Nick Halili, takes a look at judging in the wake of the unfortunate scoring debacle marring the Ultimate Fighter 12 Finale‘s opening bout…


“Never leave it in the hands of the judges.”

Fans of the Ultimate Fighter reality show have seen this motto posted over the dressing room doors in the UFC’s Las Vegas training facilities. It serves as a warning to fighters against complacency and coasting to decision victories. But it also serves as a reminder from the organization itself that the judges may not make the correct decision and they may award the victory to the wrong fighter. In reality, fighters cannot simply finish all their opponents to avoid bad judging any more than NFL teams can simply blow out all opposing teams to avoid bad officiating. When a fight must go to a decision, fans and fighters should have the belief that the judges assigned to do the job are qualified enough to do it right. Unfortunately, for MMA fighters and fans that is often not the case. A clear example of this was featherweight Nam Phan’s puzzling decision loss to Leonard Garcia at the Ultimate Fighter 12 Finale, a fight that most fans and pundits perceived as a clear-cut victory for Phan.

Human error and the subjective nature of judging in not just MMA but in all sports ensure that there will always be controversial decisions and calls made. Although these mistakes will never be completely eliminated, the best effort should be made by the organizations that run these sports to minimize them to help preserve their sport’s integrity. From instant replay to stricter evaluation of officials, major organizations such as the NFL have sought to do just that. But MMA is different. Just like the often problematic 10-point must scoring system (Settle the Scoring), the procedures for selecting judges in MMA as well as many of the judges themselves are derived from boxing. Each state has its own athletic commission that chooses both who gets credentialed to judge MMA fights and what events they are assigned to. This does make it more difficult to regulate than if choosing officials was done by a single entity as it is in many major sports like the NFL or major league baseball. However, not all athletic commissions are created equal. When it comes to MMA, most states look to the Nevada State Athletic Commission (NSAC) for leadership because Nevada is both the home of the UFC and the location where some of the biggest UFC events throughout the year take place. Underscoring the relationship between the UFC and the NSAC is the fact that Marc Ratner, former NSAC commissioner is a now a high-ranking UFC official.

The UFC and NSAC should work together to take the lead in this issue by instituting an evaluation/rating system for both judges and referees that resembles what the NFL does with its own officials. For every NFL game, each official is graded on a hundred-point scale by the commissioner’s office. Both missed calls and incorrectly called penalties are cause for deducting points from their grade. Officials are given a weekly printout of their grade and can discuss it with the league office to see where they made their mistakes. At the end of the season, only the officiating teams with the highest grades are allowed to work during the playoffs. Officials with the lowest grades are subject to possibly being dismissed. The NSAC could institute something similar to this, only allowing judges and referees with higher scores to officiate in UFC events (as opposed to smaller MMA events) and the highest rated officials assigned to championship fights. The UFC can play their part by encouraging state athletic commissions to use Fightmetric stats (the UFC’s official fight statistics provider) as a tool in this evaluation system to get a clearer picture of how accurate these judges’ decisions are.

There was a time in the sport’s formative years that there simply weren’t enough knowledgeable people to serve as quality judges for MMA events. Athletic commissions were satisfied with the placement of judges in major events and championship fights based solely on their experience in judging boxing matches. That time has passed. MMA is at a crossroads. It is currently dealing with similar accusations that plague pro boxing: accusations of corruption and of “an old boys network” that allows judges and referees to keep their position based not on their performance, but on who they know. Having a clear evaluation and ratings systems for these officials who are entrusted with making important decisions during fights can go a long way help combat these accusations and to ensure that the correct decisions are made. In the end, it is not really the responsibility of the fighters to keep their fights out of the judges’ hands. It is the responsibility of the people who run this sport to “never leave it in the hands of (incompetent) judges.”


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