New Jersey's Gasper Oliver, a rising star in the referee ranks
Last night I was on Press Row with Jordan Breen on Sherdog.com to discuss problems with officiating and judging in MMA. It's an oft-discussed topic, but honestly, one I haven't written much about. Like most people, I've wailed and complained with each and every horribly rendered decision, late stoppage, or clear conflict of interest. But with Breen guiding the conversation, I've been able to piece together some thoughts about the problem, its history, and how we might fix it. Ten thoughts:
I. Officiating in the UFC has been a mess from the beginning. Who can forget the very first UFC with Joa Alberto Berreto not stopping the Royce Gracie- Ken Shamrock match despite Ken tapping the mat several times. And Barreto was a Helio Gracie blackbelt, a man who had been an instructor at the Gracie Academy with Carlos Gracie himself, a man who had been a Vale Tudo fighter, who had been an official before - it's not just ignorance or bad training. Sometimes people just freeze. And sometimes they are bad at their jobs.
II. In some ways it's a great thing for a small commission to bring in John McCarthy or Herb Dean. They have a ton of knowledge to share and it's one area a smaller commission, which is going to be overwhelmed, understaffed, and ill prepared, doesn't have to worry about. On the night of the fight, "Big John" can simply say 'Guys, I've got this.' And the commission can move on to other business. But I maintain, in the face of Breen's pragmatic reasoning, that there is too much potential for fraud if officials are counting on promoters to earn a paycheck. New Jersey told me their rule is simple. If you request an official it is guaranteed that official won't be assigned, because the prospects of collusion and impropriety are so strong. Not to question integrity - but it's inherently suspicious.
III. Keep in mind I'm not saying John McCarthy doesn't have the fighter's safety in mind. He, by all accounts, is a very good referee. But John McCarthy isn't an impartial person and John McCarthy doesn't always untangle the webs that cocoon him. And he hasn't always been clear about his preexisting biases and relationships.
Look, it was ludicrous for John McCarthy, starting at UFC 2, to officiate Royce Gracie matches. He was a Gracie student and was involved in their business, to my understanding, as an instructor. He also helped secure teaching gigs with the police department - I mean, when Gracie fought Keith Hackney or Kimo, or whoever, "Big John" clearly wasn't impartial. So he kind of started on the wrong foot for me, ethically.
IV. Here's another example of a time McCarthy might have been more proactive in removing himself from a potential conflict of interest - at UFC 8 in Puerto Rico, Tank Abbott got into a situation with Alan Goes in the crowd. John's wife Elaine said something to Tank's girlfriend and Tank ended up threatening her. Multiple sources told me John wanted to fight Tank Abbott that night. And they succeeded in getting him suspended for several shows. Yet when Tank returned, there was Big John....reffing seven more of Abbott's fights. The thought of recusing himself never crossed his mind. To me that's not a well defined sense of what is an isn't appropriate.
V. While I agree judging is a very important issue, I think officiating is even more important because of the safety issues. When a judge makes a bad decision, feelings are going to be hurt. When an official makes a mistake, bodies are going to be hurt. To me, that's a much more serious consequence, but generally refereeing in MMA seems to be well in hand. There are two officials, Dan Mirgliata and Steve Mazzagatti who are pretty conservative when it comes to stopping fights. In fights like Frank Mir-Shane Carwin or Jay Hieron-Georges St. Pierre, the ref can actively endanger fighters. And it's problematic to me that our two biggest celebrity refs, John McCarthy and Herb Dean, can't even agree on what the back of the head is. But for the most part, fighters are well taken care of inside the cage. That's my primary officiating concern and mixed martial arts is at a place where fighters can breathe easy, knowing that in the major leagues at least, they are in good hands.
Five more thoughts after the break
VI. We have the Unified Rules but they aren't enforced uniformly. And we don't have uniform training. What I'd like to see is a national program to teach judges and referees their trade. I don't mean one of these commercial products sold by a celebrity official - I'm talking about a real program designed by the Association of Boxing Commissions and mandatory before anyone ever sits cageside or gets inside the Octagon. Officials and judges should learn the sport from the same curriculum and to a national standard. Right now the ABC strongly suggests officials come to a seminar -but can't mandate it. And frankly that's not enough.
VII. I called Nick Lembo's office in New Jersey because they have what is in my opinion the best athletic commission in the country. And they are getting MMA right - 61 of 63 scorecards at UFC 128 were on point...so they are doing something right as far as looking at the same criteria and making the right calls. While identical scorecards doesn't mean the right decision is being made, it does point to judges understanding the criteria and analyzing the visual data the same way. That's a good start.
VIII. Some keys to New Jersey's success:
A. Separate the boxing and MMA operations.It seems obvious, but most people making important decisions on MMA cards are boxing refugees. That has to change.
B. Hire mixed martial artists. They have Ricardo Almeida joining them as a judge and Gasper Oliver is an up and coming ref who had amateur MMA experience and was a high school wrestler.
C. Walk before you run policy: start with a seminar, spend several shows as an assistant inspector, shadow amateur judges, judge amateur cards, shadow pro judges, judge lower level pro cards. By the time someone like Oliver is ready for a major card, he's been tested hundreds of times.
D. Courses are not enough. Thinking you know the sport - not enough. You have to prove it under fire. New Jersey requires it and it's important other states do the best they can to get officials substantive experience before they are assigned a meaningful bout.
IX: There are two wildy divergent positions about the state of MMA officiating and judging. I talked with Marc Ratner once after Machida-Rua I in Los Angeles and even in the face of that travesty, he was clear that there is no MMA judging crisis. Any system, any sport, under any rules, when something is close - there will be disagreement. That's almost a mantra for Ratner and his protege Keith Kizer in Nevada. Nick Lembo from New Jersey had the opposite view point. He doesn't believe MMA officiating is where it can or needs to be. Very different positions from the sport's two most respected regulators.
X. There are four systems that make sense when you start thinking about judging fights and declaring a winner:.
1. Fight to a finish (i.e. old UFC rules)
2. 10-9 Must System (i.e. boxing and unified rules)
3. Totality of the fight (i.e. Pride)
I prefer the 10-9 must system, understanding that the modern sport doesn't allow a fight to the finish. The problem with 10-9 must is definitional. What is a 10-8 round? What is a 10-9 round? In Kalib Starnes vs. Nate Quarry, Starnes literally ran for much of three rounds. One judge scored 30-27 Nate and one scored it 30-24 Nate. There seems to be no consensus about what defines a 10-8 round. In boxing it is simple - a knockdown.With MMA everything is more complicated. Dominance and damage seem to be the main criteria. But what does that mean?
And that brings us back to training. A national standard, one that ensures every judge and official are on the same page when it matters most, is an important first step in getting things right.