Nick Lembo listens to questions regarding fighter safety and testing at a medical conference, with Dr. Michael Kelly on the right. Photo by Ben Thapa.
In the fight business, there are three kinds of people - fight people, business people and government people. Each crowd has its own specific interests at heart and works in concert with or even at loggerheads with the other groups to get things done in the fight business. Somehow, all this mostly works out in the long run and we have the fight business we see today.
The government people - better known as commission members, judges, inspectors and so on - are charged with regulating the fight business in the interests of fighter safety and endeavor to keep the sport within the bounds of legality and athletic fair play. Most times, the only headlines they make is when a decision goes awry, a fight is derailed or when one of the fight people crosses those legal bounds and the kabuki drama of suspensions, hearings, appeals and statements begins.
While at the Combative Sports Symposium on April 6, 2012 in Morristown, New Jersey, Commissioner Aaron Davis of the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board and Deputy Attorney General Nick Lembo graciously shared their time with me to answer a few questions. Commissioner Davis primarily works with the boxing side of the fight business, while D.A.G. Lembo runs the MMA and Muay Thai side of things.
Below is a selection of questions and answers from both interviews:
Ben Thapa: In your opening remarks to the crowd, you mentioned that you were a commission member in Kansas as well before the move to New Jersey. Why the strong interest in being a commission member and enforcing these rules and regulations?
Aaron Davis: I was the boxing commissioner in Kansas and when the opportunity here opened up, I thought it was a great decision to move to New Jersey, where I'm from. As for what really spurs me on is what we see in the fight world at times. You see boxers and fighters get taken advantage of. You see people taking fights before they are ready to and those things hurt them and the sport. As a commissioner, I can do something about that. I can hopefully work to keep combat sports healthy and strong.
BT: Has this attention to rules and regulations hurt New Jersey in terms of events being held here?
AD: No, I do not think so. Right now, we are covering more boxing and MMA events than in years before. We had over 100 events in 2011 and things look good for this year as well. I feel that promotions, trainers and fighters know that the standards are in place with fighter safety in mind and that this is a good place to fight, where the officials are knowledgeable and things go as they should. We have fighters from all over the country and the world coming in here and things go well for them.
AD: New Jersey has not given out a conditional license like that. We would not let the fight go on as it did there, we would not do that type of license. We would work with the fighters and the promotion to go through our regular licensing procedure for the fight to happen.
BT: In regards to the drug testing regimen, does NJSACB have the funds and the legal authority to test all the athletes it wants to and when it wants to?
AD: We do test constantly and we do have those funds and authority. We let the fighters know what tests they have to do and we get those done.
BT: How random are the tests and how long do fighters have to comply with the requests?
AD: It depends. It depends on the fighter, it depends on what they are taking, it depends on when the proposed fight is and quite a few other things too. It varies in each situation. There are many variables here involved in our testing programs.
BT: Several times, the commission members and doctors present have emphasized a shadowing program for commission officials. Why is this particularly important to the NJSACB?
AD: There is a certain expertise required of doctors that are ringside. I do not think it is fair to ask a doctor untrained or unprepared to step in as the primary physician at ringside. These are difficult decisions that these physicians are making and based on familiarity and knowledge. We would rather have an introduction for these newer medical professionals to follow someone who already knows these places, how fights go and how to handle these decisions. I think it is important for them to not only see the medical side, but to see the demeanor and performance of these professional athletes.
BT: Do you [the commission] track the performance of these ringside physicians?
AD: We have probably some of the best ringside physicians anywhere. Here in New Jersey, the doctors and commission members generally all know each other, as it's a relatively small community. When you narrow it down to doctors who do sports medicine, that community gets even smaller. We have managed to cultivate a strong group of sports medicine doctors here in New Jersey. We generally do not use new doctors and they have to have some kind of record of interactions with us. They can say that they've been the doctor here or there, but what we look for is whether they have worked with us before in the past and go from there. We do not track this doctor or that doctor, as that wouldn't be fair to them or to us.
BT: So how do you evaluate the in-ring performance of these doctors?
AD: No, no, no. We don't really evaluate the doctors we have now in terms of in-ring performance. Wow [in a thoughtful tone of voice]. We don't do that right now.
BT: Ok, so does the commission evaluate referees or judges in terms of in-fight performances? Does the commission speak to the judges about what to look for, scoring guidelines and so on? There was a recent controversy with the most recent Pacquiao fight and judges there. Do you think he won that fight?
AD: Well, as a Commissioner, I am not going to say "win" or "loss". However, those judges may have to go back and re-evaluate their views of scoring guidelines and act accordingly in the future. We have seminars - one in November, actually, for boxing judges - where we talk about issues and criteria. We try to separate the boxing things from the mixed martial arts things in terms of judges because some of the issues in boxing are very different from those in MMA and vice versa. We go over with these officials all of the basic things and we get a lot of feedback from the boxing guys on what are things to look for, fouls, interpretations and so on.
BT: Is there a sort of commission wish-list that you have in mind for the long-term future?
AD: I would very much like to see all the commissions in all combat sports, New Jersey, Nevada, Florida, Texas and so on, be working on the same processes and our officials are beyond reproach. What I mean by that is that I want us to get a place where we can educate all our officials to the same high standard and whether you fight in this place or that place, everything is the same process - medicals, licensing and so on. When you have an NBA game, where Chicago plays Miami, everything is the same. The court is the court, the hoop is ten feet tall and the officials have generally the same standards. When combat sports is like that, with everything the same and everything is transparent, that is what I'd like to see all states doing.
BT: How big of a legislative or political priority is combat sports in New Jersey?
AD: I would say very low.
BT: Are you sort of the forgotten people right now?
AD: I would say so. I'm saying that because there are so many other issues that require attention - education, financial situations and so on - so when you look at combat sports, it's not really that important. The only attention we get is when a big event comes and something goes wrong. We do our jobs well, so very little goes wrong and since we're in our lanes, doing what we do well, we get left alone. I'm glad that people have the confidence in our commission and officials that nothing will go wrong and we work to maintain that. However, that doesn't translate well to this big priority list because there are so many other issues to take care of.
BT: Well, I am kind of fresh out of questions here, so I have one last one: where are the good eats around here?
AD: I'm actually not from around here [Morristown], I'm from South Jersey.
BT: Ok, South Jersey then.
AD: Gaetano's. There is two of them and they have the best cheesesteaks. Gaetano's.
Nick Lembo stayed with me for a few minutes after the Symposium was over to answer a few brief questions about MMA in New Jersey specifically.
BT: In terms of the pool for officials, referees and judges, how do you feel New Jersey stands?
Nick Lembo: We work with a terrific group of officials, referees and judges. [Nick mentioned many well-known judges seen on UFC events, emphasizing the recent addition of Ricardo Almeida and going into quite some detail into the martial arts backgrounds of the judges, doctors and officials. He also spoke of how the certification process for inspectors, referees and judges work in New Jersey and of how confident he feels in their ability to handle the MMA events in the state.]
BT: So right now, you do not feel that you want more judges who are better educated or informed?
NL: No, our judges know what they are doing and of 63 rounds that were scored in a New Jersey UFC event, 61 were scored the same way and two of those rounds had a 10-10 score while the other two judges gave a 10-9. The system works and is working here.
BT: You mentioned that 10-10 score. Where do you and by extension the NJSACB, stand on 10-10s, 10-9s and so on. Does one fighter have to win each round?
NL: Well, I think a 10-10 is rare, but it makes sense. So we can see 10-10s, 10-9s, 10-8s and rarely 10-7s. Unless I see five 10-10s in one night and go "Hm, that's kind of weird," I'm not going to think much of it. It's a part of the sport. I leave it up to the discretion of the judges to score the round as they see fit.
BT: What happens if a fighter who does not currently have a license tests positive for a banned substance? What is the process that getting a New Jersey license would involve? The Alistair Overeem controversy seems to have some ongoing issues with that.
NL: I believe the licensing process is the same in Nevada as it is for New Jersey for a fighter who does not currently have a license. If the fighter does have a license, they can be suspended or have their license revoked. This is sort of semantical at some level, but the fighter would have to appear before the commission for the licensing process and that test would be discussed.
BT: In another controversy, we saw Joe Warren get battered by Pat Curran at a Bellator event. My co-worker, Brian Hemminger, was present at the event and heard word that Warren was throwing up backstage after the fight. Would that fight ending affect a theoretical license in New Jersey?
NL: Well, I would hope that the ringside physician was with him post-fight and noted exactly what he needs to have in order to train again and what he needs to fight again and we would go by that.
BT: On a commission wishlist, so to speak, what's your number one item for the future of NJSACB?
NL: Better pay for our officials. It's a thankless job and a great amount of responsibilities along with controversies.
BT: In regards to medical testing, TUEs, banned drugs and so on, where do you feel the NJSACB is in terms of the eternal cat-and-mouse game?
NL: I feel that the NJSACB, in large part to the dedication, expertise and involvement of Dr. Sherry Wulkan, is constantly improving and adapting in the fields of medical clearances and drug screening.
It is worth noting that at all times, both Commissioner Davis and D.A.G. Lembo were very aware of their words in regards to talking about the actions of other commissions. They continually chose to emphasize the strengths of the New Jersey policies and regulations than to speak specifically to the shortcomings of other commissions and states. Lembo in particular was protective of the confidentiality of fighter medical records and supporting the MMA judges New Jersey works with, carefully navigating the divide between cheerleader for positive change, the responsibilities of an elected official and being a combat sports enthusiast in his own right. Commissioner Davis displayed a similar