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Learning from the master, part 2: MMA judge certification with Big John McCarthy

In the last of a two-part series, Paul Gift details his experience getting trained by the master, Big John McCarthy, in all its glory and embarrassments.

It’s Sunday morning at the 2016 ABC conference, time to learn how to properly score the efforts of the men and women who walk into a cage to judo kick their opponent’s head into submission.

I’d previously been involved with two California State Athletic Commission (CSAC) Media Days shadow judging at Bellator events, but nothing beats full-fledged judge training from MMA legend “Big” John McCarthy.

I entered the same room as yesterday, now packed with what seemed to be 100 or more people. Some were already standing in the back. Worried there wouldn’t even be a seat, I scanned the front rows I wanted to sit in anyway – it helps to have a good view of the screen on judging day. Thankfully there was an empty spot in the second row so I pulled up a seat next to my buddies for the day, “Jiu-Jitsu” John Richmond, a long, lanky, lifetime MMA fan wanting to officiate in Colorado, and Hadi Moh’d Ali, one of our farthest travelers looking to use his training in Bahrain and other parts of the Middle East.

“There’s not one 10/10 fighter I’ve ever met who says, ‘I'm making $10,000,’ McCarthy said to start the day. “They're all making $20,000 and they've already mentally spent that money.”

It’s a sad but true moment straight from the jump and all I could think of was putting on a Suze Orman-style financial management seminar for the 10/10 = 20 fighters who need a dose of “Denied girlfriend!”

But McCarthy’s point is well taken. All fighters walk in expecting to win, believing they’re going to win. They put blood, sweat, and tears into their craft and the job of judges at its most basic level is to not screw it up. Score each round for whoever deserves to win according to the judging criteria, end of story.

A judge is to be impartial, unbiased, unprejudiced, and nonpartisan, to judge on the facts of a round. When the inevitable errors are made, the media and fight fans might blow up at them but they need to break down why they got it wrong, talk with peers, have discussions, and get better.

The sport is evolving and judges have to keep up with it and grow their knowledge base. That’s why days like these are so very important, and their lessons need to filter through to all of a commission’s officials.

Training participants were sent to different sides of the room based on their scores. Sometimes scores were lopsided (as pictured), other times evenly split.

10-8 Isn’t Murder

The first fight of the day was Dennis Bermudez vs. Matt Grice from UFC 157. Little scorecards were passed out just as if we were actual judges. Lesson one: Fill it out correctly. Lesson two: Always sign your scorecard.

Judging was easy… so far.

Round 2 was pretty close. There was a debate in the room as to whether Grice knocked Bermudez down, which I didn’t see at the time nor upon re-watching. I went with Grice but the tone and tenor after seemed to be leaning Bermudez. “His leg strikes were doing damage,” “there was a cut,” “Bermudez had the guillotine tight,” were all heard in the follow-up discussion.

Dennis Bermudez Esther Lin

McCarthy agreed that the guillotine was tight and Grice’s flip and give-up of position was the reveal, leading Valel to drop one of the key elements of judging: While we can't see inside a fighter's brain to know the effect of strikes or submission attempts, we get information on the effect by how fighters react.

I’d later revisit this round and ask about a problem I sometimes have while judging. We're taught to have a running score in our head so that at any moment, if a round stops we can immediately assign a score to it. In rounds like Bermudez-Grice round 2 when Grice is ahead early and Bermudez possibly comes back at the end, I sometimes have trouble deciding exactly when the score flips. Was it this elbow? That knee? That tight guillotine attempt?

McCarthy and Valel both keep a running total of effective damage in their head. Valel’s method is to imagine himself walking forward for fighter A's damage and backward for fighter B's, making bigger movements for greater damage. When it comes time to score the round, the only question is where he’s standing relative to his starting point. Score appropriately.

McCarthy emphasized what fighters deserve. Track the damage and give them what they earned, no matter the outcome. While the act of tracking damage may be somewhat subjective, the final evaluation should be objectively based on your running totals.

The few participants who scored this round 10-10 were greeted by McCarthy with a “You know where I want the 10-10 to go? Outside.” While many media folks argue for the use of 10-10 scores to expand, the clear emphasis in McCarthy’s training is that a competent judge should be able to focus, know what’s going on, and score the round for whoever was more effective, even if just by one technique. From this perspective, 10-10 scores are predominantly in existence for partial rounds that sometimes have to be scored even though pretty much nothing happened.

In the 3rd round of Bermudez-Grice, all but seven of us went 10-8 Bermudez. “Did he damage him?” McCarthy asked to the seven 10-9 scorers. “Did he dominate him in the round?” Bermudez pretty much pulverized Grice for five minutes.

In 2012, the judging criteria for a 10-8 score changed from “when a contestant overwhelmingly dominates” to “when a contestant wins by a large margin.” Dominance and Damage are the key factors for a 10-8 score (with Duration coming soon) and Bermudez easily had both in the 3rd.

“It's not the case that you have to murder your opponent to get a 10-8,” McCarthy explained.

The Fan Hat

When we judged the 1st round of Rousey-Holm, I thought it would be an exercise in futility. It’s a pretty easy round to score and on top of that it’s famous. Everyone had surely heard the stories of Rousey’s performance and trainer Edmond Tarverdyan’s “beautiful” coaching.

My guesstimate is 20% of the room scored it for Rousey.

UFC 193: Rousey v Holm Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

We can’t let our preconceived notions of Rousey or any other fighter cloud our judgment, Valel told the room. A judge does not care who wins, who’s famous, or who the champ is, only who deserved to win that round based on effectiveness, and 10-9 Rousey is flat wrong.

“A lot of you are still wearing the fan hat,” said Valel. “It's hard to take off [the entertainment hat] and apply the criteria.”

What Was That?

After a break, we’re shown a picture of Kenny Robertson tapping out Brock Jardine at UFC 157.

Kenny Robertson vs Brock Jardine submission strip

What submission is it? “If you don’t know the submission, how do you know how to judge it?” McCarthy asked. After asking a handful of people who didn’t know, it came to me. “Suloev Stretch,” I replied. Sometimes needing to watch every single fight for no other reason than to not come off as a dumbass in print has its advantages.

But jiu-jitsu is always adapting and new moves are being developed every year. Hell, I had no idea what an Eviscerator was. While all judges don’t necessarily have to be practicing black belts or EBI junkies, they must be able to instantly identify what part of the body any submission is attacking. No one should think the uncomfortable-looking hold above attacks the ankle.

Damage A.K.A. Impact

What is damage (also known as “impact” in the new scoring criteria starting next year)? McCarthy defines damage as “An impairment in fighting ability as a result of the opponent’s actions. The debilitation of a fighter. A reduction in capacity to effectively compete. A diminishing of spirit, energy, and skill.”

Can a submission do damage by affecting cardio? Try getting out of a tight triangle or McCarthy’s side control and see for yourself. Causing physical pain is damaging but so is sapping an opponent’s energy or will to compete.

How do you value a strike that affects movement versus a strike that causes a cut? The cut itself doesn't matter. “What makes the cut important is how it affects the fighter, the impact on the fight, the impact on the movement," Valel stressed. To Valel, blood from cuts is like food coloring in a bottle of water. It changes the color of fight shorts, big deal. When it starts to affect movement, which is what effective striking and grappling are all about, then we should care.

New School

Getting to watch all three rounds of Lesnar vs. Hunt again was a real treat. In the original airing at UFC 200, I was sitting between my wife and her cousin who were yapping about god knows what as I unsuccessfully tried to focus on the action, so the undistracted, focused do-over was a nice surprise.

Round 1 was clearly Lesnar with the debate centering on a 10-8 or 10-9 score. The room was split close to 50/50 with most everyone agreeing Lesnar had dominance but with differing thoughts on damage. I went 10-8 based on how enjoyable it looked for Hunt to eat Lesnar’s power shots, the knee from turtle top control, and Lesnar forcing Hunt to carry his weight, but it wasn’t an easy call.

During the discussion, someone said he went 10-9 Lesnar based on Hunt’s cage control which was one of those smack-your-face-in-disbelief moments. That’s the kind of nonsense these training sessions and hopefully these kinds of articles will help to eliminate. Here’s where cage control belongs.

UFC 200: Tate v Nunes Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

My general read of McCarthy and Valel in the end was there probably wasn’t enough damage to warrant a 10-8. While they’d lean to a wide 10-9, a 10-8 score wasn’t a bad score either.

Round 2 had very little action. Hunt had a few effective strikes and that was pretty much it. Most of the room went 10-9 Hunt, as did I.

In the discussion, veteran official Rob Hinds dropped some of the most important knowledge of the weekend. “We're constantly talking about the action. A punch, a kick,” he said. “We very rarely talk about the result of it. Always ask the 'and what?' If nothing comes out of it, we give very little weight. If you stay in the result mindset, stop talking about the action, and start talking about the result of it, you're going to be much better off.”

In the 3rd round, Lesnar steamrolled Hunt and I went 10-8 along with maybe 60% of the room with 40% going 10-9 and three people scoring 10-7.

Some said they went 10-9 because they didn’t think Lesnar was trying to finish the fight. “If you give Hunt a 10-9 in the 2nd round, how is it fair if you give Brock a 10-9 in the 3rd?” McCarthy countered. “It is not fair and it is messing up our sport.”

For perspective, Hinds asked us to compare rounds 1 and 3 in terms of action and results. Round 1 had more action, but the results were more severe in round 3. Valel pointed out that the damage may not have been the way we like it, but it built up over the round. “In the old school, this is a 10-9,” said Valel. “New school, this is a 10-8.”

And sessions like this will hopefully help the old school folks get with the new school scoring criteria.

Make It Stop

Following lunch we were treated to Neil Magny vs. Hector Lombard at UFC Fight Night: Hunt vs. Mir. Roughly 20 people raise their hand for Lombard 10-9 round 1.

“This was an ass whooping,” McCarthy proclaimed. “How much do you want? How much of an ass whooping do you need for a 10-8? This is not a 10-9 round and you are not being fair to the athletes involved, and you are giving Neil Magny an advantage.”

Round 2 to McCarthy is the second instance in MMA history of a 10-7 round as Magny tagged Lombard with over 100 unanswered shots from mount. If you watch a round and legitimately ask could the ref have stopped the fight, you can consider a 10-7 but are not obligated to score one. If you say the ref should stop the fight, you’ve got a 10-7 for sure – assuming no comebacks from the fighter getting pummeled.

Ah-Ha Moment

The most powerful learning experience came when we scored and discussed Tyson Griffin vs. Clay Guida from UFC 72. What a fight. We scored each round, and I had a screw up in the 2nd, but the big ah-ha moment came in the 3rd.

I submitted my 10-9 Griffin score knowing it was going to be in the minority. “Oh man. Oh man,” I told John, Hadi, and another in our immediate group. To my surprise, they all had Griffin too. Maybe we weren’t in the minority after all. Maybe everyone else also didn’t care about Guida’s top control and Joe Rogan talking him up in the second half of the round (the volume was on for this fight).

UFC 199: Rockhold v Bisping 2 Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

As usual, we walked to separate sides of the room according to our scores and it looked to me like 70% Guida and 30% Griffin. One way to try to get an idea where you were at before the discussion started was to look for name judges on your side, and I don’t recall seeing any with our 30%.

Both sides came off as confident in their discussion arguments. Griffin scorers talked about the damage of his standing strikes and upkicks and elbows from the ground. Guida scorers didn’t think he lost too bad on the feet and valued the work he did from the top. I didn’t get to state a case this round but was more than comfortable with my reasoning for Griffin.

I expected McCarthy or Valel to dissect the arguments and talk through why a particular fighter clearly won or what we should strongly consider, as had been done the entire rest of the day. But they had something different in mind.

McCarthy rewound the tape and took us through the round, minute-by-minute, pausing to discuss at each point along the way. The first minute was all Griffin so Guida already had ground to make up in the running meter of effectiveness. See who does the damage in the second minute? Look at the ineffectiveness of Guida’s grappling and watch his reaction to getting elbowed. In the third minute, what did Guida do that was effective? The strikes he had were mostly to the chest. There wasn’t much impact from the grappling and scrambles. The fourth minute was mostly in guard and which did more damage, Guida’s misses and shots to the chest or Griffin’s upkick and elbows? The fifth minute is mostly positional maneuvering until Guida finally lands a few nice shots in the last three seconds.

That round was what the day was all about.

We’ve got to look at what’s landing, McCarthy stressed. It's tough. It’s not easy. Judging is a difficult job, but we’ve got to watch the fights and judge them based on objective elements, what’s effective, what’s doing damage (now also known as doing “impact”).

During open time for Q&A, the question of all judging questions finally made its way out of someone’s mouth. “How do you quantify the cumulative effect of strikes compared to submission attempts?” McCarthy responded, “How long was the armbar in place? How much torque did you get with that armbar? What had to be done to get out of the submission?”

Things that put hyperextending pressure on joints are damaging and we have to be able to credit them. As for how much, we can't say until we watch the round, but they’ve got to get credit. “We've got to get everyone on board saying, ‘It’s close,’” said McCarthy. “And we can't give credit where credit isn't due.”

To McCarthy, while we can sometimes debate exactly how much credit to give, judges absolutely have to get on the same page in terms of which holds are locked in and which aren’t, how fighters respond to them, how much effort it seems to take to get out of them, etc.

An example comes in the Tony Ferguson vs. Lando Vannata scrap at UFC Fight Night: McDonald vs. Lineker. I and most others had round 1 for Vannata. Some who thought it was close brought up Ferguson’s late armbar attempt.

“When we have a submission attempt, I'm asking you to say, ‘How good was that attempt?’” McCarthy replied. Vannata escaped with relative ease and little effort so the damage was minimal.

As for why this all matters, towards the end of the day McCarthy told us he has trainers telling him they teach fighters to do what they perceive as winning rounds: Control. (Incidentally, statistical analysis of past decisions has supported control winning rounds, too.) When judges show they value control, trainers notice and respond appropriately. It’s on us to change this and stop giving credit for pushing a guy against the cage, getting him to the ground, body-body-head, and start giving credit for effectiveness and damage; i.e., credit for actual fighting.

Before we broke for the day, McCarthy gave those in the C.O.M.M.A.N.D. program who were trying to become ABC-certified a pep talk and quick dose of reality. While we may want to be judges, McCarthy’s duty is to the fighters and the sport. His high standards for passing and low pass rate are there to promote and protect the integrity of the sport.

Would we want an airplane pilot who passed his or her coursework at 71%? “Don't ever get in your head that you deserve,” McCarthy said. “You earn. The fighters deserve the best. Make yourself the best.”

Test Day

Monday morning didn’t get off to a great start when I couldn’t find our new room. When I got there, it was smack dab in the middle of another McCarthy story. UFC 1, Royce Gracie, Art Davie, McCarthy’s application to fight at UFC 2, Keith Kizer, we got it all.

And that would be the theme of the day – people wanting to get story after story out of McCarthy while Valel tried desperately to get things back on track to make sure we were fully prepared for the upcoming tests.

When test time finally came, I was calm and confident. I hadn’t taken a meaningful test since when we used to party like it was 1999, but it was all good. I was prepped and ready to go.

You had to know your stuff for the written test, but if you were well-prepared it wasn’t too terribly bad. That is, until a question on a ref/judge procedure I’d never even heard of before. Somehow I completely missed the information, which meant it was time to guess, and I guessed wrong.

I reviewed my exam before turning it in and noticed a question about a submission that every white belt learns within the first six months. I did the thing you’re not supposed to do and started second guessing my original answer, thinking of how the sub affects inflexible me instead of most people. I knew what I was doing. Why was I doing it? What are you doing you moron?!?

Should I change it? I started manipulating my own joints during the exam like an idiot to see if I could convince myself of which answer to choose. In the end I changed my answer and then kicked myself for days for letting the situation mess with my head.

The technique test involved 4-5 second clips of 76 different MMA moves with 12 seconds between each move to write down what we just saw. No pausing except for rare exceptions where the answers were unusually long.

Knowing the moves wasn’t the tough part. Keeping from getting flustered was. That 90% number hung over your head the entire time and even if you knew the moves, if your brain locked up just once, all the sudden you’d have a blank space on your paper while trying to keep up with the new moves coming out and simultaneously trying to trigger your brain for the one you know that you know, but can’t spit out for some reason.

I felt good and the technique test went well for the most part. There were a few things I didn’t see well and every once and a while my brain locked up for a few seconds, but I was eventually able to jog it. Except once. I was the last person to leave the exam because I sat there trying to think of one move, a single takedown, where I had complete and utter brain freeze. “Sit down sweep,” I said to myself. “What the hell is it called?” I thought to myself while completely brain farting on a takedown that I’d trained multiple times.

It never came to me, but rest assured I will never ever, ever, ever again forget the goddamn lateral drop.

Sit down sweeps aside, I was feeling good once the written and technique tests were done, which was a bit surprising considering that the most important test was still ahead. Fail the judging test and you automatically failed the whole thing. All other performances were irrelevant.

But I really enjoyed our judging sessions so I looked at the final test as just another video to review and discuss, as we’d already done numerous times in practice. Sit back, concentrate, focus, remember your training, and enjoy the experience, I told myself.

“What did you think of the fight?” McCarthy asked when it was all said and done. “It was a fun fight,” I replied. “I’d love to watch it as a fan.”

And that sums up the two days of judge training.

Judging fights is hard. It isn’t particularly fun. It takes extreme focus and concentration. It drains your energy. It helps (in my opinion) to watch with no volume to avoid the influence of announcers and the crowd. It’s easy to get distracted and we’ve all got those friends or family members who love talking to us in the middle of a round.

When I watch fights for fun, I like trying to figure out what the fighters are doing, what they’re seeing, what they’re thinking about, what they’re setting up. It makes the experience fun for me but isn’t the best for locking-in on effectiveness and damage and keeping an accurate running total.

Now I find myself actively choosing how I watch fights. Maybe it takes time for judge mode and fun mode to seamlessly merge together, who knows. While I still have trouble deciding in which mode to watch televised fights live, I’m looking forward to possibly doing some local work in L.A. in full-on judge mode.

After a group picture, wishing each other luck, and saying our goodbyes, I thanked McCarthy and Valel for the outstanding experience.

“How many commentators or other media folks have gone through the program?” I asked. Steve Marrocco of MMA Junkie was an immediate answer. Other than him, there wasn’t instant recall. Some, the final answer came back, and some have taken seminars without certification.

Whatever the numbers are, the course is highly recommended for anyone with thoughts on MMA judging. You open yourself up to embarrassment, to good-natured public ridicule if you make a weird decision, to shame from the MMA community if you fail the tests. But the risk is well worth the reward… and I had no shame to begin with.

I started out wanting to take McCarthy’s course so I could write better with RoboJudge. And while RoboJudge pieces will still be around, the nature of their content will surely change.

Read part 1 on McCarthy’s referee training here.

Paul is Bloody Elbow’s business and analytics writer. Follow him at @MMAanalytics.

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