Perception of MMA Judges, Refs Still Abysmal

MMA Referee

Jayne Kamin – USA Today Sports Media

Fans and fighters alike have been disappointed in MMA judging, skeptical of referees and judges that made the jump from boxing, from the very beginning and it is still a point of frustration in many of today’s fights. So much so that Gilbert Melendez was not angered by the conflict of interest controversy surrounding the judging of his lost title bout against Benson Henderson. “The positive thing is that if the guy is training, that’s a good thing,” Melendez told USA Today’s MMAJunkie. “Yeah, you’ve got be selective about [any potential conflicts of interest], but some judges just don’t know what’s going on. I wish they’d get on the mat and train and really feel what it’s like and do some boxing or some muay Thai and visit some gyms.”

Barry Lindenman is an MMA judge who writes commentary for sites such as Boxing Insider and Boxing.com. Like most veteran MMA judges, Lindenman crossed corners from the boxing ring to the octagon and has felt the criticism of scoring inconsistencies from both sets of fans. Since the judging criteria for boxing is mere perception of the damaging effect of each landed punch, human error is involved from the start — no two pairs of eyes will see exactly the same thing when watching combatants box. MMA adds another layer of difficulty in scoring because it incorporates a much wider array of strike tactics: kicks, elbows and throws have to be looked at independently and in rapid succession and fighters are evaluated on both vertical and horizontal levels with the involvement of takedowns and submissions in MMA bouts. “It is the nature of the sport itself,” writes Lindenman, “which incorporates the best of all the combat sports that produces the greatest subjective challenge to officials of the sport.”

“Of all the reasons (some would say excuses) that exist for why MMA judges’ scoring so often comes under fire (unfair bias favoring different styles of fighting, lack of experience, having a boxing judge’s background, etc.) my contention is that the main reasons why some judges fail to properly evaluate a fighter’s performance and accurately score a round are (1) their inability to focus their attention for the full five minutes of an MMA round and (2) their selective memory recall which can conveniently erase or minimize certain events that they witnessed during the round.”

It is probably this last point of contention that is the most frustrating in the eyes of a fighter. The horizontal plane on which MMA fighting is conducted is completely out of the realm of a boxing referee. Takedowns are, of course, impressive, and it is most likely that impressionism that triggers the “selective memory” Lindenman writes about. But there is a great deal of defense and strategy that takes place within the fighter on the bottom that is not well understood nor appreciated by fight judges and referees.

The most recent example is the controversy that was sparked by Strikeforce bantamweight champion Miesha Tate’s loss by TKO to Cat Zingano at TUF 17. In the Round 3, Zingano dealt Tate an impressive knockdown followed up by a couple of aggressive knee throws, leaving Tate’s face a landslide of blood and sweat. It was at this point that referee Kim Winslow called the match. In a number of media interviews that followed, Tate was rife with anger and frustration. “I still feel like I was in the fight,” she said at the post-event press conference. “[Winslow] told me to ‘Show me something.’ I don’t know what you want. I sat up. I shot a double. I got to my feet. I took some damage because of that because I was trying to listen to the referee, and she [expletive] stopped the fight.”

The UFC and similar organizations have made significant steps in dealing with the learning curve between boxing and MMA judging. A number of MMA-specific referee training facilities have popped up and a formal MMA Judging Committee has been formed. What has yet to occur is a crossover between the two, with the Committee being able to regulate the standard it outlines for the facilities and their trainers. For the time being, MMA judges have about as much respect as the NFL replacement refs during the 2012 lockout.


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