A night of judging fights in California

The California State Athletic Commission hosted its own media day last week during Bellator 136 at Bren Events Center in Irvine, California.

CSAC executive director Andy Foster offered a 30-minute presentation on the commission's evolving drug-testing efforts, while longtime official John McCarthy gave a mini seminar on proper judging under the unified rules.

Myself and four others were then allowed to sit alongside CSAC-licensed judges during the live fights and fill out scorecards. Our scores were later compared with those given by the judges. Results varied.

In terms of the actual act of judging, my main takeaway was that it is more mentally exhausting than some realize. I have sat at press row during live events for six years and "judged" rounds from that vantage point, but it's different when judging is your sole responsibility.

No Twitter. No conversations with those sitting next to you that might influence your opinion. Just five minutes of unadulterated attention to every minute action of the fight.

Dedicating that kind of concentration is more challenging than it sounds. Your mind can wander, especially during a slow fight. A couple of times, I caught myself thinking about what had happened in a previous round I had scored. Another time, I was thinking about this column and mentally filing away a point I wanted to make. These things competed with the fight itself for my focus.

And when you're fighting mental distractions like that and constantly trying to zero in on what's in front of you (and keep a running tally of the score), five minutes can start to feel like 15. All of us have "judged" a fight from watching live or on television, but it's not the same as being there and feeling that sense of accountability.

As one regulatory official told the media at one point, "if you don't have a headache by the end of this, you're doing it wrong."

That comment itself brings up an interesting point. Common sense suggests MMA judges would be most mentally fatigued at the end of the night -- which happens to be when the most important fights take place.

On the East Coast, main events can start after midnight local time. If a judge is flown in to an international event, now you're potentially adding the general fatigue that comes with travel, which is then magnified by a long night of scoring responsibilities.

In other words, judges might be operating under circumstances that don't allow them to be at the top of their game by the time the money title fights get underway at the end of an event.

"I have seen my judges' performances decline as some nights go on," Foster admitted. "In boxing, if there is a major money fight, the three judges scoring the title fight -- that could be the only fight they judge all night. In MMA, these guys are scoring almost every fight. I hate to say the reason it's like that is just because that's how it's always been, but that's how it's always been."

Foster's last comment strikes me as ironic because judging MMA is far more mentally tiring than judging boxing.

There's not much debate in that. In boxing, athletes can score with a left hand or a right. There are two targets to consider: body and head.

In MMA, there are many more offensive weapons to keep tabs on. Then add grappling to the mix. Now try to weigh these actions against each other in a round that sees some of everything. It's far more complicated than only judging the weight of a left hook to a straight right in boxing.

"With MMA, it's almost like punching is your .22-caliber weapon," McCarthy said. "I hit you with an elbow? Now I have a 9 millimeter. I hit you with a kick? That's a .40 caliber. The weight of the tools being used is different."

Not to mention, in boxing a 10-8 round is almost always defined by a knockdown. And the brutality of the knockdown doesn't even matter. A crushing shot that puts a man out on his feet can be the same as basically catching him off balance. If his hand touches the canvas, it's a 10-8 round.

In comparison, a 10-8 round in MMA could be the subject of an hourlong debate.

Start to consider the differences between scoring a boxing match and an MMA contest long enough and you might reach one conclusion: MMA needs a better, more specific scoring system.

This is not a new claim. Some have been demanding this for years. The current MMA scoring system is outdated. During the sport's infancy, attaching boxing's 10-point-must system was convenient in the effort to get it sanctioned because it was something familiar to athletic commissions. These days it's a potential detriment.

There is a common saying in this sport that goes something to the effect of, "that fight could have gone either way."

I asked McCarthy what percentage of fights that saying applies to. Do 10 percent of fights end in which one could legitimately score it for either athlete and be correct under the current system? Twenty percent? Thirty?

"Yeah, I would say 20 to 25 percent," McCarthy answered. "At least."

Realize what McCarthy is saying here. That means that right now, one out of every four fights that goes to a decision doesn't have a "correct" winner.

The outcome of an MMA fight, in most cases, represents half a fighter's paycheck due to win bonuses -- and 25 percent of the time in fights that go the distance, we're saying that's a coin flip.

That seems unacceptably high. Cory Schafer, president of International Sport Karate Association and Bellator director of regulatory affairs, believes so.

"In my opinion, the 10-point-must system was adopted when the sport began to get regulated," Schafer said. "I get that and that's fine, but that's not where the sport is today. Where we're at now, I think the athletes and the sophistication of what they do mandates a more refined scoring system.

"Right now, 10-9 covers too much territory. In my mind, there's marginal victory, clear victory, dominant victory and overwhelming victory. That's four types. So, I think a much more appropriate scoring system would provide four options. Particularly in five-round fights, it's obvious 10-9 covers too much ground. One guy wins two rounds big and the other wins three small, that's when there's controversy.

"I would like to eventually see MMA move to a scoring system that is more gradient. Would it require more instruction? Yeah. Will it be harder to learn? Yeah. Are our athletes worth it? Uh, yeah."

Technically speaking, MMA judges do have four options (10-10, 10-9, 10-8 and 10-7), but the Association of Boxing Commissions clearly states in its unified rules that 10-10 and 10-7 rounds "should be rarely used." Effectively speaking, judges have two options: 10-9 and 10-8.

I'm not suggesting the current scoring system is ruining the sport of MMA. As Foster, who admits he sees fault in the 10-point-must system, stated to me at last week's event: Show me something better.

But just because it's not ruining the sport doesn't mean it can be ignored. We're trying to judge a sport using a system that was designed for a completely different one.

"I've been saying we have a problem for a long time, but show me something better," Foster said. "I really think that getting guys educated and consistent in writing down 10-8s is a large part of it, but yeah, we have three rounds to score. That's 30 points. Boxing goes up to 120 points [in a 12-round fight]. We use a boxing system. You can call it whatever you want, but it came directly from boxing."

One final thing on 10-8 rounds: Even if Foster is successful in getting his judges to use it more, that doesn't mean it will be used more in other athletic commissions. According to Foster, a commission's definition of a 10-8 round is typically harped on by its director. So, Foster's 10-8 round in California might not be the same as another director's 10-8 round in a different state.

While I was sitting next to veteran judge Marcos Rosales at one point in the night, I asked if he's done this enough to where it doesn't bother him if he's on an island in a split decision.

If the other two judges watching the same fight go against his score, does a knot form in his stomach? He shook his head.

"That just means I get to argue with John McCarthy about it after the event," Rosales said.

He was making a joke, but it illustrates a point. Rosales told me he has 37 years of experience in combat sports, both as a referee and judge. McCarthy is considered a godfather to the unified rules. Both reside in California and work together on a regular basis.

And yet, it's conceivable that the two would not agree on how to score 25 percent of the fights they watch under the current scoring system.

If two veteran, competent officials from one of, if not the best commission in the world, can't agree on who won a round more than 75 percent of the time, is that indicative of a more fundamental problem?

And as Schafer asked multiple times during the Bellator event last week, don't athletes deserve our best effort? Is this it?

Note: A special thanks to the CSAC for providing access and transparency to the commission's procedures and officials.