Taking COMMAND: My Quest to Become an MMA Judge – Part 2

Following our lead writer’s two-day journey to become an MMA judge

Be sure to check out Part One of Taking COMMAND

Day Two – Morning

Even though I get up at 3:30 in the morning every Monday to Thursday for work, getting up at 5:30 a.m. on a Sunday felt wrong. I tried to be as quiet as possible, packing my gear and getting out of the house in record time to trudge down the hill to the bus stop.

Note to self: walking two miles with ten pounds of luggage on your back is a t-shirt type of activity. My hoodie and raincoat combo was a bad decision, prompting an awkward disrobing at the bus shell. Basically, the sight of me caused the lady who was waiting there before me to walk a little further up the street and wait there. Sweaty, chubby dudes apparently aren’t her thing.

Like a true keener, I broke out my notes on the bus ride and drilled judo throws; sei-onagi, tai-otoshi, harai-goshi, osoto-gari and uchi-mata are now ingrained in my head.

After reaching the casino well in advance of our seven o’clock start time and grabbing a coffee, I was relieved to sit down with several other nervous participants patiently waiting to take Jerin up on his generous offer of an early morning review on the mats. One fellow early riser was Mike Massine, a Victoria police officer and judoka taking the course with future designs on doing some MMA officiating.

Jerin graciously went over every hold and throw we asked about, including those damn judo moves more than once. He may have given us a couple little inside tips for the tests later in the day too. This is why I’m a keener and showed up for the early review.

As the rest of the class trickled in, talk turned to the fights from the night before. A couple of the course participants refereed the amateur show, and having been at the fights himself, McCarthy went over some of the bouts with them, much to the dismay of myself and some of the others in the classroom.

I can appreciate the situation, but that doesn’t make it suck any less. These guys wanted feedback and had one of the best in the business at their disposal, so the questions were expected. That being said, I paid for a judging course, not to sit in on a performance evaluation of the three referees from last night’s fights. Save the Q&A for later and let’s get back to the stuff that’s going to be on the tests in nine hours.

Note: Yes, I’ve said all of this to John and Jerin, and talked with both about my pros and cons from the course. I’m up-front like that.

Once we got down to business, it was back to studying film, figuring out what we should be looking for and how to weigh the different elements of a fight.

The subjective nature of judging was clearly evident, with just about every round having scores submitted for both fighters, and reasonable arguments being made to support those views. Going over the tape a second time or breaking it down minute-by-minute changed some minds and reminded everyone that judging fights is much, much harder than people think.

Sure, scoring a one-sided round is pretty easy, but what about those razor-thin rounds where both guys get after it? What about a fight where all three rounds are like that? Sitting in that room with the lights down low and close fight after close fight playing in front of me gave me a new found respect for the men and women we attack and criticize whenever we disagree with a decision.

Other than Cecil Peoples, that is, because the “you can’t win a fight with leg kicks” line from the first Machida-Rua fight was a running joke throughout the two-day course. That being said, I got blamed for his ridiculous comments, since us media guys are always out to make you look stupid and you shouldn’t talk to us. Ever.

More importantly than offering up the correct card in these practice fights was understanding what you should be looking for and how much weight to attribute to what you see.

“Think of the fight as a meter that moves to one side or the other as the round progresses,” suggested McCarthy. “With each significant action, the meter moves in favor of that fighter. If the other guy counters, it moves back. How much it moves is dependent on how much you value what is taking place. Remember, everything is about the effectiveness of what the fighters are doing.”

As you might expect, takedowns were the most discussed topic throughout the two-day course. Here is what I wrote down during that discussion:

– amount of credit depends on the amplitude and effectiveness of the takedown
– is a guy getting slammed or being dragged to the ground?
– what position do they end up in?
– what value is there to a takedown when the other guy gets right back up?

The last point is the most difficult one to many, myself included, probably because we’ve heard commentators say “he can steal the round with a takedown here” time and again. At the end of the day, it really comes down to what else has gone on in the fight.

If the takedown is the only offense of the entire five minutes, than it certainly has some value, but if the round has been action-packed, does a two-second takedown have as much value as a right hand that wobbles the other guy? Not on my scorecard.

While the two-day course certainly passed on a lot of information and helped us all gain a better handle on how to judge a fight, there were also a couple moments during the morning that showed just how important a course like this is for the sport. Sadly, they both came courtesy of the same person.

No, it wasn’t me. Honest.

This particular individual is a licensed boxing judge who has submitted cards for countless events and is now being asked to do the same for MMA events. We were watching Forrest Petz face Sam Morgan, a fight where Petz dominates the opening two frames to the point where each could be scored 10-8. This particular participant/judge gave the first to Morgan.

“Well, I just thought he was doing more in that round,” was the answer he offered when McCarthy asked just how in the name of all things holy he gave the opening round to Morgan.

As generic and poor a response as the above line was, it doesn’t hold a flame to the “to be honest, I lost concentration pretty early on” that we got later in the day.

If you can’t block out ambient noise and stay tuned in for five minutes in a relatively quiet boardroom, how the hell are you allowed to sit beside the cage and offer your take on fights for real?

Thankfully, courses like this are training a new generation of judges who aren’t so easily distracted.

After watching the Petz-Morgan bout, a question was asked about what constitutes a 10-7 round. Instead of breaking into an elaborate discussion and trying to put words to something exceptionally hard to explain, McCarthy turned on Round 1 of Cris Cyborg bludgeoning Jan Finney.

Well played, Mr. McCarthy. Bonus points for presenting a round that also included a point deduction, causing us to cover that topic while we were there.

As we broke for lunch, the rest of the day was laid out for us. When we got back, we’d tackle a couple very close, five-round fights, talk about them as much as needed, break, then get down to testing.

Heading into the casino to get some sushi, I was feeling confident.

Day Two – Afternoon

With everyone fed and four hours until final exams, we continued watching fights and turning in scorecards, debating the rounds as we went.

Inexperienced participants counter-punched experienced trainers and fighters over why their assessment of the last five minutes was off-target. McCarthy bellowed “Hello” anytime someone finally saw what he was trying to show them. Jerin asked sarcastic questions like “So has Sanchez done enough yet to counter those two throws by Parisyan?” when there was 30 seconds left on the clock.

Everyone was starting to get on the same page, seeing fights in terms of the effectiveness of each action, reading a fighter’s tells like they were sitting at a poker table.

“What’d he do right after he got cracked?” McCarthy would ask.

“Reached for a takedown,” the class would answer, prompting an immediate “Why?”.

“Because that shot hurt him and he doesn’t want to take anymore punishment in the stand-up” someone would elaborate.


With each fight, things became increasingly one-sided; only one or two people saw the fight differently than the rest of the class, leaving them deserted on an island and open to good natured mocking.

Everyone seemed fairly loose, despite the fact that the most stressful part of the weekend was getting closer.

To prepare for the “Judge the Fight” test, we watched a fight no one in the room had seen before. It was a five-round championship bouts from a smaller, regional shows, instead of the steady diet of three-round UFC events we’d been watching previously.

The bout was reminiscent of Leonard Garcia’s bout with “The Korean Zombie” Chan Sung Jung, a battle where one guy was swinging violently and missing frequently, while the other threw less, but landed more.

After we got through four rounds and everyone was finally in agreement that Fighter A should be ahead 3-1 and on his way to victory, we learned that Fighter B ended up winning the fight by unanimous decision.

Once again, my “see, even guys who are getting paid can get it wrong” concern popped into my head. This was a fight that was definitely being won by Fighter A, yet all three judges saw something different. While that could mean they’re blind, it also means that in the sure-to-be close contest we use for the “Score the Fight” exam, the chance of me scoring it contrary to how McCarthy scored it still exists.

As McCarthy clicked his way back to the title menu of his training DVD, the choices of fights to watch on the disc popped up. One of them was the fight between Chase Beebe and Mike Easton.

“Beebe-Easton,” I said, shaking my head at the recollection of one of the worst decisions in MMA history.

“Have you seen the fight?” he asked, sounding a little surprised.

“Yeah, most of it. Enough to know it was a horrible decision. I also followed the aftermath online,” I responded.

The inevitable questions from the rest of the class came and McCarthy broke down what happened while I wrestled with the feeling that if two guys can get a clear-cut fight like Easton vs. Beebe wrong, the chances of me scoring our exam fight “the wrong way” are much too great for my liking.

While I was taking the course to further my knowledge and understanding of the sport first and foremost, you better believe that I had every intention of passing the course and getting certified. Failing would be a difficult pill to swallow.

No time to worry about that now, though, because it was time for the technique test. I’m no math wizard, but I knew how many questions were on the test and the score I needed to pass, and I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to make that many mistakes.

The test ended quickly and we were sent for a break. While some people clearly looked panicked at the outcome of the opening test, I was in good spirits, knowing I was good through Round One. I was so confident that I called my wife, told her the first test was a breeze and that I had no doubts I was going to ace the next two and become a certified judge.

Why must I always get over-confident?

Doing good isn’t good enough; I’ve always got to take things to the nth degree, despite the fact that karma has repeatedly shown me that I should just slow my roll and appreciate the small victories.

When we reconvened for the “Score the Fight” test, McCarthy had one caveat that he needed to make clear.

“You’ve got to score the fight for the right person in order to pass,” he said, cuing up the video. “In all the times we’ve used this fight, I think we’ve only ever had two people score it the wrong way.”

Great. No pressure. Not like I wasn’t fearing that exact scenario for the last two days or anything.

“I was going to use the Beebe vs. Easton fight we talked about earlier for this test,” McCarthy started, giving me a nod, “but I’ll use this fight instead.”

Beebe-Easton would have been a cakewalk; only an idiot could have gotten that one wrong, but thanks to me and my big mouth, we were getting a much more difficult fight to score. I should really talk less.

On the sheets we used for the test, there were lines next to the actual scorecard portion where you are supposed to write out why you scored the round the way you did.

The first three rounds of the test fight seemed easy enough; a 2-1 split through three with a clear winner despite the rounds being close.

Round Four crushed me.

No word of a lie, I changed my score on the card. Fighter A won 10-9 for all of twelve seconds before I decided that Fighter B had done more in the opening portion of the round than Fighter A was able to overcome. I should have kept my mouth shut and aced Beebe vs. Easton.

Round Five was tough too, but I thought I turned in pretty accurate scorecards. It was a close fight, a 48-47 contest one way or the other in my books, and I was hopefully that the “correct” one way was my way.

Remember, before we started this test, McCarthy said that you had to score the fight for the right guy in order to pass.

“It was close, but Fighter A won that fight.”

My heart hit the floor; I had turned in 48-47 for Fighter B.

I failed. This sucks.

Before I had time to shake off the disappointment, the third and final test was coming around. So too were the course evaluation sheets.

Multiple choice, true or false and short answers about the Unified Rules, easy enough, but my head wasn’t in it. I zipped through it with a feeling like it didn’t matter. I had already failed, so passing this would just be salt in the wounds.

Finished, I turned to the course evaluation.

“Excellent” across the board, save for one category (use of time) that earned a “very good” with a note that the decreased score wasn’t the instructors’ fault. Then I came to the “If you could recommend one change for this course, what would it be?” question, and it all came pouring out of me.

I wrote a novel, using up the four lines allotted on the front of the page and three-quarters of the back, arguing how much it sucks that people fail because they offer “the wrong subjective take on a close fight” or something along those lines. This wasn’t just about me I told myself, but everyone who worked their butts off in this course only to be told that what they saw and how they saw it was wrong.

Mostly, it was about me, and my ego, my bruised and battered ego that didn’t want to accept failure.

Walking out of the room to go eat dinner, Mike, the Victoria police officer, talked about the tests. He was sure he failed the technique portion; I told him I scored the fight the wrong way, and I proceeded to argue my case to him for the next twenty minutes over dinner. Thanks for listening Mike!

All I wanted was a chance to argue my case, as if this was some kind of courtroom battle and I deserved a chance to present my own evidence.

As we all gathered in the foyer of the conference building, waiting for the tests to be marked, the door opened and “Big” John called me inside. My immediate thought was that one of two things was happening. I was either (a) getting my chance to argue my case or (b) getting the “it was close, but you didn’t make it” speech one-on-one after writing my manifesto for change on the back of my course evaluation sheet.

Those things may be anonymous, but even Joey from Friends figured out you could match up the handwriting from something else to figure out which student called Ross a hottie on his evaluations. If Joey Tribiani can figure it out, I’m sure these guys could too.

“Talk to me about this fight,” McCarthy said to me, offering me a seat at the back table, his laptop and my scorecards sitting before us.

“It was a close fight,” I started, swallowing heavily to choke back the nervous lump that had taken up residency in my throat. “So close I even changed my score one round.”

“I see that,” countered McCarthy, flipping to my fourth round form. “The first three everyone got, you included; 2-1 for Fighter A and everything you wrote down was perfect. So talk to me about Round 4, and let me tell you, it was the closest round of the fight.”

We went over my notes, points that amounted to Fighter B doing more early than Fighter A was able to overcome. Then we watched the round again on the laptop, using our hands as measures of the back-and-forth between the two combatants.

I made my points, McCarthy countered. We agreed on what we were seeing as we were seeing it, and as the round ended, we agreed again that it was a very close round.

“Very tight. I can see how you gave it to Fighter B,” admitted McCarthy. “A number of people did. Can you see how it would go the other way?”

“Sure, now, watching it again. But it’s not the same, sitting here, going over it minute-by-minute with you, this far away from the screen as it is when I’m sitting up there,” I responded, pointing to my third-row seat.

McCarthy smiled and nodded, clicking ahead to the fifth and final round.

“So walk me through this round. You scored it for Fighter B. How come?” he asked.

I consulted my notes and my memory.

“He had a couple solid takedowns, one that did more damage than the other,” I started, playing the round back in my head. “At one point he passed to side control and landed a couple solid elbows. It was another close round. Fighter A came back on in the second half of the round again, but I though A was able to stay ahead of things. He hit a takedown late too, that sealed it for me.”

The round started on the laptop and our hand-measures returned. Fighter B starts out strong, just as I remembered, scoring with a solid takedown, passing to side control and delivering one good elbow.

“I’m with you here,” McCarthy says. “Fighter B is winning right now. We’re good.”

The second takedown starts and as Fighter B is finishing the move, I notice Fighter A gets his feet under him, taking away some of the impact.

Fighter B doesn’t do much when they’re on the ground either. When they get back up, Fighter A lands a good right, causing Fighter B to reach for a takedown.

“Why’s he going for the takedown?” asks McCarthy without taking his eyes off the screen.

“Shot hurt, he’s doesn’t want to take another,” I answer, eyes still locked on the screen. “And he’s tired.”


As the final bell sounds, we’ve both got Fighter A coming out ahead in the round, a different result that I had the first time through.

“So now how would you score the fight?” McCarthy questions, knowing my answer before I say a word.

“Having just done this, gone through it with you, the way we just scored it?” I ask almost rhetorically. “Fighter A, 49-46.”

“I’d even take 48-47,” offers McCarthy. “I just wanted to make sure you could see those things.”

“Yeah, I can see them,” is about all I could manage, feeling like this was a long and drawn out version of the “you were close but came up short” speech I anticipated. “It just sucks that scoring a close fight like this the wrong way means I fail.”

A big smirk came to McCarthy’s face.

“Why do you think we’re sitting here?” he asked, the smirk morphing into a full-on shit-eating grin by this point. “I just wanted you to talk me through what you saw, and show you a couple things you might have missed, and you didn’t even really miss them.”

My heart, that thing I left on the floor three rows up an hour-and-a-half earlier, suddenly returned to its rightful place.

“You’re a dick,” I said, looking at the grin on the iconic MMA ref’s face. “You killed me earlier.”

“What? How?” asked McCarthy, amused and slightly confused as Jerin chuckled behind us.

“Before we started, you said you had to score the fight for the right guy,” I started. “So when we were all done and you told Jason that Fighter A was the winner, my heart sank. I wrote that third test and my evaluation pissed off and crushed that I had failed. I spent the whole dinner break bitching about how much it sucked that I could fail because I score the fight for Fighter B even though I could make my case better than somebody who maybe scored it for Fighter A.”

By this point, the laughter had increased and I had joined in. Jerin pulled out my evaluation form and marveled at the short story I had written on the back.

“Well I’m sorry I tortured you for an hour,” McCarthy said as convincingly as he could muster while still laughing. “Head back out and hang tight; we’ll call everyone back in in a minute or two and hand out certificates.”

I walked out as emotionless as I could, not wanting to be the guy who just argued for a passing grade and got his way while others sat awaiting the inevitable.

Mike shot me a “How’d it go?” look; I countered with a wink and a nod. He’d tell me on the ferry ride back to Victoria that as soon as McCarthy called me in the room, he knew I was getting the chance to state my case and that I would pass.

When everyone filed back into the room and found their seats, McCarthy and Jerin thanked everyone for coming out, and started handing out certificates.

Twenty-two people wrote all three exams, producing eight newly certified mixed martial arts judges, recognized by the Association of Boxing Commissions.

Seven of them were fighters, trainers, or referees.

I was the eighth.