Bendo vs. Gil scoring provides opportunity to reflect on judging in MMA

Monday, April 22, 2013

Benson Henderson retained his UFC lightweight title Saturday night with a split decision over former Strikeforce lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez.

Outside of the partisan crowd, fans and fighters seemed to split remarkably evenly on who they thought won, so the split decision did not unduly raise eyebrows, at least until this tweet:

Tap D Jackson ‏@T_Wan827
@danawhite the judge who scored it for Gil, wade vierra is a cesar gracie JJ affiliate/student? How is that legal? #ufc #ufconfox7

CSAC judge Wade Vierra runs an affiliate school of Team Cesar Gracie, and, like Gil Melendez is a Team Cesar Gracie brown belt.

Linked in lists Vierra’s employers as the CSAC and Cesar Gracie’s GracieFighter.
Wade (black gi), is picture below, to Cesar’s right.

Immediately after UFC on FOX 7 Cesar tweeted the following:

Cesar Gracie ‏@CesarGracieBJJ 6h
Thanks to @GilbertMelendez and @NateDiaz209 for representing. I thought Gil won tonight but we are still blessed with great @ufc fans

In the early days of the sport, I reffed and judged my own students, as there was no one else to do it. At one point I was even slated to fight my best friend, on a charity card. Like other officials that came up during the 90s, you learned to set your biases aside. On the vast majority of cards since, I have reffed people I have trained with and whose company I enjoy and value. It isn’t easy, but it is part of being an official – everyone is going to hate you some points, even people you like. If you want more friends, buy a pick up truck, don’t ref or judge MMA.

While the sport has grown immensely since the late 90s, there is still not an abundance of highly-qualified, highly-experienced officials. We need to get the most qualified individuals into and next to the cage, and count on them to provide their best, unbiased efforts.

The mixed martial arts world is too small for there to be a wall between all judges and all fighters, as boxing tries to maintain, with varying degrees of success. People in MMA often train at a wide number of schools during a year, socialize at grappling events, and otherwise enjoy a wide real-life social network that inevitably includes figures subject to regulation. In a sport that is evolving as fast as this one, it is in fact highly useful, even necessary, to have judges on the mats as much as possible.

The sport is crying out for retired fighters to become referees and judges, bringing an invaluable perspective into (or next to) the cage. As that happens, as people who train, characteristically for many years, become officials, it will become impossible for there to be cards full of fighters that a ref or judge has no association what so ever with. Follow a BJJ lineage back, and in the end, all things merge into one. And if a fighter’s lineage is not affiliated with an official’s lineage, perhaps they are rivals.

A look at the judge’s score cards Saturday night reveals how close the bout was. Further, the judge who was most out of lockstep with the other two was not Vierra, but the highly-regarded Derek Cleary, who was alone in two rounds, to Vierra’s one. The score that appeared to most differ from the opinion of most viewers was not Vierra’s, but rather Cleary, who saw it for Henderson in the 5th, when neither of the other two judges, or the vast majority of onlookers did. But that is a sign not of incompetence, or bias, but rather how close every round was. Further, it cannot be forgotten that judges are trained to look at a fight very differently than does a fan.

Here is how the officials saw it:

Round 1
Melendez: Derek Cleary, Michael Bell, Wade Vierra

Round 2
Henderson:Michael Bell, Wade Vierra
Melendez: Derek Cleary

Round 3
Henderson: Derek Cleary, Michael Bell, Wade Vierra

Round 4
Henderson: Derek Cleary, Michael Bell
Melendez: Wade Vierra

Round 5
Henderson: Derek Cleary
Melendez: Michael Bell, Wade Vierra

There is no suggestion from any quarter that Vierra scored the fight in bad faith.

It is standard practice for judges to bow out of bouts where ties are too close to come to a fair judgement, and Vierra could have done so here if he felt he would not be able to fairly judge Melendez. That said, the big problem right now with judging in MMA is not bias, it is incompetence. There are too many judges and refs that have spent 0 time on the mat, and do not know what they are looking at, literally, and offer scores that even a casual fan with vision issues knows are wrong.

In order to have the most competent, experienced officials available – terrific judges like Wade Vierra, who have spent years in training on the mat – there are going to be cases where things look off enough to tweet about. In a generation or two, things will probably be different, but for now, and for the next decade or more, we are going to have cases, many of them, where we need a judge’s experience, and are going to have to rely on that judge’s integrity and good character to deliver an unbiased score.

That is what happened with Vierra, and it is going to happen more, not less over the next coming years, and scores are going to improve because of it.