EXCLUSIVE: Joe Stevenson talks joining MMA judging fraternity, ‘I want to improve the sport’

joe stevenson, mma
Credit: Joe Stevenson Instagram

Former UFC lightweight title challenger Joe Stevenson is not going to be one of those folks that complain about MMA judging and do nothing about it. No, he wants to do his part in trying to improve the sport, and that’s why he is adding MMA judge to his repertoire of job titles.

“You always hear, ‘those judges are crazy, I would do better, I would do this.’ We either just talk trash about them or we put ourselves in their shoes and see where they’re coming from,” Stevenson told MixedMartialArts.com.

“Joe Daddy” has been around the MMA game since he was a 16-year-old amateur fighter on the California regional scene in the late 1990s. So he has seen this industry that was once branded as “glorified cock-fighting” grow into an international phenomenon. Yet, that doesn’t mean the sport is problem-free. How cage fights are judged has been a point of contention for fans, fighters, and the media for two decades.

Joe Stevenson is taking his talents to MMA judging

Be it the 10-point must system, the criteria that decide winners and losers, how the criteria are interpreted, or if those scoring bouts truly understand the finer nuances of the sport. However, as an 18-year veteran with nearly 50 fights, and years of coaching experience under his belt, the 39-year-old checks off all the boxes when it comes to the sort of individuals that would be a good fit for this sort of work.

Understanding that, and having seen first hand the ramifications of what poor judging can do, Stevenson (33-16) recently took it upon himself to sign up for judging and refereeing classes offered by famed MMA referee Herb Dean. Dean’s certification course costs $750 ($1500 for the referee and judging certification combo) and is a multi-day course that puts folks through a crash course on the Association of Boxing Commissions unified rules, including testing and mock judging.

“Classroom lecture and written testing covers all aspects of being an MMA Official and licensed judge.Herb’s classroom presentation extensively covers the ABC Unified Rules, scoring criteria, judging guidelines and how to apply them appropriately. Event video is presented for mock judging, discussion and calibration of scoring,” the course website states.

Stevenson took the course last week and is now certified as an official and can apply for a license to judge fights in any state.

The flaws of scoring in today’s MMA landscape

When it comes to the current landscape of MMA judging, the veteran fighter and neophyte official sees one area that is a constant source of inconsistent scoring: Grappling. Especially, when it comes to scoring various moments of this physical tug of war against the cage or on the mat. It’s the finer details of such a complicated part of the sport that can be difficult for judges with less experience than someone like The Ultimate Fighter Season 2 and 26 alum.

“When you see effective grappling, and think of effective grappling, if a guy defends a takedown that’s effective grappling. An they’re at the point where if a takedown occurs, and the guy gets right back up, did he do effective grappling? He did, but it’s kind of the same as a jab. If I throw a jab, you don’t block it, it doesn’t cause too much damage but it hits you it still counts,” says Stevenson.

Although he does appreciate certain aspects of the current scoring setup, such as judges being placed at different sides of the cage, even that Stevenson admits is far from a full-proof way to accurately score a fight based on the judging criteria of effective striking, aggression, and cage control.

“I think that there’s a bunch of stuff that would have to be addressed with the ABC commission. Where you have to say could we add this or do this, because I honestly do like the fact that you have three judges, sitting in three different locations, seeing three different perspectives,” he said. “I think throughout time maybe it can get better. I think there’s always gonna be flaws in something where it’s three different people’s perspectives and opinions.”

Stevenson plans to take judging as seriously as he did fighting

Stevenson hasn’t applied to be licensed in any states yet, and you shouldn’t expect him to be judging any UFC or Bellator fights anytime soon. That’s because he is taking this new gig as seriously as he took trying to improve as a fighter. He knows the only way to be ready to score fights at the highest level is to put serious work in and hone this new skill set. And similar to his days as a fighter, he plans to work his way up from MMA scratch.

“When I can put aside time and say ‘I can do this,’ more than anything it would be to help judge local shows. Like CamoMMA, which is a great amateur promotion in California. Just to make sure you’re on point, anything you do you should be practicing,” said Stevenson. “So I’m gonna focus on that, and then I’ll put my name in the hat [for bigger promotions] probably after six months so I can feel confident in my judging. There’s certain things that you have to make sure you’re the best at. You can’t just say, ‘Okay, now I want to go judge the best.’

“When I do it, I don’t want to talk to anyone. I love talking and saying hi to people but if I’m judging a fight, I want to give it my full respect,” he continued. “I don’t want to touch my phone, I don’t want to talk to anyone. I want to make sure at the end of the fight, if the fighter asks why did you give that round to him, I can explain it and articulate it in a proper way that is able to give them some type of satisfaction or closure. Maybe this might help people.”

Stevenson talks conflict of interest as a judge

For someone that has been around the sport for so long and mingled with a few generations of fighters, there will be the question if his judging becomes a conflict of interest in the future. Especially, in the higher levels of the sport. Judges not being professional and impartial is something he actually experienced early in his own career as he told MixedMartialArts.com.

“A long time ago — I think I was 16 or 17 — I was fighting Brad Gumm. One of the judges came up to me, and he was like, ‘I’m sorry I gave it to the other guy and made you go to overtime [bouts had a third “overtime round” then] but I was mad at your coach,'” Stevenson recalled. “That was in the very [early days]. When I was 17-years-old it was 1999. So everyone was kind of new. His apology meant something when he said it but it doesn’t take back the L on my record.

However, Stevenson believes he can be impartial when scoring fights. To him, a key factor in maintaining that professionalism is in being open about his industry relationships. Something he has done when he’s worked as a judge in kickboxing or refereeing for Jiu-Jitsu tournaments. In his mind, if you openly disclose your ties, and are serious about the role of judging, you can separate duty from a prior relationship.

“What do you do? You always disclose. You say, ‘I know this guy.’ I know a lot of guys. And I think that if you disclose that, and you’re able to be fair and just. I mean that’s why you have that job,” he says. “If anything, I’m sure the person that’s my friend is going to get judged harder. Just like at a kickboxing or Jiu-Jitsu tournament, when my guys are going and I’m helping judge or refereeing, I tend to be a little bit harder on the people I know.”

“Until you work those things out with yourself and everything, maybe it’s not a good idea to do the big shows. I think that all comes with training and who you surround yourself with.”

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