Judging Up Close: The Jeff Blatnick Experiment

Lately, it seems a fight card cannot go by without some sort of perceived judging debacle gumming up what would otherwise be smooth fistic works – so much so, in fact, that the current mantra shared by fans and fighters alike is, “If you leave it in the hands of the judges, you’re screwed.”  Is the system broken?  Has the sport evolved beyond the utility of the ten-point must system and the scoring parameters laid out by the Unified Rules?  Or does the fault lie with the judges and the scope of their training (or, as the case may be, a lack thereof)? 

I set out for answers to these questions, and armed with an open mind and a press pass, I got to watch the figurative sausage get made by shadowing a judge at a recent local New Jersey pro show.  Of course, I didn’t shadow just any judge.  I observed none other than Jeff Blatnick, the 1984 Olympic gold medalist wrestler, early UFC commentator and commissioner, and the man who helped transform a spectacle into sport by implementing rules where almost none had existed before.  Sitting beside Blatnick for the fourth installment of the Urban Conflict Championship, I got see how the veteran official sees the action, jots it all down and tallies it all up.

Most of us – whether our seats are on our couch, in the bleachers or in a folding chair that’s been set up next to the cage – think the job of judging a bout is easy.  It’s not.  As I learned from my vantage point at UCC 4, it takes a great deal of perceptiveness and understanding to get it right.  And even when you do, it’s the inherent subjectivity of the endeavor that ends up pissing people off. 

Prelude to Battle 

“Cameras aren’t going to catch what I see from my seat cageside,” says Blatnick.  We’re sitting in the Mennen Sports Arena in Morristown, NJ, and it’s about two hours before the first fight of the night.  Around us, all the event’s moving parts – the attendants, the promoters, the New Jersey Athletic Control Board officials, the referees – are in motion, dealing with everything from arranging the chairs to a fighter no-show to paperwork to a rules meeting.  It’s the usual calm before the storm that really isn’t all that calm.

I ask Blatnick about the disparity between what he sees and what someone sees from the audience – or on TV, for the high-level UFC events he officiates.  He describes some of the details he’s privy to when he sits in his judge’s chair (which, aside from the referee’s spot in the cage, makes him closer to the action than anyone else), and how it affects his notes.

“If a fighter winces from a landed punch, that means it scored,” he says.  “If I hear the whoosh of a foot dragging on a takedown, it’s a legitimate attempt at a takedown.”

And just how does Blatnick keep track of who’s done what in a round?  He maintains a running tally in the form of notations that resemble sheet music more than anything else.  There’s a row for fighter “A” and a row for fighter “B”, and as a particular round stretches on, each individual scoring technique is jotted down in a kind of shorthand and spaced out to indicate when in the round it occurred.  For example, if Quinton Jackson lands four jabs, four “j’s” are written.  If Lyoto Machida lands a hard punch, an uppercase “P” is written.  Takedowns, guillotines, triangle chokes… it all gets recorded, and when a round is finished and the referee wants the official piece of paper with the judge’s signature and the numbers, all it takes is a glance to compare the fighters’ performances and determine who got ten points and who got less.  In theory, that is.

“People will score based on what they know,” says Blatnick.  “If a judge has a jiu-jitsu background, they’re going to say, ‘Did you see that close submission attempt?  He was six inches from getting that kimura!’  No, but I did see those punches the other guy landed.  Those scored.”

I ask if there’s such a thing as impressing a judge with flashiness and showboating.  He laughs.  “Am I going to give them points for what they wear or how they do their hair?  No.  So I don’t let gamesmanship influence me.”

To become a judge in New Jersey, where the MMA scene is thick with events, one has a lot of hoops to jump through.  There are seminars, there’s shadowing bouts on the amateur level before stepping up to pro, and there’s having your unofficial scorecards monitored to see if what you say jibes with what other more experienced judges are saying.  There is no obstacle course or blood oath involved, but one could assume that if commission bigwig Nick Lembo deemed them beneficial to a judge’s training, they’d be seriously considered.  Therefore, when the other judges at the UCC, Sue Sanidad and Tony Tamburrino, take their seats around the cage prior to the start of the event, it’s safe to say that they’re qualified.  But, just as in anything where human perception is involved in the decision-making process, opinions may vary.  Case in point…

The Sausage Gets Made

The first bout gets underway and it sees a competent but inexperienced Brazilian named Lucas Pimenta taking on a tough Turkish expat named Yusuf Yoldas.  As expected, Pimenta has the advantage on the ground, but his takedowns and top game are met with guillotines and triangles, and whenever they stand Yoldas lands kicks to the body like nobody’s business.  Still, it isn’t as cut and dried in terms of points as it could be; at one point, Yoldas cinches on a guillotine and holds it for about two minutes, neutralizing his foe and bringing all scoring to a halt.  Blatnick notes the submission attempt and its duration, but ultimately Pimenta’s pitter-patter assault from above gives him the round. 

The only other wrinkle in the bout is when the Brazilian fouls Yoldas with an illegal knee to the face on the ground in Round 2.  Pimenta is docked a point – which is marked off not by the judges but by the official scorekeeper when she tallies up the points herself.  Pimenta ends up with the unanimous decision, with 29-27 scores across the board.

Next up is Sergio Da Silva versus Aljamain Sterling.  Da Silva is trained by the legendary Vitor Shaolin, and presumably has enough jiu-jitsu in his pocket to give anyone a rough night.  Sterling, however, is a wrestler of considerable pedigree, and his team – the Bombsquad – has him well-prepared for what caged combat brings.  From the outset it is clear Sterling is the more dynamic of the two, and for all three rounds he beats his opponent from pillar to post, shucking off Da Silva’s takedown attempts to batter him relentlessly.  Blatnick gives the first round to the Bombsquad representative with a 10-9 score, but he’s hesitant to make it a 10-8 round; Sterling dominated, yet the damage delivered was minimal (for 10-8 rounds, both dominance and damage are the requisite ingredients).  Sterling rectifies the damage issue in Rounds 2 and 3, maintaining complete control and bloodying Da Silva up nicely, and Blatnick makes the rounds 10-8 in the wrestler’s favor.  Curiously, the other two judges refuse to push the needle past 10-9, so when the final scores are read, Sterling’s unanimous decision victory is via 30-25, 30-27 and 30-27.

Kevin Roddy takes to the cage against Chris Foster, and for three rounds Roddy is angling for submissions while Foster is pecking away with strikes.  No one gets beats up, no one gets blown out of the water, but when a straightforward count of threatening moves and blows is kept, it’s hard to argue that Foster didn’t do enough to earn a 10-9 score for all three rounds.  In this, Blatnick and the other judges are agreement.

Heavyweights Mike Stewart and Glen Sandull square off next, and the first round sees them tie up and wail on each other with hooks and uppercuts.  In terms of damage and amount landed, it’s even by round’s end, and Blatnick hands the ref an official scorecard that reads 10-10 – a score I agree with.  Stewart edges ahead in Round 2 with leg-kicks and the occasional punch that gets through Sandull’s defenses (and Blatnick notes to me how many punches aren’t getting through).  But no judges are necessary when Stewart knocks Sandull out with eleven seconds remaining in the third round. 

Then it’s time for a championship contest between bantamweights Sean Santella and Sedico Honorio, and in a bout where the competitors are this skilled and this fast, keeping track of who does what becomes something akin to watching hummingbirds direct traffic.  Which is to say, “yeesh”.  Throughout the fight the tide goes back and forth, with Santella’s wrestling and Honorio’s jiu-jitsu enabling each man to briefly impose their will on the other.  Blatnick gives the American the first round – Santella is just that much ahead in terms of points to warrant it.  But Santella seems to fade a bit in Rounds 1 and 2, and a mouse under his right eye has him growing slower and more tentative while the Brazilian keeps up the pressure.  Blatnick scores the final two frames in favor of Honorio with a pair of 10-9s, making the bout 29-28 when all is said and done.  Judges Sanidad and Tamburrino go the other way, giving Santella two rounds to Honorio’s one.  Santella takes the split decision. 

It’s easy to disagree and wonder how the judges came to their disparate decisions.  Could Sanidad see the punches Honorio was landing when the fighters were up against the cage in front of Blatnick?  (Maybe.)  Did he miss something when referee Kevin Mulhall traversed his field of vision so he could get a better look at the action?  (Possibly.)  Did someone slip Tamburrino a twenty-dollar bill and tell him “Shorty-Rock” deserved the win?  (Doubtful.) 

For Blatnick, the explanation for the differing opinions lies with the subjectivity of the scoring.  He points to a Santella takedown in Round 2, which was met with about five rapid-fire elbows from the bottom before Honorio kicked him away and got up.  “Does that takedown count?  Do those elbows outweigh the takedown?”  Blatnick doesn’t answer his own questions, as they’re more hypothetical than real.  They’re simply meant to illustrate just how nebulous judging can be.

The last two bouts end in the first round, and then the show is over.

Coda

Blatnick doesn’t believe the system is broken.  If anything, officiating shortcomings have arisen because of the diluted training judges are getting in places where the sport is so new you have to scribble out the word “boxing” on commission paperwork and write-in “mixed martial arts” (my analogy, not his).  There are even states where boxing judges are “opted” in as MMA judges by virtue of their experience in the “sweet science” alone – a surefire recipe for disaster if there ever was one.

But even in optimal conditions – like when the commission is on top of things and to become a judge in that jurisdiction you have to know MMA inside and out – there’s room for human error in observation and interpretation.  And, as sitting beside Blatnick for the UCC showed, there’s just plain old differences in opinion.  Did Sterling deserve 10-8 rounds for dominating and damaging Da Silva?  Did Stewart and Sandull have a 10-10 round?  Did Santella deserve the decision over Honorio?  Viewers with a thousand contrasting perspectives will agree and disagree, and will do so forever.  But when the judges are qualified and know what they’re doing, we’re just going to have to take their word for it.

Well, at least take Blatnick’s word for it.  He knows what’s up.

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