New Jersey experiments with revolutionary new MMA judging system

Controversial decision are nothing new in MMA but New Jersey plans to try something new to see if it makes a difference. 

Donald Miralle/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

The New Jersey State Athletic Control Board (NJSACB) has been at the forefront of mixed martial arts regulation after creating the first ever unified rules for the sport in 2001, and now the governing body may be revolutionizing the way scoring and judging is handled as well with a new experiment set to kick off this weekend in Atlantic City.

For the first time ever, New Jersey will score fights at cage side like normal but research will also be done with three additional judges locked in soundproof booths in the back of the arena and they will score the fights based solely on watching the action on a television screen without the benefit of crowd noise or commentary.

The New Jersey commission has long sat at the forefront when it comes to rules in mixed martial arts, but this latest venture could help answer some of the biggest problems that continue to plague the sport — most notably controversial scoring with little reason as to why or how it happens.

"This is something here we’re going to try without having a direct impact to the fighters," NJSACB general counsel Nick Lembo explained when speaking to FOX Sports. "There’s nothing at stake, they will still have the same judging how they will be normally be judged but hopefully we can gather some information. It’s premature at this point to say whether it will work or not, but we’ll gather some data from the judges and see if they like the concept and then we can tweak it from there."

Controversial decisions have become commonplace in MMA and while part of the problem still stems from needing more refined criteria when it comes to scoring, there’s no doubt that crowd noise and obstructed views can cause problems for judges sitting cage side.

A number of fighters have expressed issues with the perception of a “hometown decision”, which usually happens when a crowd loudly supports a local favorite, rising and falling with every shot that’s thrown — whether it lands or not. Commissions like New Jersey have introduced other programs with judges having monitors cage side and even tinkered with the idea of instant replay, but this new system could be the latest innovation to make a real push forward in the future of MMA scoring.

Lembo is curious to see if the changes made based on judges being sequestered away with no outside influences while also benefitting from the views given on television. Judges are usually planted around the sides of a cage in an MMA fight and if the action is taking place on the opposite side, perhaps with their backs turned to the official, it can make accurate scoring nearly impossible. 

"We’re happy with our judges in New Jersey and with the scores, but I’d say it’s obviously a complaint that if you’re in the industry you have to be aware of the scoring. Basically, you’d sit there at a lot of events and you’d hear from a lot of judges that it’s a 32-foot cage, you have obstructed views, somebody is in rear mount so you couldn’t really see if the punches were landing, you could only see the back of the fighter doing the strikes or was he going for a submission. Judges are instructed to score only what they can see, not what they can’t see. They can’t score it based on crowd noise and they can’t base it on what the fighter’s face looks like at the end," Lembo said.

"Sometimes it’s hard. You’d get comments from judges if it was an off score than maybe they couldn’t see the fight. You also have the issue where we have a lot of Muay Thai events and boxing events and there you feel like you’re right on top of the fighters and you can see everything but it’s a little different in MMA. There’s even been times with Dan Miragliotta, he’s a big guy and he referees a lot of fights in New Jersey, and he’s in between my view and the fighters and I can’t even see the fighters let alone something that’s landing."

Michael Johnson was recently the victim of a very controversial decision in his fight with Beneil Dariush. 

New Jersey has also instituted a shadowing program in recent years where they allow a member of the media to sit with an experienced judge to compare scores after a fight comes to an end. The media scores are used solely for observation purposes, but many times after an event is over, the biggest complaint is actually being able to see the action taking place inside the ring or cage.

The idea is with television cameras providing the unobstructed view, judges will have the benefit of seeing everything that happens during a fight from whether or not punches land to submission attempts on the ground.

"A lot of the commentary from the media when shadow judging was ‘wow it’s a lot easier to score it on TV’ and it just seems like the last UFC we had, just walking around the cage you notice Joe Rogan and Mike Goldberg, they’re doing a live broadcast of a major event right there and they’re not looking up at the fights at all," Lembo said.

"They’re constantly looking down at the monitor in front of them. You have guys do an entire broadcast looking at a monitor and it’s because the guys have gotten so good at this with technology, they give you the perfect angle and the perfect vantage point. So it will be interesting to see if that’s where the disconnect is in some of these close fights and the controversial fights."

Cage Fury Fighting Championships — a local promotion based in New Jersey — will be the landing spot for the first experimentation for the commission to see if the soundproof booths make any difference for the judges scoring the fights. Obviously the scores won’t count, but the comparison to the judges sitting cage side could be valuable in a long term evaluation on whether or not the system works and/or makes a difference.

There’s no telling if this new system could become the standard with MMA judging, but Lembo says if everything goes well, he will absolutely reach out to other notable commissions across the country to share his findings. 

In theory if the program works, commissions could potentially introduce the system into live fights with judges using this new process instead.

"It’s hard to put a timeline on it," Lembo said on taking this program from experiment into practical application. "We could have all stoppage fights or we could have really easy decisions. I don’t know how many times we’re going to have to do this to get enough information, but I’m sure we would share our findings with other commissions like with Andy Foster in California, and Nevada, and Bernie (Profato) in Ohio and see where it goes from there."