Unnecessary stand-ups, premature stoppages and extremely controversial decisions in fights that appear to have a clear-cut winner.
For years, mixed martial arts fans have been complaining about these and other issues with the sport’s officiating and judging, but little has been done to improve the situation. The belief exists that when people who truly understand the sport – former MMA fighters, for example – assume the roles of judge and referee, we will see proper outcomes in matches that would previously have gone awry.
The tide may finally be turning and the person at the forefront of the effort to bring about change is just-retired UFC welterweight Ricardo Almeida. But Almeida wouldn’t be in a position to positively influence the way the sport is officiated had it not been for another man, Nick Lembo, who was instrumental in recruiting Almeida.
“I’m involved with the regulatory aspect with the athletic control board,” Lembo, Counsel to the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board (NJSACB), explained to MMADieHards.com. “I’m involved with selecting judges, referees and officials and training those officials.”
Once Almeida retired from actively competing in mixed martial arts, Lembo and NJSACB commissioner Aaron Davis were quick to jump on the chance of acquiring the former fighter and making him a part of the control board.
“He’s been a fixture as a fighter, and as a trainer, and school owner from right here in Jersey,” Lembo said. “We thought with that background he would be a valuable asset to have as an official for the state athletic board.”
Almeida verifies that the NJSACB wasted little time approaching him with a job offer once he had retired.
“Nick Lembo from the athletic commission called me right away,” Almeida said. “He asked me if I wanted to get involved in judging or refereeing. I said, ‘Oh Nick, I don’t know about refereeing, but I can definitely help out with judging.’ I just want to give back to the sport a little bit.”
Almeida did not have to ponder over Lembo’s offer for long, as he thinks very highly of the NJSACB and all they have done to improve and grow the sport of MMA.
“I’ve known Nick for years,” Almeida said. “They’re a very proactive athletic commission, they helped draft the first unified mixed martial arts rules, they have a phenomenal amateur program and they consulted a lot of fighters when they went to come up with amateur rules. I believe they New Jersey State Athletic commission is the reason why we have such a strong MMA community in Jersey.”
Almeida has a school and students under him who actively compete, so this is not the occupation the Brazilian envisioned himself pursuing after fighting.
“I never really thought about it until Nick called me,” Almeida confessed. “Nick said they would love to have me on board and I thought, ‘Sure why not?’ Now I can be involved with pushing the sport in the right direction, so I’ll start as a judge and see where it goes from there.”
The former UFC welterweight is happily accepting his role as a judge, but he still does not see refereeing in his future. Even though the NJSACB has some of the best referees in the game, Almeida knows how daunting the role can be.
“I don’t really want to be a referee,” Almeida confessed. “As far as getting in the Octagon, I really don’t see that, but I’m not ruling that out.
“Man, refereeing is a really tough job. You do a real good job and no one talks about it, but they are always going to talk about what you mess up. Referees we have here in New Jersey like, Kevin Mulhall and ‘Big’ Dan (Miragliotta) are some of the best referees in the business and that’s because of how good the athletic commission is and the amount of fights we have here. Some of the other commissions only get to ref when the UFC is in town and that’s why you get these bad calls and bad decisions and bad stand-ups.”
Considering Almeida’s position as a gym owner and a coach to fighters, there will obviously be a conflict of interest if he were to judge any of his students’ fights. It’s something that makes his role as a judge or referee susceptible to allegations of corruption.
“I do have some concerns about people making comments on various websites about conflicts,” Lembo stated. “Obviously Ricardo wouldn’t be judging his students’ fights or Frankie Edgar; he’s not going to be working those fights.”
“If I’m a referee, I can’t really be coaching and that defeats the point of fighting in the first place,” Almeida explained. “Of course, I’m not going to judge guys on my team, that’s a conflict of interest. I don’t think the athletic commission would get me to judge one of my guys and I wouldn’t want to do that, I’d want to corner my guys if they were fighting. I wouldn’t take the position if they offered it to me.”
Almeida is well aware that these criticisms will come his way, but he pays it no mind.
“If I cared what people had to say about me, I wouldn’t have became a fighter in the first place,” Almeida explained. “Whenever you are in the spotlight people judge you, but I don’t pay attention to it. They can say what that want about me judging or the refs, but you just have to let it go.”
Almeida agrees with Lembo that he can bring a lot to the table as a judge. The Renzo Gracie protégé also believes the more fighters that follow his footsteps, the better quality of officiating the sport will receive.
“If there were more former fighters giving educational classes that showed how we need to judge this and how we need to judge that, it’ll be better,” Almeida explained. “If it was a clean combination or a clean takedown, it scores higher, whereas now when the crowd screams it influences the judges. I think refs and judges need specific things they need to look at and the more they understand it. Everyone understands what is happening, but I think for someone who has actually been in there and understands the technical aspect is going to do a better job.
“I’m not saying everyone who judges or refs has to be a fighter, but they should have to at least be practitioners.”
Almeida’s job as a judge was inspired not only by the opportunity to give back to the sport, but also to clean up the sport.
“I think everyone should look at contributing to the future of the sport,” said Almeida. “The sport only grows when people with passion take the leadership positions and prove it. If people would treat MMA like their house and cleaned up, then there wouldn’t be as much trash in the house. My goal is to always be the change, in anything I want to see changed.”
Lembo has been with the NJSACB since 1995 and he wants to usher in positive changes in the officiating aspect of MMA, nevertheless, he has already seen a lot of change since he started.
“I remember in 2000 at a middle school, not even a high school,” Lembo explained. ”Renzo Gracie was the DJ, Bart Vale was a cornerman and Bas Rutten was the referee, so we have came a long way since then. Bas was actually a terrible referee because he was coaching while he was refereeing saying, ‘That’s not the way you do it.’ It’s funny to look back on how far we’ve come.”
Yes, we have come a long way in a young sport, but like the fighters within the sport itself , we must constantly be improving. Former fighters crossing over into MMA judging and refereeing will be the biggest factor in improving the flawed outcomes we currently witness. Thankfully, there is now someone who agrees that is in a position to bring about the necessary changes.