Just in Time For "Back to the Future" Day: Hermetically Sealed MMA Judges

Fightland Blog

By Josh Rosenblatt

Photo by Mark Nolan/Zuffa LLC

If you have a computer or a phone or eyes to see or ears to hear, you may have noticed that today, October 21, 2015, is Back to the Future Day, a celebration of the date Marty McFly travels to at the end of the 1985 film. Because of that movie, 2015 signified the future and all its wondrous possibilities for my generation, the way 2001 meant the future to the generation before ours. And apparently the way to celebrate Back to the Future Day for people of my generation isn’t to watch Back to the Future or talk about Back to the Future but to publish countless articles on the Internet bemoaning how bland the actual 2015 is compared to the 2015 of Back to the Future:

Where are our flying cars? Where are our hoverboards? Where the hell is Crispin Glover?

If mixed martial arts had existed in 1989, when Back to the Future II came out, and if there had been mixed martial arts in that movie’s depiction of 2015, I have no doubt us fans would also be grousing right now about the things the movie got right that we’re still screwing up today: fight-day weigh-ins, titanium alloy cups, gloves that eliminate the risk of eye pokes, and, best of all, MMA judges sealed away in hermetic boxes, cut off from the corrupting influences of the outside, partisan world. One day, we’d say dreamily, one day.

Well, rejoice MMA fans because the future is here. Yesterday the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board (visionary New Jersey!—pioneers of our unified rules!)  announced that on October 31, at the Cage Fury Fighting Championship event at the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City, in addition to the standard three ringside judges, three extra judges will be placed in “soundproof isolated rooms” far from the action as an experiment to determine once and for all what role “blocked views, limited angles, sight distance and to a small degree, crowd noise” actually play in judges’ decision-making ability. Those judges will watch the fights in silence to free themselves from the tyranny of commentator enthusiasm and the undue influence of hometown crowds. And though the cageside judges will still determine the outcome of the night’s fights, the scorecards of the three sequestered judges will be analyzed by officials to figure out if isolation might actually be the solution to one of MMA’s most persistent and maddening problems.

Anyone who’s been watching MMA for any amount of time and has therefore spent at least some small portion of their life howling at their television screens over some judge’s terrible decision-making skills and/or questionable eyesight and/or suspect objectivity probably came to the conclusion long ago that the best way to get at something like scorecard legitimacy in the sport is to pluck judges from out of their ringside seats, with their often awkward vantage points, move them out from behind the obstruction of chain-link fencing, take away their juiced-up-commentator-filled headphones, remove them from the company of partisan and influential crowds, and stick them in an anechoic chamber in a basement somewhere. They don’t even need to be in the same time zone or the same country.

The influence (bordering on intimidation) of seething crowds is too overwhelming to just assume impartiality in MMA judging any longer, no matter how good individual judges may be as people. As Fightland Editor-in-Chief and former combat sports commissioner Michael Hresko wrote last year, “erroneous judging happens more often due to social reasons than the sheer incompetence of the individual.”

“The more one-sided the crowd is in any arena, the more difficult it is for judges to be objective about what’s actually happening,” Hresko wrote. “This bias-causing phenomenon is what social scientists call ‘groupthink,’ which attempts to explain why individuals who make collective decisions make errors due to group pressure … The judge is sitting there, hearing everyone’s bias commentary during the fight, and a diffusion of responsibility occurs. The judge gets lazy, sits back, and succumbs to the emotion of the crowd, rather than the facts of the fight.”

This diffusion of responsibility happens all all the time in MMA, and it’s not hard to understand why. Anyone who’s been inside a stadium in Brazil when a Brazilian is fighting is acutely aware of the influence crowd affiliation can have on the individual human soul, much less the far-more-impressionable human brain. The same is true in Ireland and Albuquerque and Sacramento. Between intimidation, crowd noise, the thrill of the moment, and the simple human desire to be part of something, the poor MMA judge is at his most vulnerable at the very moment he’s doing the most important part of his job: just one meager soul bobbing in a great ocean of human lust and influence.

So, stick ‘em in a room, I say, and lock the door. Bring them cigarettes and food and comfortable chairs and all the non-alcoholic beverages they can drink. Just don’t let them out until the fights are over. We must keep our judges isolated and pure. After all, this is 2015. The future. 


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