Ricardo Almeida on the Art, Science, and Morality of MMA Judgment

Fightland Blog

By Jeff Harder

Two and a half years ago, Ricardo Almeida lost to Mike Pyle at UFC 128 and called it a day. After 10 years and 18 fights, the welterweight decided the time required to become a contender once again wasn’t worth the effort. Today, that loss has proven to be the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board’s gain. Along with coaching elite fighters and running a pair of jiu-jitsu schools in Jersey, Almeida is a judge serving his home state’s governing body for mixed martial arts. By his own count, he’s seen north of 30 fights from the judge’s perch—some you’ve seen, a lot you probably haven’t. Here, Almeida talks about the pressures, ethics, and responsibilities facing a former fighter who’s been charged with picking a winner when knockouts and submissions don't appear.

Ricardo Almeida: MMA is a fickle sport. Guys sometimes get their careers decided in one punch. And my career was like that—that loss to Mike Pyle sent me so far down the ranks that, in my mind, I didn’t want to spend the next three or four years climbing back up. It was time for me to hang it up, and it made me want to stop fighting. So as a judge, I wanted to be in there with that perspective: understanding that you try not to make mistakes and you try to be fair to the guys, you know? Hopefully I do that.

 I was one of the people that helped put together the unified amateur rules for the state of New Jersey back in the first years after Lorenzo [Fertitta] and Dana [White] bought the UFC. Nick Lembo [counsel for the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board] knew that I’m a Jersey resident, I had my school in Jersey, I’ve fought in Jersey, I’ve coached guys in Jersey.

I was one of the first UFC-caliber, high-profile fighters to become a judge. I knew all eyes would be on me. But if I was concerned about people saying negative things about me, I would’ve never fought in the first place. When you put yourself in that position, you have to realize that in some ways, you give people the right to say whatever they think about you. You can’t take it personal. 

I judge for the New Jersey state athletic commission, not for the UFC, or for the event—I think that’s sometimes a misconception by the fans. To me, it’s actually harder to do the smaller events. A lot of times they’re full of people you’ve crossed paths with many events before. And they don’t have monitors—the UFC has monitors, so you don’t really have to get too caught up in what’s happening, like maybe you didn’t see a punch because one of the fighters moved behind one of the poles, and the crowd screams, and maybe you think, “Oh, that must have hit him.” In the UFC, the cameras aren’t always the best angle, but you still have the monitors, so you’re able to be able to be even less influenced by the crowd, even more impartial, as I believe every judge should be.

I haven’t been able to judge some of the major cards here in Jersey because I’ve had some of the guys that I train on the card, and that’s a conflict of interest. I cannot be judging one fight and then coaching somebody in another one—it doesn’t look good for anybody. Doing jury duty and defending somebody on the same case--I don’t think that would fly, you know?

There was a Bellator event and I was assigned to judge a fight with Phillipe Nover, who had come down and trained with us. Nick Lembo didn’t know that Phillipe was coming down and sparring with Frankie Edgar and the guys a couple days a week. I called Nick and said, “I can’t be a judge for Phillipe’s fight. If something happens and there’s a bad call, and people find out that he’s been training at my school, that’s bad.”

I’ll give another example: I would not judge a fight with Chris Weidman. He trains with Matt Serra, who’s practically like my brother; he trains at Renzo Gracie’s academy all the time. So even though I’ve never really had close contact with Weidman, I think even subconsciously I would favor him. Or maybe it would be the opposite: “I can’t give it to Weidman because he’s from my team, so I’ve got to give it to the other guy.”

When I was back in school, I didn’t like having to do my work twice—I just wanted to get the heck out of school and go train. So I took a lot of notes. It’s the same thing in fights: I keep tally of what’s going on in the round, some things that flash through my mind, so I make sure I don’t forget--if they’re landing combos, scoring takedowns, what they do once they get on the ground. Just kind of keep score of the things that happen, whether the crowd screams for it or not. Every second counts. At the buzzer, one guy might land a big right hand that stumbles the other guy. You have to look at that, and you’ve got someone coming up behind you to get the little stub where you write who you think won the round. But you have to weigh that right hand against everything that happened in the other four minutes and 59 seconds. I have to keep my mind open until I put my pen down and write the score.

The most memorable fight I’ve judged was for sure the Josh Koscheck-Johny Hendricks fight. I was the only judge that gave it to Koscheck, and I still believe Koscheck won. I left with that impression, and I still have that impression—I watched the fight again, and I still feel the same way. I don’t want to say the other judges were wrong, but I called it as I felt it, and I still feel that Koscheck won the fight.

Somebody doesn’t need to be an ex-UFC fighter to be a judge, but I feel they need to have an active role in the MMA community. There are submissions that guys do every once in a while that people have never seen before. I’ve never seen certain transitions, and I’ve dedicated my whole life to this. But then some athletic commissioners are people that have never trained before? Or people that have been only boxing judges? I think that’s ridiculous. If you can’t even have a discussion on the difference between a single- and a double-leg takedown, a body lock and a hip throw, a Thai clinch and a collar tie, you have no business judging.

Not all of the problems are with the judges. Some of it comes from the fighters. It’s a known fact that the UFC job is based on performance. If you have two bad performances in a row, chances are you’re gonna get cut. And most professional sports are like that—you’ve got to keep the guys that put people in the seats and let go of the guys that aren’t performing, and I understand that. But when you have that in place, and guys fight safe and fights are close because guys aren’t really taking any chances, that becomes a problem.

There are a few other sports I really enjoy based around judging. One of them is surfing. It’s always controversial because it’s based on interpretation, and it’s a very creative sport as well. Some judges like to see certain types of maneuvers; other guys like to see other types of maneuvers. It’s sort of the same thing in MMA. Some guys like to see guys get knocked out, some guys like to see technical striking, some guys like ground and pound, some guys like submissions. In some ways, we’re just going to have to accept that it’s a subjective thing and accept the good with the bad.

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