CSAC Media Day: Behind the scenes of Bellator 154

The California State Athletic Commission held what's turned into its annual Media Day in San Jose last Saturday at Bellator 154. While the focus…

By: Paul Gift | 8 years ago
CSAC Media Day: Behind the scenes of Bellator 154
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

The California State Athletic Commission held what’s turned into its annual Media Day in San Jose last Saturday at Bellator 154. While the focus of many in the MMA community was on UFC 198 happenings in Brazil, myself, Steven Marrocco from MMAjunkie, and Josh Saenz and Jaymz Jaime from MMA Complex got a judging and drug testing education from Big John McCarthy and CSAC Executive Director Andy Foster, along with on-the-job training from the official CSAC judges we shadowed, picking their brain between each round.

While the program was similar to last year’s version held at Bellator 136, going through it a second time had its advantages. Last year we were thirsty and starving (through no fault of the CSAC) and took some time to get our bearings. When the first beatdown round came, I was so fixated on choosing the winner that I wasn’t even thinking about a 10-8 score. In the debrief, Foster said he doesn’t know what you’re doing here if that wasn’t scored a 10-8 round, and I didn’t even consider it.

But that mistake only happens once and I was pumped to get a do-over at this year’s Media Day remix…with mixed emotions about possibly missing Fabricio Werdum live. What follows is a diary-style take on the day with final thoughts at the end.

12:00 -€” I walk through the loading docks meeting point only to learn there’s more than one loading dock and the security guard has no idea who the hell we are. The upside’s that I run into the MMA Complex guys who are just as confused as I, and we’re off to look for the other docks.

We come across a huge gate with the bald, country-twanging voice known as Andy Foster on the other side and, for lack of better words, it’s time. Foster’s always suited up and is the most open, honest, and forthcoming athletic commission Executive Director I’ve ever met. I genuinely love his openness to new ideas, new experiments, and any outsiders who might be able to help advance or improve the sport.

It’s great meeting the Complex guys and, FYI, those maniacs drove to San Jose on two hours sleep after covering Glory 30 on Friday.

12:10 -€” We all get one question. The other guys’ questions are excellent and I, the real-life professor, ask a dumb one, partially because I asked questions last year and partially because I knew McCarthy was going to be here and for some reason I started thinking of the James Krause three-nut-shots-heard-round-the-world situation on the flight over. Big John’s a captive audience. He has to answer. In the immortal words of Ben Stiller, do it, do it.

Question 1: What’s a 10-7 round? Big John says there used to only be one 10-7 round in MMA history, the 1st round of Cyborg vs. Finney. There are now two. Any guesses? Someone immediately blurts out Magny vs. Lombard 2nd round. Big John explains that we don’t get a lot of 10-7 rounds because the judges do their job. If you’re getting 10-7’d, the fight should probably be stopped.

By the way, if you’ve never spoken with Big John before, it’s quite an experience. You’ll feel like a small little cockroach as he confidently, yet nicely puts you in your place. My only issue is when he rags on “fightmetrics” but we’ll save that for another day.

Question 2: What’s a 10-8 round? [Writer’s note: I forgot to take notes here, but we get to it more later.]

My question gets skipped for being stupid, but we get to it later. [Writer’s note: Big John said he was in good position and the kick didn’t even graze the cup. It was a close but legal strike.]

A judge’s job is not to care about who wins or what the fans think, but to get it right. We have an obligation to the fighters putting blood, sweat, and tears into their training and trying to support their family.

12:26 – Big John tells a story about Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn. When their fighter’s on the ground, Jackson coaches while Wink becomes a cheerleader. Everything the fighter does is “Beautiful! Whoa!” When the fighter’s standing, Wink coaches and Jackson cheerleads. When John walks around the cage and collects scorecards, he usually doesn’t look at them, except for Jackson/Wink fights. When he knows who won the round, he likes to look at the card of the judge closest to Jackson/Wink to see if they were affected by the cheerleading.

12:29 – We watch a clip that I remember from last year but, man, is it a good one – the 3rd round of Diego Sanchez vs. Gilbert Melendez. Who won the round? We’ve got three for Gil and one for Diego. Better than last year where (off memory) two were for Gil and three had Diego.

Watching closely, Diego rarely lands clean. He knocks Gil down, but how? Gil got hit, fell down, braced his fall, and immediately readied to defend himself. While it might be a 10-8 in boxing, in MMA it’s a flash knockdown, the lowest on the knockdown totem pole.

If we watch fighters, they’ll tell us if shots are hurting them. When you reset like Diego with his chest bumps, you’re getting hit and readying yourself to get back in there.

Big John asks us what an Eviscerator is. I’m thinking of Eddie Bravo’s Vaporizer and, other than that, have no freaking clue. What’s an F-something-something? Sounds like a move a Mendes brother might think of but hell if I know. Is Big John f#%king with us right now?

How can you give credit for what’s being done in front of you if you’re not up on all this stuff? The Eviscerator would seem to be something where a fighter’s in obvious pain but the F-something-something might be a more hidden, Von Flue-ish choke. If so, I’m officially not worthy.

12:40 – Effective striking. Shoulder strikes are just annoying designed to get people to move. I ask if and how Big John scores blocks since anyone who’s been kicked in the head knows they can possibly scramble your brain. I selfishly ask for nerd reasons since blocks are counted as misses in the fight stats. To John, it’s all about blocks that do damage. If you put your arm by your head and get rocked with a kick, he’s counting something. If you twist and legitimately block the kick, it’s zero.

[Update: I spoke with Rami Genauer, the CEO of Fightmetric, this afternoon and he cleared up that not every blocked strike is classified as a miss. If the impact of the blow transfers through to the defending fighter then it’s classified as a landed strike.]

12:55 – Effective grappling. (1) You don’t get credit for position. (2) You don’t get credit for position. (3) You don’t get credit for position. It’s all about what you do with the position. But we have to keep in mind that there are many times pressure is applied with grappling that’s very hard to see and would make someone off the street tap. Hurting the opponent with grappling counts.

Effective aggression and cage control only matter if you have the round perfectly even with effective striking and grappling. If there’s a winner with the latter, the former are ignored. Effective defense allows someone to stay in the fight, but earns zero judging credit. Defense is its own reward.

1:04 – 10-9 is not automatic if you think one guy won the round. If one fighter is defending for 4:50 seconds, you cannot give that fighter nine points.

10-8 is when a fighter wins by a large margin but not an overwhelming margin. Lombard-Magny round 1, all judges gave it a 10-9 and all were wrong. It was a 10-8 round and ref Steve Perceval was correct to let the fight continue as Magny was doing all the things he needed to do to defend himself. The second round should’ve been a 10-7 (overwhelming margin).

Last year, we learned about the Double D’s of 10-8 rounds. Big John’s since added a third D.

The Triple D’s of 10-8 rounds: Damage, Dominance, and Duration. Need 2 of 3 for a 10-8 round. Dominance and damage, 10-8. Dominance and duration, 10-8. It gets a little tricky with damage and duration.

Dominance doesn’t have to be top control over another fighter. It’s the lack of the opponent’s offense, keeping them on the defensive for most of the round. [Writer’s note: I didn’t ask this but would argue that dominance and duration was Miesha Tate’s 2nd round vs. Holly Holm. Watching live, I mentioned that it might be a 10-8 round and got laughed at by the 20 or so other people watching just for considering it. All three judges ended up with a 10-8.] Sometimes damage can overwhelm alone. Judges must consider 10-8 when a fighter damages an opponent significantly in a round, even though they do not have dominance.

1:15 – If you do something, I can take 1 point from you, 2 points from you, or take you out of the fight. It all depends on the intent of the action. Sometimes the punishment can be taking a fighter out of the position they attained from the foul and restarting.

Oooh, this is good. The MMA rules committee has already addressed fighters extending their fingers. It will be taken up for a full vote at the ABC meeting this August. They want to make the extension of fingers with the arm out a foul-able offense. Big John stresses that the wording is detailed so don’t go crazy with this just yet. Travis Browne and Jon Jones better beware, though.

1:45 – We just watched the first three rounds of Alvarez/Chandler 2. Every single one of us had Chandler winning the 1st with Alvarez winning the 2nd and 3rd. I had Alvarez winning round 3 handily as Chandler barely did any damage during the 3rd but had a takedown and top control at the end. Big John stresses that because of the media, this fight was “controversial.” I think this might have something to do with why we’re here.

Random thought out of nowhere. Bellator has been a host of these media days the past two years. Credit to them for being willing to take part in these experiments and not getting worried that it will somehow be a distraction to the event card or the real judges.

2:04 – Bellator’s VP of Regulatory Affairs, Cory Schaeffer, thanks us for being a part of the day. He’s been an official and regulator most of his life. Judging is so difficult when the next day your best case scenario is that nobody mentions you.

Judges can’t judge and do someone else’s job at the same time, but many people think they can do their job and judge at the same time. The goal of this day is to help educate the media and possibly prevent some of the knee jerk reactions we sometimes see. Last year’s experience changed the way I write about judges and I can’t wait to see what happens this year.

2:30 -€” We follow the paramedics on their walkthrough of the path to get to the ambulances. Evidently Bellator uses two rigs while the UFC uses four and smaller shows typically use only one. A rig in California generally costs $800-$1,600, depending on the location. At least one ambulance has to be available for a fight to go down so if someone takes a beating and your local promotion then takes a strange 15-20 minute pause, you know what’s going on.

2:47 – Drug testing. As the largest U.S. athletic commission, CSAC has by far the largest drug testing budget. They use the WADA lab at UCLA. Regulations do not require CSAC to have a B sample (think Alexander Shlemenko). For most fighters, the CSAC uses a single specimen split key kit. At $5, it’s very affordable. The tradeoff is that it doesn’t provide for a B sample but also collects double the volume of a $40 Berlinger kit.

Fighters are observed while they urinate – direct collection. CSAC collects samples prior to the bouts and will sometimes try to collect after the fight, but doing it after has problems. Sometimes fighters are dehydrated and, perhaps more importantly, a doper can just claim a headache or some other injury after the fight, get transported to the hospital, and then they’re out of CSAC’s chain of custody.

The split key can get an initial reading for drugs of abuse in 1 minute and CSAC has and will kill a bout if a fighter tests positive twice pre-fight for anything other than marijuana.

Phil Davis and King Mo will urinate in a Berlinger kit.

Testing for steroids and drugs of abuse at UCLA is around $550. Steroids only is $250. This is before paying to get confirmation. CSAC is self-financed with the big shows paying for some of the smaller shows.

I ask if the UFC’s new drug testing protocol has changed the way the CSAC tests for UFC events. Do they do less testing since USADA might be considered as having them covered? Foster says they take the opportunity to do other types of testing they might not normally do such as carbon isotope tests. Since the UFC uses the same UCLA lab, the CSAC will sometimes request this extra testing on samples.

4:15 – We wrapped up the judging and drug testing presentations and have started our on-the-job judge training session also known as Bellator 154. Unlike last time, the first two fights have been incredibly easy to score. Each was stopped in the 3rd round with the first two rounds an easy 10-9 for each respective fighter and the 3rd round on its way to a 10-8 until the stoppage.

I typed the last paragraph at the start of a fight I wasn’t scheduled to judge. Before I could even finish, Joshua Hardwick put Jorge Acosta to sleep with a nasty guillotine.

4:30 – Gave my first 10-8 to Sam Spengler in the first round versus Doyle Childs. I told the judge I was with that Spengler’s choke attempt at the very end of the round and Childs tapping (even though it didn’t count) swayed me. It was enough damage to put me over the edge. Next thing I know, I’m being made fun of by Commissioner Martha Shen-Urquidez when the fight’s over. Bring it! I stand by that decision…I think, maybe, probably.

4:50 – Bellator undercard fights are rapid fire, back-to-back-to-back with no time to breathe and barely any time to think, much less use the restroom, so it’s nice to get a little break before the main card begins. I just introduced myself to Brendan Schaub who quickly says not to write about him. Perhaps I’m getting a rep for writing about people’s secrets. We talk a bit about Whole Foods and the glorious Hinano burger in Marina del Rey and he says they film his Fighter and the Kid podcast in my neighborhood. Can a lowly BE writer walk over and observe a show, Brendan? Really nice guy.

5:06 – So Andre Fialho just straight murdered Rick Reger to open the main card. When you’re real-fake judging, it’s nice when there’s a 1st round finish in a bout during your break. But I’m glad to see Reger okay. One thing I love about MMA is when the more normal-looking guy destroys the scary-looking one. Nice reminder of the value of skill and technique.

5:41 – With two 1st round finishes, the main card’s been easy judging and is getting a swing bout moved up to fill time. For those who don’t know, Bellator runs a few fights before the main card and a few fights after. If moving a swing up means we’ll finish with more time to possibly catch Werdum-Miocic live, bring it on.

5:55 – Jeremiah Labiano got a takedown to end the round and his coach went absolutely crazy. I wish there was video to show. Only problem was there were 30 seconds left and Labiano did nothing with it. While his coach’s antics might have comedic value, they mean zero for scoring a fight, along with Labiano’s takedown itself. The actual judges agreed and Labiano took the 28-29 loss.

7:25 -€” Phil Davis vs. King Mo finished a few minutes ago. I was judging next to Derek Cleary and the first two rounds were pretty close in our minds. We each gave the 1st round to Mo and the 2nd to Davis. The 3rd was easy. When I glanced at the master scorecard, I thought the other two judges gave the first two rounds to Mo and we were in for a controversial outcome. I saw it wrong and instead the rounds were scored for Davis. Foster just told me that the onsite media people all scored the first two rounds for Mo so maybe there’s controversy after all. It was close, but didn’t seem controversial to us watching cageside.

7:30 – The main card’s over but we’ve got four more bouts ready to go. I can’t remember how it went down last time but these are dark matches so the camera crew goes home and the screens to assist the judges are blank. Should be fun. Check out my field of view.

The real judge is to my right and at least has a bit better view but honestly, compared to the cages in small, local shows, there’s not much to complain about with Bellator’s cage. From a normal judge’s position, it’s got a pretty damn nice view even with no monitors.

7:50 – And we’ve got our second mauling of the night as Anthony Taylor about decapitated Victor Jones in less than 30 seconds.


The debrief to end the night began with Foster thanking his officials for a smooth night and little to no controversy. He then thanked the media and brought up two fights for discussion, fight #4 (Spengler vs. Childs) and Davis vs. King Mo.

Since I scored the 1st round a 10-8 for Spengler, I got to state my case in front of what seemed like 20-30 CSAC personnel of refs, judges, inspectors, and staff. While Childs took the first 30 seconds or so of the fight, once Spengler took him down his offense was nullified to nothing more than annoying, fly swat punches from bottom for the rest of the round.

McCarthy’s training teaches to have a running score total in our heads and mine was 10-9 Spengler through the majority of the round with thought to 10-8 as the end approached. In my mind, Spengler had the domination, but did he have enough damage? I was on the fence until the very end when Spengler went for a Peruvian necktie. My first thought was to ignore it as a last-second, shot-in-the-dark choke attempt, but am now pretty sure I was influenced by Childs’ tap a split second after the bell. It told me that the choke was deep and dangerous and that was enough to edge the damage to go from a 10-9 to 10-8 in my book. I haven’t yet re-watched the round, but feel pretty comfortable that Spengler won that round by a large margin.

While I’m comfortable with my defense, I’m pretty sure that no one else scored the round 10-8, but Foster offers this nugget. He says that if a judge thinks a fighter has dominance and damage, he’s not supposed to think about a 10-8, instead that judge is obligated to give a 10-8. Like a Game of Thrones marriage, I was obligated. Nothing I could do.

Next we talk about the Davis-Mo “controversy” and Big John says he and most others on our side of the cage had the first round for Mo and the last two for Davis. Everyone had Davis winning either 29-28 or 30-27, so what the hell is up with the MMA Decisions media scores? I jokingly say, “Yeah but those guys are idiots,” and all the sudden I’m empathizing with the regular judges.

Is it telling that everyone cageside scored the fight for Davis while most off the cage or watching on TV scored it for King Mo? It could just be a small sample coincidence, or perhaps it was the leg kicks. Both Derek Cleary and I thought Davis’ kicks in the ever-so-close 2nd round set him apart. Were we able to see and feel the kick impacts that those off the cage or at home couldn’t? I wish I could test this in nerd data world but can’t do it at the moment as Fightmetric’s database is currently constructed.

Regardless, I have a newfound appreciation for skepticism when I’m about to write something like, “The majority of media members scored the round for Fighter X.” Are there still bad decisions in obvious rounds? Of course. But when rounds are close, I’m giving much more latitude for the little things the judges may have seen or missed while sitting cageside.

Final Thoughts

Hats off to Bellator for being willing to take part in Andy Foster’s CSAC innovations.

I like to joke about a judge making a bad decision because they forget who’s fighting and write scores in the wrong column. Well, that seems to be a real possibility as I almost did it. My scorecards had red on the left and blue on the right, but from where I was sitting the blue corner was on the left and red corner was on the right. There were a few times where I truly wondered if I wrote the scores down correctly in the 1st round. It only happened when I didn’t know the fighters, but if it could happen to me on my second day of fake judging, it could easily be a real thing on the lesser-known undercard bouts.

To all the corners out there, your “Eh! Oh Eh!” noises are absolutely meaningless. If you do it to motivate your fighter, so be it. But if it’s meant to influence the judges, you’re wasting your breath. If anything, a coach should advise his fighter to be more active when possibly at odd angles, or save your “Eh!” breath for the odd angle strikes. The “what did I possibly miss” effect from poor viewing angles is far more valuable than the “that guy’s coach yelled ‘Eh’ or ‘Beautiful!'” effect.

You guys are beautiful for reading this whole thing.

Paul is Bloody Elbow’s analytics and business writer. Follow him @MMAanalytics.

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About the author
Paul Gift
Paul Gift

Dr. Paul Gift is a sports economist with a research focus on mixed martial arts. A licensed MMA referee and judge himself, Dr. Gift’s interests pertain to many facets of the MMA industry including behavioral biases and judging, the role of financial and environmental factors on fighter performance, determination of fighter marginal products, and predictive analytics.

A regular MMA business contributor for Forbes, Dr. Gift also writes about MMA analytics and officiating in popular press for SB Nation and co-hosts the MMA business podcast Show Money. His sports research has been cited in the Wall Street Journal, ESPN’s Grantland, and popular media including Around the Horn, Olbermann, and various MMA and boxing podcasts.

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