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'There's a lot of misconceptions around judging. I quite enjoy challenging those'

The view from inside the mind of a judge in the UFC.

Mixed martial arts judge Ben Cartlidge.
Mixed martial arts judge Ben Cartlidge.
Image: Dolly Clew

IT WAS ONE of those moments when he knew he’d made the right call, while simultaneously accepting that his reward would come in the form of criticism.

That’s not unusual in Ben Cartlidge’s role. If it’s pats on the back you’re after, mixed martial arts judging probably isn’t for you. You’ll be castigated by the viewers who don’t agree with your scoring, yet there’s seldom praise from those who do.

“I was judging at a relatively small show in Bolton and the main event was between Lee Chadwick and Alex Minogue,” Cartlidge explains, reflecting on a bout between the English middleweights which took place in the Premier Suite at Bolton Wanderers’ Macron Stadium in November 2013.

“Chadwick won the first round and the third, Minogue won the second. In the third, Chadwick didn’t offer much offence but he still got some takedowns and won the round. Minogue had less offence throughout the fight but because the offence he did have was more exciting, he had a big following in the crowd so they all think he’s won.

“But Chadwick clearly won it two rounds to one, so I’m looking down at my card and I’ve got it 29-28 for Chadwick. The other two judges have it the same and one of them has already got his coat on and his bag over his shoulder, ready to make a beeline for the exit.

“So I walk up to the MC with all the scorecards and he asks me for the result. I just handed him the cards and said ‘see ya later’, and we left in a hurry. It’s fine when you’re on a big show like the UFC and you know there’s going to be a negative reaction from the crowd, because at least the place is full of security. It’s not quite like that on local shows.”

Source: FCC: Full Contact Contender/YouTube

It’s an unusual scenario which you’ll rarely experience in any job; feeling fully confident that you’ve carried out your role proficiently, but being lambasted for doing so. It goes with the territory of putting yourself in that cageside seat. An extensive knowledge of the intricacies of MMA is essential. So is a thick skin.

“I just knew how people would have seen that fight,” Cartlidge continues. “You know what the misconceptions are going to be. Just because you thought one guy’s approach to winning the fight was boring, it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. You can’t exclude that, especially just because your guy lost.”

It’s a thankless role, being a mixed martial arts judge, and the advent of social media has cast it under the microscope like never before. Referees are often criticised too, but at least they’ll occasionally receive acclaim; for a correct stoppage or point deduction, for example.

In the case of judges, there’s either negative feedback or none at all — at least from the audience. The best-case scenario for a judge is being 100% confident in their assessment of an extremely close contest, and even then that will divide opinion among the viewers.

A narrow decision is almost always controversial and it generally causes an almost 50/50 split — between fans who concur with the judges, and those who believe that their call was so inept that they should never be allowed to pass their verdict on a bout again.

The standard of judging is a hot topic in MMA. More often than not, the discussion in the aftermath of UFC events these days will feature claims that the judges were responsible for a robbery in a certain bout.

Robbery. It’s a buzz word in MMA, in spite of it being scarcely appropriate. There are many, many fights that last the distance, at the end of which there’s so little between the two fighters that the judges themselves are unable to agree on who deserves the victory; closely contested bouts whereby the loser — whichever fighter that happens to be — will feel hard done by. That’s an extremely common scenario; one where you’re glad it’s someone else in that seat and not you.

That said, MMA does have its issues when it comes to judging. There have been some peculiar decisions in recent times — Diego Sanchez versus Ross Pearson springs to mind — and it’s something that requires improvement. But contrary to popular belief, it’s not an epidemic that has spread throughout the sport. More likely to be responsible for the problem is inconsistency on the part of a tiny number of individuals, which appears to have smeared the reputation of the profession as a whole.

1522174_698365473547350_1434088084_n Source: Dolly Clew

Even many hardcore mixed martial arts fans won’t be familiar with Ben Cartlidge’s name and, for a judge, that’s probably a sign that you’re doing the job well. Keeping a low profile is more difficult when your scoring is often dissected and disputed on forums and social media. However, Cartlidge — who’s been judging at international level since 2012 — has quickly earned a reputation as one of MMA’s most reliable and consistent officials.

A native of Stoke, Cartlidge has been judging for five years now, overseeing 920 bouts during that time. He started at local level around the UK, then moved on to regional shows like Cage Warriors, before graduating to the UFC in 2013. He’d been involved in MMA for quite a while before turning to judging. Writing and commentary were enjoyable, but judging resonated with him like nothing else.

It’s a labour of love for Cartlidge, something he’s passionate and meticulous about. Much more than a hobby. Honing his craft is essential, even after he’s made it to the highest level. Days when he’s not looking back through the archives at old fights are in the minority. It’s why he’s managed to progress so rapidly.

“From my point of view, it’s the part of the sport that I enjoy the most. Also, there’s a lot of misconceptions around judging. I quite enjoy talking to people and challenging those.

“As the fights that I judged grew in profile, it encouraged me to make sure I was putting more work into justifying my part in it. It wouldn’t have felt right rolling up to those shows and judging them off the cuff. There had to be a level of preparation, I had to be watching fights and scoring fights at home between shows to keep myself sharp.

“I had to develop methodologies and styles so that when I was judging, I could make sure I was doing as much as I possibly could to ensure that I was giving the right result. Through a lot of practice and judging a lot of fights, I honestly feel that I have developed that well. It’s one of those rare things in life where the more you put in, the more you get out. That’s rewarding in any field of work.”

It’s one thing to give your take on a fight when you’re watching from the comfort of your living room, but there are many additional factors that make it a far more difficult job when you’re sitting cageside; in a large arena where the crowd may favour one fighter over another; where a coach may regularly tell his fighter that he’s winning the bout in the hope of influencing the judges nearby; where the stakes for the fighters involved are high and you’re aware that how you score the contest could genuinely change their lives.

There can be pressure too from the powers that be. UFC president Dana White has never hesitated to use social media as a platform for criticising decisions he disagrees with.

“Judging at any level is fairly stressful for a lot of different reasons, but you become conditioned to blocking that kind of stuff out. You can still appreciate that the atmosphere might be amazing and that it’s an incredible experience, but the problem is that if you get taken in by that then it clouds your judgement,” Cartlidge explains.

“As a professional, you can’t let that happen. I’ve been really lucky in a lot of respects to judge in some unbelievable locations for some fantastic events. I’ve had the chance to judge down in Brazil a couple of times and the crowds there are so passionate; it’s an almost pantomime type of atmosphere with everybody going crazy for the Brazilian guy but then the whole arena starts booing for an American guy, or whatever.

“You can’t really prepare for that until you’ve been there and had the chance to experience it. And the more experienced you are, the better you become at shutting that out. But the second the referee brings the fighters together at the start of a fight, you could be anywhere.

“It could be a stadium in front of 20,000 people or a working man’s club in some small town in front of 20 people, but for me it’s the very same process.

“That helps me to score consistently. You’re not pulling out your big-show scoring because you’re on a big show, it’s the same principles and the same scoring each time. The most experienced judges will tell you the same thing, but it would be very easy to get carried away or overawed by other influences if it’s something you haven’t done a lot of.”

Cartlidge’s consistency is predominantly down to his system of scoring. In short, it’s a methodical and comprehensive process of note-taking during the contest, while ensuring that he doesn’t take his eye off the action for a second.

“That’s something I did have to develop,” he explains. “Basically through a youth playing a lot of video games, I got pretty good at being able to transcribe without looking down. To cut a long story short, you’ve got a simple tally chart for the strikes and then obviously if there’s a takedown, I’ll always see around what time that happened and make a note of that. And if the fight goes back to the feet I’ll also take note of that.

“I’ll obviously also mark passes on the ground, submission attempts and stuff like that too. They’ve all got little abbreviations in the system. That basically turns it all into a system that’s purely based on kind of statistical data analysis rather than memory recall. I’m not trying to figure out in my head at the end of each round what happened for the last five minutes. I can look straight down and get an exact representation of what happened during this five minutes.

“It’s important to have a system in place because you’re always in a position to provide an answer to a question that might be asked of one of your scores. It’s very hard for people to dispute something when you’ve got a bit of cast-iron logical reasoning behind it.”

Conor McGregor with Diego Brandao Ben Cartlidge was one of the judges for last year's UFC Dublin main event... but ultimately wasn't needed. Source: Rodrigo Romos/INPHO

The system allows him to have complete trust in his scoring and it means his assessment of a fight carries more weight than that of the casual viewer. If you’re sending tweets or popping out to the kitchen to put the kettle on during a fight, your opinion on how it should be scored is diluted significantly.

It’s often said that each judge has a different take on what they’re looking for from a victorious fighter. Specifically, what is required to win an MMA bout?

Cartlidge: “If you’re looking strictly at the criteria that’s listed, you’re talking about effective striking, grappling, octagon control — or control of the ring, whatever you want to call it — and aggression. Those are the things you’ve got to weigh up.

“People will often ask, what’s more significant: striking or grappling? It all depends on where the round takes place. The easier fights to judge are the ones where it all takes place in one area. So if you have a round where it’s five minutes of stand-up, it basically becomes about who accumulated more significant strikes and who pushed forward more.

“But what makes mixed martial arts judging so interesting is when you throw in takedowns, ground control and submissions attempts, you then have to balance off who you thought did enough to win that round.

“For example, if somebody has three minutes of stand-up where they’re winning but not by much, then their opponent gets a big takedown and is able to control them on the ground, maybe land some good shots on the floor, you’ve got to weigh up if that two minutes on the ground is worth more than that three minutes stood up.

“And it doesn’t always translate simply into a case of sheer maths. Three might be greater than two but in those two minutes the guy in control on the ground might have advanced his position a couple of times, he might have had some submission attempts and he might have been close to finishing his opponent. Then you have to look at how to weigh that up as a fair representation of the round.

“It’s very interesting and it’s why I love watching old fights over and over and re-scoring them. I particularly enjoy re-scoring fights that I’ve scored live myself because you’ll always get a different impression when you’re watching them on a TV broadcast.

“When you’re judging it live, nobody else in the world can see what you’re seeing. That’s your viewpoint only. Good referees will say the same thing: the view they’ve got is the one they’ve chosen as being the best viewpoint strategically to observe the fight. TV broadcasts won’t always do that justice. And it’s a similar thing with judging.”

A good example of a round that contained a little bit of everything was the opening frame of Conor McGregor’s interim featherweight title bout against Chad Mendes last month at UFC 189. Mendes took it 10-9 on all three scorecards but some observers wondered why that was the case, given McGregor’s superiority in the striking exchanges.

Cartlidge explains: “In terms of significant strikes, I think it was 19 to 15 in favour of McGregor. But then there’s the fact that Mendes shot in for four takedowns and got McGregor down three times; especially in that last sequence when he passed from guard to half-guard and then on to side control. He also had McGregor in a crucifix for a little bit and was landing some good shots.

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“Looking at the balance of the fight, I think there was maybe a minute and 50 seconds spent on the ground in that first round and the rest was spent stood up. And when the fight was on the ground, the offence was mainly coming from Mendes. When the fight was stood up, although McGregor was getting the better of it, it wasn’t by enough of a significant margin that it gave him the edge.

“I think the thing that put a lot of people off was that McGregor wears a shot really well. Mendes is a really powerful guy and he cracked McGregor hard quite a few times. But McGregor just kept coming forward in that way that he does. You’ve also got to take into account the whole emotion of the event. People really get caught up in that.

“If you’ve got a favourite that you’re invested in, for whatever reason, you’re probably going to be watching them more than the fight itself. So you’re not focusing on the fact that he’s been taken down, your view is that he was striking from the bottom and then he got up. It puts a different slant on it.

“If the margin of significant strikes for McGregor had been greater than it was, there may have been a case for him winning that round, but — punch for punch — I don’t think there was a massive amount in it. Then throw the three takedowns from Mendes in there and that’s what swung it for him on the judges’ cards.”

Working in conjunction with the UK Mixed Martial Arts Federation, Cartlidge has put together a course on MMA judging, the first of which will be held in Peterborough on 6 September. There are plans to bring it to Ireland too — potentially before the end of 2015.

His own avenue into judging was paved by an extensive list of contacts in the sport and some good fortune, but this course will create — as Cartlidge calls it — “a progressional pathway” for others. But it’s not just for aspiring judges. Fans, and even fighters and coaches too, can learn more about what judges are looking for when they sit down to observe a bout.

“I hope I do get coaches and fighters on it,” Cartlidge says. “From a coach’s point of view, if you run a gym, you really should be au fait with this stuff. You don’t want to be telling a fighter during a fight that he’s winning when he’s not winning. And it does happen at the highest level sometimes, where a coach who has got the knowledge can misinterpret something.

“There are a lot of people who I think can benefit from these courses. If you know what judges are looking for then it’s easier for you to win, surely.”

You can view Ben Cartlidge’s scores on MMADecisions.com.

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