Who cares what you think -- it's the judges' call
Ringside seats don't necessarily guarantee the best view of a fight. Especially, thought Renato Verissimo, if you don't know what you're watching.
It wasn't just that judges for Verissimo's June 2004 welterweight showdown against Matt Hughes unanimously dissented his performance. No, what bothers the Brazilian welterweight to this day is that he did exactly what he wanted, what he was bred to do. And it was as if his fighting philosophy had been rendered moot.
"Your jiu-jitsu is no good here," yelled two judges through 30-27 scorecards.
"You feel like, what you were thinking -- what it takes to win -- wasn't the same for the judges," Verissimo said. "I thought that I did more than [Hughes] tried to do in the fight."
By most accounts, Verissimo's right.
Verissimo caught Hughes -- a two-time UFC champion and, until further notice, the most decorated welterweight in mixed martial arts history -- in a tight triangle choke. Bound by the jiu-jitsu black belt's long legs, there was little else for Hughes to rely upon but instinct. He squirmed and wiggled, sat back and ceded position. It was either that, or surrender the precious little line between consciousness and unintended naps.
To most spectators, round one belonged to Verissimo. Ten minutes later, the same held true when it came time to declare a winner. But to the surprise of many, the victor wasn't the Brazilian.
"It definitely changed my whole career," said Verissimo, who as a result couldn't fight for the vacant UFC belt Hughes recaptured four months later against a green Georges St. Pierre. "You put so much into it, and when you lose in that kind of a way, it really kind of messes with what you think of being a fighter and performer."
The specter of suspect decisions, like the occasional swarm of gnats on an otherwise pleasant evening, is something of a chronic problem in MMA. Let a fight go the distance, fighters say, and you get what you deserve.
Or sometimes you don't.
"Every other established sport puts so much emphasis on their officials as far as training goes ... they realize the sport rests on what the officials do or don't do," said Nelson "Doc" Hamilton, a veteran referee and judge who's officiated fights from Tokyo to London. "If you continue to have bad decisions come down, or poor decisions on the part of a referee, late stoppages and things like that, it affects the sport and the crowd's perception of the sport."
Hamilton's pleas don't imply an epidemic. For the most part, scorecards ring true in today's regulated MMA. But the issue of performances like Verissimo's, where skill fails to be properly rewarded, remains a concern.
A general lack of understanding surrounding the game's submission portion -- particularly when fighters work from the bottom -- has led some to openly complain about those judging mixed martial artists' performances.
UFC lightweight champion B.J. Penn was stunned when Verissimo, Penn's jiu-jitsu instructor, fell prey to the shortage of sophisticated officiating. On May 24, Penn will defend his belt against powerhouse wrestler Sean Sherk in Las Vegas. There is a real chance the Hawaiian could be forced to fight from his back through much of the 25-minute bout.
His concern: there's no way to win from the guard via points.
"I believe this with all my heart and hope somebody proves me wrong one day, but if you're a jiu-jitsu fighter and you're on the bottom the whole fight, you're going to lose," he said. "If you do not submit [your opponent] -- you can attempt all these submissions -- you're going to lose."