I had both trained with and conducted interviews with fighters at Tiger Martial Arts in Levittown, New York before I came to the start of the seminars the morning of March 16. I even counted some of the staff as friends, even though as a sports writer I’m not necessarily supposed to. But, in a familiar building to discuss a sport I believed myself to be an expert, I had plenty of new experiences. There were reporters, veteran coaches and fighters such as local fighting pride and UFC lightweight Al Iaquinta. And all of them learned at least some nuance of judging or officiating that they had never seen before that day.
Hinds kept the class light and interactive, but there was still a certain gravity to the room. The retired fighter from the NHB days and long-time referee made it clear that his goal for leading these seminars was to make sure fighters were treated as safely as a combat sport will allow and as fairly as an inherently subjective judging system will allow. In the referee seminar, we were there to learn how to protect the athletes’ bodies from unnecessary damage. In the judging seminar, we were there to learn how to protect the athletes’ careers from a bad decision.
A major focus of both the referee and judging seminars was getting the people in them to work as officials as quickly as possible. When the conversation first turned to the details of starting as an MMA official, Miragliotta inadvertently added to the gravity of the event with more than just his towering frame.
“You guys don’t realize that you have a huge leg-up when [MMA] comes to New York,” Miragliotta told the crowd. “The big shows want local guys [to judge/ref].”
A few off-hand sentences from Big Dan touched on volumes of both what was happening in New York and what was desperately needed in New York regarding the sport of mixed martial arts. Recently, a loophole in the 15 year ban The Empire State placed on MMA has allowed some sanctioned amateur events to occur on her soil. Using third-party sanctioning bodies, such as the USMTA and FILA, amateur MMA events have sprung up across the state since May.
The plot thickened two weeks ago in Zuffa Entertainment et. al.’s lawsuit against the New York State Attorney General. While arguing a motion to dismiss, counsel for the Attorney General admitted that the same loophole that allowed amateur MMA events in New York could also sanction a UFC event. The argument prompted the UFC to say that it was open to this option if the State government continued to turn its nose up at the sport. In light of Miragliotta’s statement to the class about big shows wanting local officials, the court revelation could lead to two scenarios that are both potentially bad.
The first scenario is that New York provides State-level sanctioning for MMA in 2013 and the State Athletic Commission seeks out local officials to run events. There is prevailing speculation in the New York MMA scene that sanctioning will happen rather than lawmakers being embarrassed by regular third-party sanctioning of a sport that is supposed to be banned. The second scenario is that third-party bodies begin to sanction major events in New York and use their usual stable of staff to run events. Both leave openings for huge officiating issues.
I’ve already observed that officiating is a problem in New York without MMA-specific training. But I never realized how big an issue this was before taking a course with Hinds. Even amongst the most knowledgeable people in attendance, there were details about both refereeing and judging that were brand new pieces of information. Seeing the gaps in knowledge from people I would have thought perfectly qualified to officiate without additional training made me realize something: I may have personally met, on March 16, everyone in New York who actually has all of the information the ABC asks of an official before they preside over an MMA event. Considering the number of professional promotions that want to come to New York, from the regional level to the UFC, it wasn’t that big of a room.
Should third-party sanctioning bodies become the go-to in New York, they will naturally prefer to use local officials that they are familiar with. And, if a body is sanctioning MMA for the first time in New York then, by definition, the local officials the body is familiar with will not have MMA experience.
Either way, Big Dan’s good news for New York’s potential officials forces New Yorkers to face one piece of bad news: the state lacks the infrastructure necessary to smoothly run a large number of MMA events. Judges, referees, inspectors and all the unsung heroes provided by the sanctioning body rather than the event promoters can make or break an MMA card and any number of the fighters competing on it.
And while New York boasts some of the finest fighters and coaches in the world, few of us have gotten specific instruction on how to officiate MMA. A fighter currently in the UFC was sitting in the front row of the judging seminar and a little mystified at some of the standards by which his own fights have been judged.
The empty promise that MMA is coming to New York soon has now become a palpable reality. And the time to build the necessary infrastructure to properly officiate events is now: before the state can become the site of a future officiating disaster. I would urge any New Yorker interested in officiating to contact the Association of Boxing Commissions regarding any approved officiating seminars. The one I attended led by Hinds, Combat Consulting, is currently the big one and the only one I can personally vouch for the quality of, but there are others around. Also, nearby Athletic Commissions such as the NJSACB allow interested persons to shadow their more experienced officials for hands-on training.
The battle to get MMA in to New York was hard fought and not quite over. Now is the time for New Yorkers to make sure we deserve the victory.