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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."

That's not always the case.

Just this week, Shinya Aoki earned a decision over Gesias "JZ" Calvancante in Tokyo. The slender Japanese grappler stifled his brutish opponent, frustrating from the bottom with submission attempts springing from a beautiful defensive guard. Conversation in the aftermath hinged on an interesting hypothetical: Would Calvancante, who scored with enough punches from the top to make Aoki comment afterward that he thought he might die get the nod from American judges?

Said Penn, "I think it's just hard for us, being Americans, to sit there and think that the guy on the bottom is winning. There's a real, present danger when somebody on the bottom has you caught in an armlock or a triangle. Does you pulling your arm out or escaping your head after nearly being passed out and landing three rabbit punches say you won the fight? It's not an easy thing."

"When you get an armbar and it's fully extended," he added, "shouldn't that be just as good as almost finishing someone with punches but they survive?"

Controversy has also come when fighters manage to win from underneath. Fighting from the top? The general consensus would have us believe, you win. Bas Rutten happily knows that's not the truth.

Said the Dutchman who captured UFC heavyweight gold in 1999 fighting primarily from his back against Kevin Randleman: "The person that works on the ground the whole time should get the victory, whether it's punching or going for submissions."

"The bottom fighter can win if you have a perfect storm and all things come together," Hamilton said. "You've got the right judges in place, they recognize what's going on. The bottom fighter's jiu-jitsu is better than the top fighter's ground-and-pound. All those factors come together, and there's no submission within the allotted time, then you would hope he gets that decision."

Yet because of verdicts like the one rendered against Verissimo, today's fighters -- particularly those competing in bouts that allow elbow strikes to the head of a downed opponent -- rarely risk what Rutten suggests.

"If you go for an armbar when somebody is in your guard, there's a high possibility he's going to escape and be in side mount, which is going to be worse for you," Rutten said. "So if that person on the bottom attacks with a submission that means he's really going for it because he takes a big risk of the losing position."

Worse, yet, for submission-inclined fighters like Penn, Hamilton believes "many judges still don't understand or appreciate the ground game."

"The submission attempts are a lot more subtle," he said.

Despite being one of the most respected Brazilian jiu-jitsu players on the planet, Penn said he won't rely on his bottom game in MMA competition.

"My whole game now is centered on not being on my back because I don't want to be stuck on the bottom and have time run out on me," Penn said. "What you see a lot with this type of style, it's not even mixed martial arts anymore. ... It's striking with takedowns. I think it'll be years before mixed martial arts comes up with an answer."

Having been regulated in many states, including Nevada, California and New Jersey, the perception of MMA has dramatically shifted from pariah sport to something palatable enough to appear in primetime on CBS.

With state licensing of fighters has come state licensing of officials. Yet too few offer more than a boxing background while attempting to understand what's happening during an armbar, or why a butterfly guard could render a submission as easily as a sweep.

Since taking on the task in 2001, Nevada has played host to many of MMA's biggest fights. Currently, the state has 13 licensed judges, and it's up to each individual to "seek out ways to self improve," said the commission's Executive Director, Keith Kizer. Seminars with groups such as "MMA REFS," created by Hamilton in 2000 to help elevate the quality of officiating, along with post-event group discussions also serve to improve Nevada officials' understanding of the sport.

Where will MMA's second generation of judges and referees come from? Many of boxing's top officials worked their way up just as the fighters did -- through amateurs. MMA has no such luxury. As Penn suggested, the duty of refereeing could fall to retired fighters who matriculate from the puncher to watcher. And in the end, it's only the "watching" that matters.

"If they don't see it then it doesn't exist," said Hamilton. "Even though it does."

Verissimo knows this all too well. He dropped five of eight bouts following the Hughes contest and briefly retired. He came back to the sport when money demanded it, and his focus now is fixed on preparing Penn for Sherk, whom like Hughes has made a career of grinding opponents into the canvas.

The pupil, it seems, has learned from his coach.

"If I'm on my back I gotta land a submission or I gotta get back up to my feet," Penn said. "I only have two choices. There's not much more you can do to impress the judges while you're on your back."

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