NJAC's Nick Lembo: The 10-point must system isn't bad ... judges just need better training


MMA judging has been on the forefront of many a discussion in the past few weeks.

Fans, promoters and media alike have all been critical of some controversial decisions recently like Diego Sanchez's split decision over Martin Kampmann or Joe Warren's inexplicable unanimous decision against Marcos Galvao, which is still fresh on many minds.

It's times like this where someone needs to come in and put out the flames and there's no one more qualified to do just that than Nick Lembo.

If you don't know who Lembo is, he's currently Deputy Attorney General to the state of New Jersey. Lembo is assigned to the Counsel of the Athletic Board and is in charge of handling legal matters, administrative duties and matchmaking decisions.

What's he's most famous for was being instrumental in the adoption of the unified rules of mixed martial arts back in 1999.

Lembo was recently a guest on Pro MMA Radio where he discussed the process of becoming a judge, and much, much more.

New Jersey is hailed as the most efficient State Athletic Commission with their scrupulous pre-fight screening process as well as very high judging and referee standards. Lembo commented on just how difficult it is to become a judge in his state.

"It's tough to be a judge. It's tough for five minute rounds and sometimes it's tougher to score a round where not much happens... In New Jersey, we have a pretty robust amateur system. You attend a general seminar and you start as a shadow inspector. After two shadows you can become a regular inspector and from there you can work your way up to a shadow judge. Shadow judge means you're there, you're actually sitting there and you're cageside or ringside scoring the bouts and the referee's collecting your scores but your scores are not counting. That gives us an opportunity to monitor your scoring in a live setting."

"The next step is to shadow at pro shows which means I'll put you next to Jeff Blatnick for 1/3 of the fights and next to Doug Crosby for 1/3 of the fights and you score the round. I'll collect them at the end of the night but you talk to the judge during the fights, "why'd you score that? how'd you value that" and you get different perspectives on how the judges score a round or how they keep their notes for scoring the rounds. Some keep notes mentally, some have a checksheet, others have paperwork that they write down so it just gives you perspectives on things."

There are shortcuts to becoming a big player on the judging circuit. Lembo used the recently retired Ricardo Almeida as an example.

"If you have a unique background where you don't have to start in the amateurs like Ricardo Almeida who just retired from the UFC. He is going to accept a position with the State Athletic Control Board as an MMA judge and he'll be making his judging debut for us in Atlantic City this month."

Contrary to popular opinion, being a certified fight judge is not going to pay the bills on its own. The men and women who score fights do it because they have a passion for the sport.

"You really have to love it and have the lifestyle that you can afford it because you're not really getting paid that well. That really upsets me because of the criticism of officials. Nobody's trying to give a bad score or make a bad call on purpose when you have to book time off work to come down to Atlantic City for 10 hours before, during, and after an event and you're getting paid a couple hundred bucks. Even with the big shows you'll likely make less than a thousand bucks."

There has been considerable debate about what scoring system would work best for MMA. There's boxing's 10-9 system which is currently used. There's also the old Pride scoring based on the fight as a whole as well as Doc Hamilton's half-point system. The senior MMA official defended the current 10-9 scoring system, specifically against the complex half-point method. He also clarified what he felt defines a 10-8 round.

"I don't think the 10 point must system is a bad system, I think it's just training of the judges and you have to remember we're a young sport here and it's just exploded in the past couple years. Judges are learning too. Just because a decision was a bad decision in the media or the fans, doesn't mean it was actually a bad decision. It's part of the sport. No matter what system you use, it's still going to be subject to scrutiny to a certain degree."

"You're gonna air on the side of conservative using the 10-9 instead of 10-8... For 10-8 rounds, we use two words in our seminars: dominance and damage. Dominance can be positional and damage can be the impact of the strikes or threatening submissions. I'm not in favor of putting in a system that's even more difficult to figure out. Let's focus on getting the 10-10, 10-9, 10-8 and 10-7 right and see how that works before we start going crazy with half points and having to debate "was that  a 10-9.5?" or was that a 10-10. Was that a 10-8 or a 10-7.5. The half point system just makes it more complicated right now."

Lembo even offered his opinion on the controversial Diego Sanchez fight against Martin Kampmann in nearby Kentucky. He also defined the criteria judges must use to score a fight and the hierarchy of that criteria.

"With the rules, it's not just aggression, it's effective aggression. With the Sanchez-Kampmann fight, one could make the argument that Sanchez was more aggressive but was it more effective? That's the "activity vs. effectiveness" argument. As far as the hierarchy, striking is given the most weight followed by grappling and control of the fighting area, then effective aggressiveness and lastly defense. If you're getting down to scoring a round on effective aggression or defense, that's an interesting fight. In most rounds somebody had the more effective striking or grappling."

"It's still a striking art, not a grappling tournament. You're looking at the impact of the elbows, knees and punches as opposed to grappling. Heavy striking is a big attempt to finish and with grappling, it's a close second because you're using the grappling to set up the submissions. Striking works standing or on the ground, so that's why it has more significance."

The New Jersey counselor closed the segment with a warning to those are try to stir things up with baseless accusations: their stand is actually counterproductive.

"We're still young. The fans and the media jump up on each other and we have to stick together. We have to get this sport to grow. It's not legal in New York and it's not as big as NASCAR or the NFL yet. We have to help make this sport as big as we can and not take pot shots at each other because the people that don't want this thing to succeed, they'll use it against us."

For more on Nick Lembo as well as an interesting discussion on how the unified rules were adopted in the first place, check out the replay of's exclusive presentation of Pro MMA Radio by clicking here.

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