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FightLine in the Field: An Afternoon with the NJSACB

There are jurisdictions out there where the athletic commissions fly by the seat of their pants, where rules and guidelines are treated as nothing more than suggestions, and through only the grace of God do fighters not wind up dead. New Jersey does not have that kind of athletic commission. In fact, when it comes to overseeing MMA, the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board (NJSACB) is considered by most (if not all) to be at the vanguard of combative sports regulation and oversight. Remember those Unified Rules that helped MMA grow into what it is today? Yeah, those were first implemented by New Jersey. A state-sanctioned amateur MMA program? The NJSACB got that rolling in 2006. An impeccable safety record? A reputation for high safety standards and the utmost professionalism? All of that can go on the resume of the folks in the Garden State.

Which is why, when NJSACB counsel Nick Lembo invited me to sit in on their in-house seminar for the judges, referees and inspectors who will be working UFC 169 in Newark on February 1, I jumped at the chance. I mean, who wouldn’t want to take a peek at the inner workings of a well-oiled machine?

It was a rainy trip down to the Tong Dragon MMA school in Toms River, N.J., but upon arrival, the first thing noticeable was that the place was packed. Some of the faces would have been recognizable to MMA fans, such as referees “Big” Dan Miragliotta and Keith Peterson, Invicta FC fighter Munah Holland (she’s also an inspector with the commission) and maybe commissioner Aaron Davis. Most there would not ring a bell with fans because they do their work behind the scenes. But all were important parts that enabled the engine to run.

Commissioner Aaron Davis addressing his team

Commissioner Aaron Davis addressing his team

Everyone removed their shoes and sat on the mat, and Lembo began the seminar with a breakdown of what the judges needed to know.

The Unified Rules are clear on a lot, but judging in and of itself is such an inherently subjective endeavor that often the official decision is one that clashes with popular opinion. Lembo touched on a few points, such as the notion of effective offense (“Don’t get confused by a fighter’s activity – activity is not effective aggressiveness.”) and scoring (“A 10-7 probably means the referee should have stopped the fight,” and Lembo cited the first round of Frankie Edgar vs. Gray Maynard I, where Edgar took a hellacious beating.).

Nick Lembo getting things started

Nick Lembo getting things started

Dr. Sherry Wulkan

Dr. Sherry Wulkan

Soon the lecture became a practical exercise, and everyone gathered around a TV while Lembo played selected rounds of particularly tricky (or controversial) fights. We watched Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva vs. Mark Hunt, Dennis Bermudez vs. Matt Grice, Matt Hughes vs. Renato Verissimo, and others, and after each segment, Lembo paused the DVDs and took a poll of who thought who had taken the round. Opinions varied, but invariably, those opinions were right.

Lembo dismissed the judges and turned his attention to the referees, who for UFC 169 would be Miragliotta and Peterson, and Gasper Oliver (Herb Dean, the other ref for the card, is a West Coaster and was therefore not present). As referees go, Miragliotta, Peterson and Oliver are very experienced, but experience notwithstanding, Lembo covered all the bases.

Lembo talking to the refs

Did you know that there’s an five-minute time limit on a doctor assessing whether or not a fighter can continue after a foul? Did you know that referees conduct individual rules meetings with each fighter they assigned to (at smaller shows, rules meetings are done en masse)? It was illuminating hearing all the finer points of the rules – points you’d never know existed from watching an event from home or even from the first row. But those procedures are in place, and they’re followed to a “T”.

Lembo called Dr. Sherry Wulkan to the front, and she took over, laying out for both the referees and inspectors some of things they should look for, as well as what the physicians would be scrutinizing. Did you know that the cut men – who are employed by the promotion, not the commission – are allowed into the cage only at the discretion of the doctors?

After the referees had their turn, the NJSACB inspectors were up next. Responsible for shadowing each competitor from the time they show up at the venue until the time they provide their postfight urine sample, the inspectors are numerous and the first line of defense against whatever shadiness might occur. From overseeing the hand-wraps to making sure the fighters don’t drink anything crazy like Red Bull or something infused with PCP, the inspectors are present and vigilant.

Lembo went down a litany of talking points, each one focusing on a different aspect of the chronology of a fight show. He even reminded them to bring scissors, as all gloves have to be cut off the fighters after their fights to inspect the hands for damage. (This is a requirement of the UFC’s insurance coverage, and another gem that will likely be an MMA trivia question in years to come.)

Hand-wraps how-to

The seminar was underway at 1:30pm, and by 5pm, the homestretch was in sight, with everyone gathered around to watch a demonstration in proper hand-wrapping technique. Thanks to boxing’s rich history of sneaky bastards, we know that wraps can be doctored with anything from plaster of Paris powder (which, after made wet from the sweat of a fighter warming up, would harden into a shell) to chemicals like epinephrine.

Then it was over, and one by one everyone shook the bosses’ hands while Lembo and Davis thanked all for coming. Throughout the country, athletic commissions in the various states are conducting similar continuing education seminars – or not, since not every commission has the same standards and reputation to maintain.

On the night of February 1, will the postfight talk center around the fights, or will they be on the failings of the commission? It’s impossible to say for sure, but if the lessons learned and the guidelines and procedures made clear by Lembo at Saturday’s seminar do translate into a UFC 169 event that is smooth and flawless, then the only way we’ll know is by never knowing at all.

And without question, that’s how it should be.