Conflict of Interest: Impropriety in Combat Sports
By: Jesse Donathan
“You can’t hide your lyin’ eyes
And your smile is a thin disguise
I thought by now you’d realize
There ain’t no way to hide your lyin’ eyes” – Lying Eyes, The Eagles.
In perhaps one of the most widely disputed judge’s decisions in recent boxing history, the Tyson Fury vs Deontay Wilder twelve round show down for Wilder’s World Boxing Council (WBC) heavyweight championship of the world was officially ruled a split draw by the three judges ringside. With the final scores of 115-111 (Wilder), 114-110 (Fury) and 113-113 being the final tally in a widely controversial decision that will be the subject of debate for years to come. The real winner of the Fury vs Wilder fight was the casino of course, who managed to keep the bets placed on both Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder due to the judge’s controversial split draw ruling. With minimum payout to the certain minority with the foresight to see a potential draw occurring well before the final bell sounded, the inevitable question needs to be asked, what should be done to fix the widespread judging controversy in combat sports?
Boxing sage Teddy Atlas appeared on episode 1173 of the Joe Rogan Experience in September, 2018 and addressed the issue of infrastructure in boxing.
Boxing has no real accountability, no structure across the board, no, no real, you know, lateral structure and conformity. Nothing unilateral. Because you have different states that have different commissions and they’re supposed to be tied together but they all act differently. And there is no national commission, there’s no body, there’s no dictator, there’s no czar, there’s no NBA commissioner, there’s no NFL commissioner, there’s no MLB commissioner that overlooks and police’s the whole sport. And, there’s no separation of church and state so to speak, where the people making the money in the sport are separated, truly separated from the people supposedly administrating the sport. There’s no separation. They, I mean, promoters actually, that are making the money and have obviously a horse that is running in the game so speak that night, that they want that fighter to win, they pay the judges.
“At championship fights, promoters are required by sanctioning bodies to pay ring officials’ fee and expenses” writes Bill Brubaker in his 1993 Washington Post piece “Tokens of Appreciation Beg Question of Ethics.” This is the modern equivalent of stating the Ultimate Fighting Champion is required by the Nevada State Athletic Commission to pay the referee and judges fees and expenses to put this into perspective. And points to a synergetic effect where the church meets the state as Teddy Atlas described it as the various wheels of the machine are working together where there should be significant compartmentalization to protect the legitimacy of the sport from the perception of impropriety. “Is it a conflict of interest? No, I don’t think so,” said Jose Suleiman, World Boxing Council president” according to the 1993 Washington Post report.
Atlas would go on to say, “the alphabet organizations, they are corrupt. Um, they are. I mean, it’s not Teddy Atlas saying it, its everybody saying it.” Rogan, seemingly in agreement, quickly interjected, “There’s very few people who are going to say they are not corrupt.” Looking back, these words may seem prophetic to some but unfortunately express the frustration of a systemic problem plaguing combat sports for generations now. On the Fury vs Wilder judge’s decision, boxing icon and former heavyweight champion of the world George Forman is quoted as stating, “in my humble opinion, no one lost, no one won it was a draw. I’d love to see a rematch. I’d be a judge. The best judge money could buy.”
Legendary mixed martial arts referee Big John McCarthy is quoted as having stated on his podcast “Let’s Get It On!” concerning the topic of referee compensation, “but to sit there and say I would do it for free anyway… I probably would. Now I don’t want to tell a bunch of promoters that but I love the sport of MMA” according to a 2015 sportsjoe.ie article titled “Big John McCarthy reveals the ridiculously low sum he’s getting paid for refereeing McGregor vs Aldo” by sports writer Darragh Murphy. McCarthy went on to say, “as far as how much we make, they put it out there. Nevada pays more for a championship fight than any state pays any official so that $1,900 is the most you’re going to see. Thank you very much, Nevada. It’s very nice of you to give us that much. I appreciate it.” In reviewing the Washington State legislator’s website (http://apps.leg.wa.gov/WAC/default.aspx?cite=36-14-120), we find guidelines laid out in WAC 36-14-120 pertaining to the compensation of event officials by promoters. “The following minimum fees shall be paid by the promoter of the event to the event officials,” reads the first header on the state government website which is followed by a compensation evaluation chart.
Searching for more definitive answers on the matter of combat sport ring official compensation, we look to the Nevada State Athletic Commission’s website where a noticeably vague description of judicial compensation is revealed on subject.
1. A judge is not paid a salary or provided any benefits.
2. A judge is compensated at the conclusion of each event. The range of compensation varies depending on the particular contest.
3.There is no guaranty of a certain number of assignments or a specific amount of compensation in each fiscal year. Assignments to specific contests are at the discretion of the Executive Director and NSAC and are based on experience, recent performance, reliability, professionalism, and difficulty of assignment.
Of particular interest with the information the NSAC does provide; however, is the “recent performance” assessment of how the judge’s performed their duties at specific events. While the website does not explicitly state what constitutes a satisfactory performance, we do know that judges work off a set of criteria in order to score the performance of the combatants in the ring or cage. In an October 7, 2013 Fox Sports article “The Many Problems with MMA Judging,” written by former Ultimate Fighting Championship fighter Kenny Florian, we find that the judges score fights based on a specific set of evaluation tools known as “The 10-Point Must System,” which works off a specific set of in combat criteria including “clean strikes, effective grappling, Octagon control and effective aggressiveness.” Florian goes on to describe these and other judging criteria as a “tricky scoring system” and “a lot for judges to take in.”
While the judges are ultimately left holding the bag when the controversy erupts from their final scoring tallies, the subjective nature of their performance in relation to their compensation is ultimately based off their “experience” and “recent performance” evaluations by the Nevada State Athletic Commission themselves. Perhaps the obvious needs to be stated; the judge’s performance in evaluating fights is based off the judge’s experience working for their employers, and scoring fights how those who sign the paychecks feel the judges should be performing their duties and scoring fights. And therein lies the problem with judging the winners and losers of fights. While the public is viewing the fight through the lens of who clearly won the fight from a spectator and sporting etiquette perspective, the judges are scoring fights based off a specific criterion as prescribed to them by the commission. The two points of perspective should never be confused with one another, because one is centered around the concept of justice, right versus wrong, and the other is centered around satisfying the expectations of the employer, otherwise known as the commission or sanctioning body.
According to a 2017 mmamania.com article from Jesse Holland titled, “NSAC offers no comment on ‘theoretical conflict of interest’ after Fertitta employee joins athletic commission,” it was reported that Staci Alonso was appointed to the NSAC in December 2016. “Then came word that Alonso was the executive vice president at Station Casinos, which just so happens to be owned by Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, who sold Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) to WME | IMG for roughly $4 billion dollars.” Lorenzo Fertitta himself is a former member of the Nevada State Athletic Commission according to an August 8, 2012 Washington Post article titled, “Fertitta brothers turn Ultimate Fighting Championship into a Juggernaut” by Matthew G. Miller for an eye-opening revelation on the relationship between the casino, promoters and the commissions themselves.
A December 1, 2018 Forbes article by Peter Kahn titled “How to Bet Deontay Wilder Vs. Tyson Fury: Ultimate Bettor’s Guide and Latest Betting Odds” is quoted as stating:
At the time this article is published, according to the boxing odds at youwager.eu, Deontay Wilder is a -159 favorite and climbing to defend his title (wager $159 to win $100) while Tyson Fury is a +141 underdog (wager $100 to win $141) to dethrone the champion, Wilder. The betting story behind this fight has been early money coming in on Fury. This has created the value for Wilder leading up to fight day. Expect this line to move for Wilder and I wouldn’t be surprised if the closing line was closer to -175 by the time the bell for round one rings.
With Wilder being the casino’s favorite to win, the casino obviously stood to lose a great deal in the event of a Fury upset. There were certainly quite a few boxing pundits who viewed the odds on Deontay Wilder being the favorite to win as ultimately translating into the possibility of a Tyson Fury upset being an enticing proposition to roll the dice on. With the fight ruled a draw, the casino only paid out to those who bet on the unlikely event of a draw and kept the money from all other bidders. The winner of the bout wasn’t the competitors, and it certainly wasn’t the fans, but it can be safely said that the casino came out the best of them all with untold financial gains between the various betting houses.
Fixing the widespread controversy in combat sports will ultimately depend on shining a light on the issue and keeping it under constant surveillance while leaders in the industry like the Teddy Atlas’s of the world campaign to bring additional oversight and accountability to combat sports. When familiar and sympathetic faces are transitioning from commissioner to promoter, or casino and promoter to commissioner a theoretical conflict of interest may arise that simply refuses to die in the face of regular and overwhelming controversy. The question of what should be done to fix the widespread judging controversy in combat sports has a simple, yet complex answer; completely overhaul the system itself. A proposition easier said than done in the age of big money and lobbyist in the sports entertainment industry.