By Neil Davidson
(CP) - After lightweight Tyson Griffin was awarded a split decision over Clay Guida at UFC 72 last month, three reporters on press row looked at each other and compared notes.
Two of those journalists are considered the deans of the sport, having followed mixed martial arts for years. The third was covering his eighth straight UFC card.
All three scored the fight for Guida, reasoning a strong finish had earned him the decision. One judge agreed, but his two fellow judges disagreed and Griffin won a majority decision in what was later named the fight of the night.
"One of the best fights I've ever seen," said Jeff Mullen, one of the three judges for the Belfast bout.
"I thought Clay Guida clearly won and the other two judges disagreed with me," he added.
Griffin-Guida is why fighters don't like to let judges decide their fate. Judging is subjective in any sport and more so in mixed martial arts where judges must follow striking, grappling and jiu-jitsu.
"There's a lot of things you look at," says Mullen. "The things you look at are effective striking, effective grappling, Octagon (ring) control, effective aggression and effective defence.
"But the most important by far are effective striking and effective grappling."
Judges must adapt to the fight before them, says Mullen.
"If 80 per cent of the round is spent standing up, then effective striking is going to carry a whole lot more weight than effective grappling. Whereas say 95 per cent of the fight was fought on the ground, then effective grappling would count more than the effective striking. So it's a sliding scale and you have to adjust it to where most of the fight takes place."
It gets more complicated since fighters can also strike on the ground.
"It depends on where it takes place and what happens where it takes place," he added.
Mullen, 50, reckons effective aggression, effective defence and Octagon control are more "fallback criteria that you use if the others things are even."
A flurry at the end of the round may look good but Mullen says it has to be judged in the overall scheme of things.
"A good judge will look at the whole five minutes. An experienced judge will remember what happened at the first of the round, where a lot of times fans will just remember what happens at the end of the round.
"If a guy lands a couple of big shots at the end of the round but he's been getting pounded throughout the first part of the round, that's not going to sway me."
Cosmetic damage, ie blood, doesn't matter, says Mullen, noting one punch to the nose can prompt a torrent of blood.
Things can happen so quickly in an MMA bout that casting your eyes down to take notes can means missing something. So Mullen keeps score in his head from the first bell.
"I'm constantly thinking this guy's slightly ahead or this guy's ahead by this much. I'm keeping that tally in my head all the time."
At the end of each round, he gives both fighters a mark using the 10-point must system - which means the winner gets 10 points and the loser nine or less.
Rounds of 10-8 are rare - they call for "damage and domination," says Mullen who has never given a 10-7.
MMA fights last three rounds, with championship bouts lasting five.
Given MMA rounds are five minute long and there are so many ways to attack your opponent, Mullen says he has plenty to base his decision on.
"Now there's a lot of really close ones, but I usually have a clear idea who I think won at the end of the round."
In judging effective striking, Mullen says it can be tough balancing a hard blow against repeated lesser ones. A punch that staggers a fighter, buckling his knees or knocking him down, will count more than "a whole lot" of jabs or combinations.
But then if a fighter is "busting up" his opponent with repeated blows, that also counts.
"Generally damaging strikes count more than just scoring strikes."
It's the same with takedowns. A slam that stuns an opponent will score more than a basic takedown where the aggressor lands in the other fighter's guard. Still that kind of takedown counts in Octagon control, in that one fighter is controlling where the action takes place.
Mullen must be doing something right. He says he has never been approached by a fighter or someone from their camp about his verdict.
Referees often feel the heat more than judges for stepping in to stop fights.
A Memphis native, Mullen has judged in Alabama, Connecticut, Florida, Mississippi, New Jersey and Nevada as well as Brazil, England and Northern Ireland among other places.
A former pro kickboxer, Mullen operates a gym called Mullen's Karate Kickboxing and Jiu-Jitsu in Memphis. He has been teaching full time since 1986 and training in martial arts since 1975.
Mullen had already been judging karate and had always wondered what would happened when fighters of different styles were matched up. So he was hooked when he heard of the UFC. He watched the UFC's first show in 1993 on pay-per-view and, the next Monday, called UFC matchmaker Art Davie to chew the fat.
In those days, the UFC didn't bother with judges. Fighters won by knockout or if their opponents tapped out or their corner threw in the towel.
In December 1995, the UFC brought in judges - most of whom wrote for mixed martial arts magazines, according to Mullen. In '96, Mullen suggested he judge and Davie agreed.
"He put me on for the next fight, in December 1996 (Ultimate Ultimate 96), and I've been judging Ultimate Fighting Championships ever since," Mullen said.
Today, Mullen is the most senior of active MMA judges.
The judges for each card are picked and paid by the state athletic commissions, who tend to rotate through their roster. Mullen may find his dance card packed and then go several months without a show.
On June 12, he judged a UFC televised show in Florida and then handled UFC 72 in Belfast four days later.
When he first started judging, Mullen would do every fight on the card - which made it difficult if nature called. These days, he might do three, four or five in a night.
Mullen answers to the athletic commission. meeting with them after each card to review scores and fights, and has no dealings with promoters or organizers.
He helps mentor young judges, who often study tapes of fights Mullen has judged. Like fighters, judges work their way up to the UFC by learning their trade on smaller circuits.
An MMA veteran who has judged on several circuits, Mullen marvels at how complete today's fighters are, singling out recent bouts such as Griffin-Guida, Roger Huerta-Leonard Garcia and Canadian Sam Stout-Spencer Fisher for particular praise.
"From top to bottom, UFC cards are stacked," he said.
Marquee fights he has worked include Mark Coleman versus Maurice Smith at UFC 14 in 1997, Frank Shamrock versus Tito Ortiz at UFC 22 in 1999, Ortiz-Ken Shamrock 1 at UFC 40 in 2002, and Ortiz-Chuck Liddell 1 at UFC 47 in 2004.
"Man I love my job," said Mullen. "I get excited every one I go to. Best job in the world.
"It's the best seat in the house."