The sport of kickboxing is one that has waxed and waned with the times. Currently the sport is attempting to grow into new markets and find its niche and, accordingly, the rules and regulations that go into making kickboxing events happen have come under fire of late. Much like MMA, which has seen its share of controversy in the past few years, kickboxing has seen its share of controversial decisions and actions by referees that have been uniformly frowned upon by fans, fighters and many others within the sport.
We reached out to ISKA President Cory Schafer, who is in charge of overseeing most of the bigger events that have been happening worldwide, including GLORY events, for his thoughts on these controversies and applications of the rules.
The first thing that comes to mind is just how many controversies there have been of late, which Schafer seems sympathetic towards. “I fiercely defend every fan’s right to question, criticize or complain about the officiating. That is a privilege that they earn with the ‘price of admission’ or their support of the televised broadcast,” he explained. “I am however realistic about the legitimacy of these questions and/or criticism. Very few fans are adequately educated on the rules or the judges scoring criteria. Fans and the media as well fail to realize that there is a world of difference between ‘watching a fight’ and ‘judging a fight.’ They are two completely different cognitive processes. Of course when the bout result is obvious they will lead to the same result but when the contest is less obvious often they will not. For the past two years I’ve been part of an event called MEDIA DAY in California where we allow members of the media to attend a judges training seminar and then actually sit next to the real judges during the event and cast (unofficial) ballots. Interestingly enough at the last media day there was a ‘controversial’ decision. Everyone on media row had FIGHTER A winning. All of the judges however had FIGHTER B winning. Interestingly enough the three media shadow judges who had attended the judges seminar all had FIGHTER B winning as well. It was a great case study in the difference between ‘watching’ and ‘judging.’”
Schafer’s position is understandable; that he stands behind the rules and regulations that he oversees and that there is a difference between having to professional judge a fight and simply watching as a spectator. But, there has to be more, right? With so many people watching and so many disagreeing, where exactly is the line drawn? Exactly how accountable are referees and judges considering that their jobs are based on split-second decisions based on -- at times -- different rules depending on the event that they are working.
“The first obligation of an official is to be worthy of the athletes and of the sport,” Schafer said of the officials that ISKA utilize. “ Considering the commitment that the fighters (and the promotion) make to their craft – our officials need to be dedicated and always on-point. If they can’t handle the stress then they need to take a seat in the audience. Every official is reviewed and held accountable. At every event that I attend I hold a post event debrief where each aspect of the officiating (controversial or not) is reviewed. Every event needs to provide a learning experience so that the officials can advance their skills. If officials are not ‘getting better’ they are ‘getting worse.’”
When it comes to controversy it’s difficult not to bring up Levin vs. Marcus III, a fight that ended in a disqualification and saw Artem Levin storm out of the ring. There was actually a written agreement in place for this fight considering how volatile they expected it to be.
“The first time a fighter holds the referee will likely caution the fighters without stopping the action. The second time it occurs in the same round, the referee may do the same or stop the action and issue an official warning. If it occurs again, the fighter will be penalized a point. Further holding will not require additional cautions or warnings unless there is a great deal of time between infractions. If two points have been taken away and the fighter continues to foul by holding then at the point when it would be appropriate to penalize the fighter a third time the fighter should be disqualified. The referee retains full authority to caution, warn, penalize and disqualify according to his perception of the violations.”
“Wichger’s acted consistent with the interpretation above,” Schafer added. He was in agreement that the knockdown when Levin went through the ropes was perhaps up for contention, in part due to the angle caught by the television cameras not being clear enough at the time, although when viewing from an overhead shot a week later they were able to determine that Marcus did connect with a knee that contributed to Levin falling down, thus negating any further controversy. Schafer’s final take on that fight is one in which he held nothing back, either.
“In my final evaluation, Levin’s performance in both bouts against Marcus was nothing less than disgraceful,” he frankly stated. “He intentionally and constantly fouled and fought in a way that he knew was contrary to the spirit and intention of Glory rules. I personally spent 30 minutes with his team and a Russian interpreter prior to the first bout in order to guarantee that there could be no misunderstanding. The written document addressing the clinching vs. holding rules was sent to all fight teams in advance, handed out at the rules meeting, read aloud at the group rules meeting and reviewed by the referee at the one-on-one rules meeting. Levin executed three different fouling techniques in the first 30 seconds of the first round. He tried to bully his opponent and the referee and when it didn’t work he did what most bullys do – they quit. In my opinion he should not have been paid because he failed to live up to the terms of his contract.”
As for consistent implementation of the rules, Schafer feels that the ISKA and its officials have been consistent and that the onus lies within the fighter and the trainers to understand and obey the rules. “It’s difficult to answer that question since I don’t really feel like the rules have been implemented inconsistently. I place the responsibility on the fighters. Those that fight according to the rules don’t have any issue with the officiating.”
It is an interesting concept, because for less clinch-heavy fighters there really aren’t many problems with officiating. There might be a controversial knockdown or decisions like the two van Roosmalen vs. Sitthichai fights that will always be up for discussion. Are officials getting too involved, though? So many of the fighters compete across MMA, muay thai, kickboxing and boxing that their reflexes may compel them to go to certain things in desperation (like a clinch), at what point is leniency proper or should rules be followed to the letter?
“I don’t think that leniency is the proper construct. I think that the referee has the power to caution, warn, penalize and disqualify and they are trained on how to use those tools (along with the pre-fight one on one rules meeting, the group rules meeting and the written documents provided to the fight teams in advance) in order to avoid having the take points away. But when a fighter breaks the rules to the extent that it is damaging his opponent’s ability to be successful then the referee must take action in order to insure a fair contest. I don’t see the fact that kickboxing is close to both Muay Thai and MMA as any kind of mitigating factor. These are professional fight teams who accept a contract to participate in unique sport. Their professional obligation is to be prepared to fight according to the rules that are provided.”
Modern kickboxing’s roots are from Japan, where K-1 was notorious for handing out the drawn rounds to push for extra rounds, yet that has become less-and-less prevalent in modern kickboxing outside of Japan. When asked if this is something that officials are aware of, or intentionally avoid Schafer was clear. “If you allow officials to score rounds even than the line at which they have to make a decision will continue to degrade. They will begin using 10-10 too often and only award a round when a fighter dominates. I know this as a fact from 30 years of experience. The discussion also is kind of moot since that scoring procedure is determined by the SAC and they are very strict about this.”
As most of us have seen, when a fighter feels robbed or like something went wrong in a fight, they tend to turn to social media in an attempt to garner sympathy towards them. Being frustrating is understandable, but what kind of official channels are in place for fighters who feel wronged by the system? “Fight teams may submit a written protest addressing any misapplication of the rules or evidence of collusion.”
Schafer even went as far as to pen an article explaining the differences in how judges watch fights and how fans watch fights, which you can read here.