Judging a UFC fight is as close to the action as someone can get without being inside the octagon.
Nanaimo’s John Cooper will be cage-side once again as the Ultimate Fighting Championship makes its return to B.C. on Saturday (Aug. 27). UFC Fight Night, to be broadcast live on Fox, will be held at Vancouver’s Rogers Arena.
“They haven’t been to Vancouver in three years so we’re pretty excited that they’ve decided to make a comeback,” Cooper said.
A former mixed martial arts athlete and promoter, Cooper has been a licensed official since 1999 and this will be his third time working for UFC as a judge. He is one of only four Canadians actively judging UFC fights and has passed certification courses led by UFC’s most-recognizable referee at Big John McCarthy’s Ultimate Training Academy.
Cooper officiates the sport all around the province, but said with the magnitude of the UFC, there are a few more nerves and a little more pressure leading up to a show.
Saturday’s card consists of 12 matchups – four on the main card, four on the undercard and four preliminary bouts – and Cooper anticipates judging two to six matches.
“We’re sitting right cage-side, so there’s no better seat in the house…” he said. “We can actually hear the impact of the blows, hear the breathing of the fighters, hear the vocalization of the fighters in a way that the crowd really can’t.”
That vantage point is important because judges have to take in a lot of information about what’s in front of them. Cooper said punch and kick counts don’t figure into judges’ decisions in the way that fans might expect.
“The biggest component is damage,” Cooper said. “One guy might land five punches and the other guy might land five punches and it’s my job … if they both landed the same amount of punches, to determine whose punches did the most damage.”
Even cuts and blood aren’t always the best indicators, as Cooper said it’s most important to try to judge how the blows affect a fighter cognitively.
Although the judging criteria are very specific, he said, they involve continual judgement calls. He said it means he has to watch the sport very differently than he would if he was sitting in front of the TV or spectating from the stands.
He doesn’t hear commentary and he tries to tune out crowd reactions.
“When I’m watching a fight as a fan, I often will come out thinking that one person’s a winner and then I’m often wrong,” Cooper said. “When you watch as a judge, you’re almost in a meditative state. You’re watching it with a very different lens.”
The main event of UFC Fight Night is Demian Maia against Carlos Condit, and one of the semi-main events pits Paige VanZant against Bec Rawlings.
“I haven’t even reviewed the roster in detail,” Cooper said. “I try to go in there as unbiased as possible. I don’t even like to get a lot of background on the athletes heading into it.”
Cooper said he gets as excited now, before an MMA match, as he did when he first started watching the sport, and especially likes seeing it live. He calls MMA “kinetic chess,” played with rules that are flexible enough to allow for a creative component.
“I look at a lot of other sports as metaphors for combat,” he said. “And a fighter fighting in a restricted-rules format is one of the purest athletic competitions that there is.”
GAME ON … UFC Fight Night begins at 1 p.m. Saturday at Rogers Arena. The undercard will be televised on TSN2 starting at 3 p.m. and the main card starts at 5 p.m. on CTV Two.