THE ART OF STOPPING A FIGHT: Understanding the difficult role of Mixed Martial Arts Referees
The Ultimate Fighting Championship has evolved dramatically since its inception over two decades ago. Starting in 1993, early UFC events had very limited regulations: no gloves, no weight-classes, and no chance of being sanctioned in most states. Over time, and after the purchase of the UFC by Zuffa, LLC (Larry & Frank Fertitta and President Dana White) regulation of the sport developed into the UFC of today. Of course, the essence of MMA is that it is a combat sport; combining the knockouts of kickboxing with the body control of wrestling and the submissions of jiu jitsu. The combination of these individual martial arts form a violent and exciting contest between two hyper-competitive athletes, locked in a cage, and forced to use every technique and tool to avoid defeat in gruesome fashion.
Oh, and there’s a referee in there too … you know, just in case someone is being beaten to a bloody pulp, the ref needs to pull the other guy off of him. Fun job! The State Athletic Commission sanctions the referees where the fight is taking place (oftentimes Nevada). When the referee does a poor job in the cage, the State Athletic Commission takes the blame. And it does so fairly often.
The truth is that the job of an MMA referee is uniquely difficult. While these referees do not have to make a call on every play, the calls they do make have more impact on the contest than in most other sports. Their decisions also have more of an impact on athlete safety than in any other sport. MMA referees take the most heat when one of two things happen: they stopped the fight too early – meaning the losing fighter was actively defending himself despite the beating he was taking; or they stopped the fight too late – meaning the losing fighter was unconscious or unable to defend himself and the referee did not step in to stop the fight soon enough.
Clearly the judgment call to stop a fight is brutally difficult, with immense consequences, and not much room for error. No second chances, no instant replay, no repeat 3rd down. When a fight that ends via an illegal strike or an early referee stoppage, best-case scenario is a “No Contest” and neither fighter gets a win or a loss. The finality of every referee decision is daunting.
Mario Yamasaki, Herb Dean, Yves Lavigne, and Steve Mazzagatti were the four referees on hand at the “UFC 168” pay-per-view fight card in December 2013. They are the ‘usual suspects’ of MMA refereeing. Herb Dean is praised as the sports’ best; Mazzagatti the worst. Mazzagatti often finds himself under fire from UFC brass and fight fans for late stoppages, while Dean is praised for his officiating timing (both for giving fighters the proper amount of time to comeback from being stunned and for stopping fights when a fighter is close to unconscious). Ultimately, the praise and criticism fall on deaf ears, as the State Athletic Commissions are the ones to determine discipline for shoddy refereeing and referee assignments for all sanctioned bouts.
Lost in the criticism is the fact that the line between the “best” and “worst” refereeing decisions is much thinner than credited. This was evident at UFC 168, when during the main event (which ended with Anderson Silva snapping his leg in half … in case you forgot) Middleweight Champion Chris Weidman hit Silva with several punches in the clinch, causing Silva’s eyes to roll back in his head. Weidman then gained top position on the ground and delivered some effective ground and pound, again bringing Silva to the brink of consciousness. Dean let the fight go on, but it easily could have been stopped to save Silva from further damage. Split-second decisions like these are the ones that come under the most criticism.
Also worth noting is the fact that there is often little that referees can do to prevent injury or controversy. In October 2013, in a fight between Rousimar Palhares and Mike Pierce, Palhares, a known submission artist with a black belt in jiu jitsu, applied his signature “heel hook” (done by twisting the heel of an opponent while keeping the leg stationary, thus prying – and tearing if held long enough – the MCL and other knee ligaments). Referee Keith Peterson jumped in to stop the fight after Mike Pierce tapped out, but Palhares, a hulk of a man even at 170lbs, refused to let go. Pierce was injured and there was nothing Peterson could do about it. Palhares was cut by the UFC despite winning the fight and Pierce is still recovering from a sprained MCL.
While Palhares took deserved criticism for holding on to the submission, it was a sobering reminder of how powerless referees actually are in the cage. One punch to an already unconscious opponent or a fighter holding onto a submission for one moment too long is the difference between a safe finish and permanent damage. To think that the referee can prevent this is an idealistic view of their abilities.
The difference between an early stoppage and a late stoppage is often one punch. Although some of these calls do summon the referee’s good judgment – and some do have better judgment than others – the outcome that one punch is not predetermined. Sometimes fighters who look dead to rights comeback and win (Kongo/Barry & Edgar/Maynard II are two such examples) and the referee is credited with letting the fight go on. But those fights could have easily been stopped without objection. In those same instances, if the losing fighter were to be allowed to take more damage and no comeback was mounted, the referee would have been blamed for not stopping the fight soon enough (like Yamasaki was for not stopping the Henderson/Bisping fight at UFC 100). Some of these decisions are more luck and happenstance than good judgment in the heat of hand-to-hand combat.
While calls for the State Athletic Commissions to provide more training, better referees, better accountability, and better oversight continue, it is important to note the double standard and razor’s-edge that MMA referees are held to. It is near impossible to advocate for both the sanctity of competition and fighter safety without acknowledging that one will have to be sacrificed for the other at almost every fight stoppage. To that end, the UFC, and more importantly its fighters, will continue to be at the mercy of imperfect judgment calls, because, for better or worse, that is the nature of the sport as we know it.