With changes in fighter mentalities and styles, and split-second decisions that need to be made to ensure safety, the role of the referee in mixed martial arts has never been more controversial than in the past three months.
During this period, after two events – UFC 92 on Dec. 27 in Las Vegas and last week's UFC 96 in Columbus, Ohio – UFC president Dana White lashed out at the officials, for both early and late stoppages.
There was similar controversy on two other Zuffa-promoted events where White didn’t speak at press conferences, the Ultimate Fight Night on Feb. 7 in Tampa and the World Extreme Cagefighting show March 1 in Corpus Christi, Texas.
Nearly everyone in the MMA community, when asked, will respond that the inconsistency of officials, not to mention the potential danger because more stoppages have been late than early, has become a huge issue in the sport. While there haven't been serious long-term injuries from recent late stoppages, there have been scary moments with fighters out cold in the cage for minutes.
"It’s [expletive] unbelievable," said White. "It’s gotten so bad. I don’t know what to do, and it’s getting worse. I had [UFC vice president of regulatory affairs Marc] Ratner in to figure out what to do."
The problem stems from a shortage of quality officials in a sport growing by leaps and bounds and changing by the day.
A shift in strategy has seen fighters, even those who are All-American wrestlers or black belts in jiu-jitsu, more and more try to utilize boxing and kickboxing to win their fights. This results in more flash knockdowns and more split-second decisions having to be made by referees over whether a fighter can intelligently defend himself.
Fighters often feel pressure trying to please the live crowd, wanting to be perceived as having quality fights and become more marketable in a community that is controlled by a zealous Internet fan base.
"Look at [Jorge] Gurgel," referee Yves Lavigne said of a recently released UFC vet. "He’s a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, and he’s very good on the ground. He never even shoots to try a takedown."
During the period in question, UFC held 60 matches, 32 of which were stopped by a referee call after a knockout or a TKO compared with nine submission finishes. That’s a 42 percent drop in submissions and a 36 percent increase in knockouts and TKOs over the same 12-week period one year ago. This means a larger number of split-second decisions are being made as to whether fighters can continue, and those decisions have a higher percentage of likelihood of affecting outcomes and careers.
Veteran referee Nelson "Doc" Hamilton noted that when it comes to officiating on the major events, particularly nationally televised UFC shows, the pressure is on officials, noting that referees are fully aware they will be more heavily criticized by the fighters, fans and media for stopping a fight a little early than a little late. As a general rule, that’s correct, and there will be loud boos at an early stoppage and rarely boos for late stoppages. But in recent months, most of the criticism has been for late or inconsistent stoppages.
Another issue not discussed much is the role of corner men who are supposed to protect their fighters. The most talked about call at UFC 96 was by Lavigne, generally considered one of the best officials in the industry, and this was for stopping the Matt Brown vs. Pete Sell fight late.
Lavigne went in to stop the fight just seconds in after Brown had knocked Sell down but suddenly changed his mind.
Brown was tagging Sell like a punching bag for the next minute, with both Bernie Profato, the head of the Ohio Athletic Commission, and White, jumping out of their seats and yelling at Lavigne to stop the fight before he finally did. At the same point, there was no movement at all from Sell’s corner to stop the fight.
"If you ask the fighter, they’ll say, 'I’d like to have my trainer decide to stop the fight because they know how much punishment I can take,' " noted John McCarthy, the most experienced and best known MMA referee. "That’s true, they do know their fighter better than the referee. But most trainers won’t stop the fight. They’ll let their guy get killed because they have faith in him and think he can come back. A lot of trainers won’t stop a fight for anything. They’re afraid of getting the fighter mad, and that the fighter may leave their camp."
"When was the last time a corner stopped a fight?" asked Lavigne. "I can’t even remember."
It’s notable because with so many complaints in recent months about late stoppages, far more than early stoppages, the only major fight stopped by a corner was the Jan. 31 Georges St. Pierre win over B.J. Penn. In that case, both the commission doctor and Penn’s corner after the fourth round signaled they wanted the fight stopped. Lavigne noted that was easy for a corner to say to stop the fight after they could see the doctor was going to anyway.
Profato noted that after the Brown vs. Sell fight, Lavigne came up to him and said, "Hey, Bernie, I just blew it. I had a bad fight."
"Right after the fight, we had a debriefing," said Lavigne. "We talked for five or 10 minutes. He [Profato] asked me if I can do the main event [Quinton Jackson vs. Keith Jardine]. I didn’t mess up in the main event. Apparently I took a beating on the Internet. But all the people who called me said I bounced back in the main event."
Lavigne said from where he was positioned, when Brown knocked Sell down the first time, he thought Sell was out and grabbed Brown.
"I then looked at Mr. Sell and saw he was still with us, and I decided to look bad and let the fight continue," said Lavigne.
That happens to every ref, as McCarthy noted a middleweight title match in 2002 where Matt Lindland tapped to Murilo Bustamante and he was in the wrong position and missed it. When he asked Lindland about it, he denied tapping. McCarthy said that as the fight went on, he realized Lindland really did tap but ended up relieved that justice was served in that fight because Bustamante ended up winning with a choke.
The key problems that nearly everyone noted were twofold. The first is the difficulty in officiating the sport. In boxing and kickboxing, if a guy is rocked or goes down, the referee has eight seconds to fully assess the situation and make a call. With no eight-counts for knockdowns or standing eight-counts if a guy is glassy, in MMA the fight continues to the ground without a pause, so the decision has to be made immediately if the fighter can intelligently defend himself.
The second problem is most referees, outside the core of longtime familiar faces seen on major UFC events held in Nevada aren’t experienced at the sport. State athletic commissions are entirely responsible for the selection of officials and most referees come from boxing backgrounds.
White noted that Mitch Halpern, who he believes is the best boxing referee, would go during his lunch hour at his regular job to a local Las Vegas gym and get in the ring to practice officiating while fighters were sparring. No MMA referees that he knows of do that.
McCarthy, on the other hand, said he has been criticized in some circles for going to the gym because people said he was getting too close with certain fighters. He noted in a sport that is ever-evolving, you have to continue to sharpen your game or you’ll fall behind. He added that if you watch boxing in the 1940s and boxing today, it’s essentially the same sport, but MMA is rapidly changing.
The training for new referees also isn't there. Both McCarthy and Hamilton have training camps for officials, most importantly to learn where to be at the right moment to have the best view in different situations. But the commissions for the most part claim not to have the money to send their officials for training, and the organizations rely on the commissions as opposed to paying for officials to be trained.
Hamilton noted Texas was the only state that would pay for its officials to be trained at one of his seminars.
Yet, the WEC show on March 1 in Corpus Christi had two major problems.
First, Damacio Page knocked out Marcos Galvao in seconds after a series of big punches. Galvao was clearly out and took two more punches on the ground. The result was that he was knocked out cold and laying on the ground for several minutes in a scary scene.
The other was during a Johny Hendricks vs. Alex Serdyukov match, where Serdyukov either poked Hendricks in the eye in the third round or gouged him, perhaps accidentally, but the referee missed it and the fight continued without penalty to Seryukov. Hendricks ended up being target practice for the rest of the fight, although he did win a decision after taking the first two rounds handily.
Officials with the Texas State Licensing and Control Board declined to comment.
On the Feb. 7 UFC show in Tampa, a call in the Matt Veach vs. Matt Grice fight ended up heavily criticized. Grice knocked Veach down, and he seemed in trouble to where it could have been stopped without criticism.
But Veach recovered, came back and dropped Grice with a punch, and the same ref jumped in and stopped it immediately. Grice protested and UFC officials were dumbfounded, noting it’s one thing to have inconsistencies with different referees, but this was the same referee in the same match.
On Saturday, in a prelim match the UFC wouldn’t air on the pay-per-view broadcast even though there was time, Shane Nelson dropped Aaron Riley with a punch in the first minute. Even though Riley was clearly defending himself, ref Rich Fike jumped in and stopped the match.
"He blew it, that’s all," said Profato.
"When the referee changes the potential outcome of the fight, that’s really bad," said White, who noted that UFC paid Riley his winning bonus even though he lost the fight because they felt so strongly he didn’t get a fair opportunity in the fight.
Profato noted Fike, an Ohio referee appointed by the commission, had refereed numerous small shows, as well as worked one pay-per-view event from another promotion. Profato put him out to do a second match on the show, Kendall Grove vs. Jason Day, but felt that stoppage was late and pulled him from his scheduled fight on the live show.
"Would I be comfortable with him as a ref at another show? Yes," said Profato. But Profato noted that he would not assign Fike if there was a major show, feeling he needs to prove himself on smaller shows before he gets a big show assignment.
There are issues between White and McCarthy, who began officiating in
1994 on the second UFC show, that have kept McCarthy from officiating UFC and WEC events since he returned to officiating late last year. Both declined to comment on their relationship.
In a close-knit fighting community where McCarthy is one of the best known and most respected personalities, there has been question about whether he has become too close with certain fighters. McCarthy noted that when Randy Couture fought before his 2006 retirement, the two weren’t close friends, but after that point they became close and their families even vacationed together. When McCarthy was assigned the Couture vs. Tim Sylvia match in 2007, he said he turned it down for that reason. But he ended up doing it when Sylvia himself went to the commission and requested McCarthy oversee the match.
Another issue in inconsistency is that different fighters can take a different level of punishment. McCarthy noted that the more familiar you are with fighters, the better you know how much they can take.
But that opens up criticisms because a fighter who is known to be more durable may appear to be getting more of an opportunity to recover.
Lavigne noted in the Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira vs. Heath Herring fight at UFC 73, that many would have stopped it when Herring knocked Nogueira down with a brutal head kick, he felt Nogueira would recover quickly and let the fight continue. Nogueira went on to win the match via unanimous decision.
However, McCarthy noted with Nogueira’s second-round TKO loss to Frank Mir in December, some felt it was stopped too quickly but said all the punishment Nogueira has taken during his career for his toughness has changed his recovery ability.
McCarthy has not reapplied for a license to officiate in Nevada, where UFC holds more events than any other state, partially because athletic commissions executive director Keith Kizer felt it was a conflict of interest for McCarthy to work as a television commentator and also officiate.
This is what led to McCarthy announcing his retirement as a referee at the end of 2007, figuring he had to make a decision on which direction he was going. McCarthy took a job as an executive with The Fight Network, a 24-hour Canadian cable channel, which fell on hard financial times. When he left that position, he returned to officiating. McCarthy refereed the second Affliction show in Anaheim, Calif., on Jan. 24, after being an announcer for the promotion on its first show, which in other sports would see questionable.
"When I go into a fight, I don’t care who wins the fight," said McCarthy, who didn’t feel it was a conflict of interest.
In Ohio, the UFC recommended a group of referees and officials to Profato, who also assigned his own local officials and picked at random from the UFC list. However, in Nevada, the UFC has no input on judges or officials, as noted by the state's frequent use of veteran official
Steve Mazzagatti, whom White has vocally trashed on several occasions.
"[Kizer] knows my opinion," said White. "He has no answer. He doesn’t want to hear from me."
"Steve Mazzagatti is a great referee," said Kizer.
White was critical of Mazzagatti for a late stoppage in the Dec. 27 fight with Cheick Kongo beating Mostapha Al-Turk, in a match in which both sustained low blows.
"I’m going to tell the fighters they can turn down referees and it’s in their hands if they want a ref who may end up getting them hurt in a match," said White, who noted that both Anthony Johnson and Randy Couture have turned down Mazzagatti to officiate recent matches when assigned.
Until the day arrives in which mixed martial arts has enough top-notch referees to go around, such the ability to turn down a referee may be the fighter's safest option.