Why Dana White's latest power play should be cause for concern

Why Dana White's latest power play should be cause for concern

LAS VEGAS – Mixed martial arts fans collectively cheered on Saturday when UFC president Dana White yanked Howard Hughes as a judge after he was unhappy with Hughes' work in the first two bouts at a fight card Saturday in Macau, China.

This, though, was a decision that should have been booed, and loudly, even if one believes that Hughes clearly blew both of the first two bouts.

The UFC self regulates in jurisdictions that have no athletic commission or governing body, such as Macau. In those cases, the UFC generally appoints Marc Ratner, its vice president for regulatory affairs and, notably, the highly respected former executive director of the Nevada Athletic Commission, to run such shows.

Ratner runs those shows under Nevada rules, and he appoints the judges, the referees and runs the drug testing.

But Ratner wasn't in Macau on Saturday. Instead, he attended the card in Oklahoma later that night, though he did appoint the judges and referees for the Macau show.

Though we'll never know, I'm certain that if Ratner had been there, Hughes never would have been yanked. White would have been just as angry with Ratner sitting there, but he'd have expressed his anger to Ratner instead of taking matters into his own hands.

Dana White has been known to blast judges in the UFC's post-event press conferences as well. (MMAWeekly)
Dana White has been known to blast judges in the UFC's post-event press conferences as well. (MMAWeekly)

Knowing Ratner, who is one of the most calm and laid back men you're likely to meet, he would have convinced White to settle down and wouldn't have pulled Hughes.

Whether Hughes is or isn't a good judge isn't the question, though Ratner felt he was good enough to be assigned to the show.

And it does not matter whether Hughes' scoring was correct, even though he had the same winner in the opener as White did.

Hughes worked the first two bouts of the night in Macau, a women's bantamweight bout that Milana Dudieva won by split decision over Elizabeth Phillips and a men's bantamweight bout in which Royston Wee took a split decision from Yao Zhikui.

Hughes was in the majority in all six rounds he worked. In the Dudieva-Phillips fight, all three judges gave Dudieva the first round. In the second, Hughes and Gareth Harriman scored it for Phillips while Anthony Dimitriou had it for Dudieva. And in the third, Hughes and Dimitriou had it for Dudieva and Harriman scored it for Phillips.

In the Wee-Zhikui fight, Hughes and Paul Sutherland each scored the first two rounds for Wee, while all three judges scored the third round for Zhikui.

Hughes' night ended after the Wee-Zhikui fight when White overstepped his bounds and yanked him.

A promoter should never cross that line and interfere with the officiating in an event.

It's particularly sensitive for the UFC in many of its international venues, where there aren't regulatory bodies overseeing them.

In the early years of Zuffa's ownership of the UFC, the company refused to put on events in states that did not have athletic commissions. It hired Ratner away from the Nevada commission in 2006 in part to expedite the process of getting it regulated in all states.

Ratner did yeoman's work and now, 49 of the 50 states regulate MMA. New York, bizarrely, is the only one that does not and that is a political situation, not an athletic one.

But it's not simple to get foreign countries to create commissions to oversee these events. Ratner has worked on that, but hasn't had the kind of success he's had in the U.S. Because Zuffa wanted to expand its product to all corners of the globe, it decided to self-regulate events outside of the U.S. where no commission exists.

The judges and referees in those cases are getting paid directly by the UFC.

MMA is an extremely young sport and the pool of qualified judges is exceptionally small. Most of the judges have been involved in the sport one way or another for years and love it dearly and want to see it succeed. And so, they've agreed to work international shows for the UFC even though they're getting paid directly by the promoter they're officiating.

Referee Steve Mazzagatti is a familiar verbal punching bag for UFC president Dana White. (Getty)
Referee Steve Mazzagatti is a familiar verbal punching bag for UFC president Dana White. (Getty)

Imagine the outcry if Pete Carroll had the right to pick the referees who worked Seahawks' games.

Yet, that's what is happening here and there's never been much of a furor raised.

All involved have accepted with the acknowledgement that though it's not ideal, it's the only way to expand the sport. Ratner's integrity and professionalism is part of the reason there hasn't previously been an outcry, though there are sure to be many concerns voiced now that White has injected himself into it.

White has to be cognizant of the situation and can't appear to be trying in any way to intimidate or influence the judges' work.

His voice at news conferences is powerful enough. White's public anger following UFC 167 last year, following a series of incidents he was unhappy with, led to many changes within the Nevada Athletic Commission.

Referee John McCarthy is going to be licensed soon by the Nevada Athletic Commission, largely in response to White's complaints about the quality of the officiating. Referee Steve Mazzagatti, whom White feels is subpar, has unsurprisingly not worked a UFC show in Nevada this year, after being a staple for years. That's no coincidence.

White clearly wields a great deal of power. Two prominent regulators in the U.S. were asked to comment about White's removal of Hughes on Saturday; both declined. It is a nod to the clout that White carries.

After having yanked Hughes, other judges and referees are likely to consider whether they want to work future cards and risk getting pulled mid-show by White.

Judges and referees need to be accountable and should lose plum assignments if their work isn't up to snuff. There is no debate about that.

It's just that White, or any promoter, shouldn't be the one making that determination.

And so, as long as the UFC self regulates, White needs to resist the urge to intervene.

He'd face some sort of penalty were he to have so much as tried that in the U.S. in which a strong commission, such as those in New Jersey, California and Nevada, was in charge.

Given that no one had jurisdiction of the Macau show, White will skate.

But he needs to know that what he did was wrong, and shouldn't be done again.