That the top-tier MMA referees don't even agree on the rules governing use of elbows and which strikes to the back of the head are legal is partly understandable given the growth and change of the sport. It's also completely unacceptable:
According to Dean, McCarthy's "Mohawk" definition is incorrect, and that the illegal area begins behind the ears in a sort of headphone-like arc, essentially cutting the head in two zones -- legal and illegal.
A referee for nine years, Dean says that the "Mohawk" definition defining the illegal area has been replaced by a de facto verbal agreement between referees and commission officials in states such as California and Nevada.
The widely recognized "Unified Rules," authored in New Jersey, state that "strikes to the spine or back of the head" constitute a foul. Nevada's regulations mirror identical verbiage. The Nevada State Athletic commission's Web site also provides additional clarification to the regulation in a "MMA Explanations" section under its Frequently Asked Questions header. It states that, in accordance with the foul, "the back of the head is considered the direct center of the head with 1' inch of tolerance to either side."
A 2008 edition of Referee Rules and Guidelines, distributed by the California State Athletic Commission to its officials, also lists the centerline-1' inch description to define the back of the head.
However, Dean says the "Mohawk" definition was replaced by the current one two years ago following a presentation by Dr. Paul Wallace, a ringside physician for the California State Athletic Commission, prior to a 2006 UFC event in Anaheim.
For Dean, it changed his understanding of what an illegal elbow was. Dean said that Wallace's definition is in place by a mutual understanding between referees and commission officials in both California and Nevada, and that he has been using it since Wallace's presentation in 2006.
"I still had a problem with it, because it was different from what I'd been enforcing. And I spoke with (CSAC Executive Officer) Armando Garcia, (NSAC Executive Directors) Mark Ratner and Keith Kizer and told them this is what Armando wants us to enforce in California," Dean said. "Will we be enforcing it in Nevada? They said, yes, if they're enforcing it in California, we'll enforce it in our states. So I guess by Dr. Wallace's definition, it was a foul. By the Mohawk definition, it isn't."
Both Kizer and Garcia assert that the "Mohawk" definition has been replaced -- at least verbally -- by a "headphone" or "horseshoe" zone, where illegal blows start an inch or two behind the ears.
I suppose Dean's approach errs on the side of caution, but how on earth are two of the most experienced referees not on the same page regarding the rules on this very serious matter? This isn't a tangential rule governing some aspect of fighting that hardly ever comes into play or rarely affects the outcome of the fight. This is an issue that has serious repercussions for how fights are officiated and scored. In addition, there are serious health repercussions around the use of elbows and shots to the back of the head.
I hesitate to place blame anywhere, but perhaps I can save some for the athletic commissions. How they manage to host shows and employee referees week after week that don't understand what the rules are is beyond me. More importantly, that they are using some tacit or verbal agreement as the basis for rules also seems unreliable and deeply unprofessional. The rules that should be employed in the ring or cage are those rules on the books, not those underwritten by handshakes. If the current rules don't take enough medical precaution, then those should be changed. But to operate under this policy is "have you heard what the rules are today?" seems almost absurd and partly explains the disparity in officiating from referee to referee.