Over the years Josh Rosenthal has become my favorite referee. Although he usually stays in the shadows, most people with adequate knowledge of MMA will list him as one of their top 3 or 5 refs behind guys like Herb Dean, Big John, and occasionally Mario Yamasaki. He doesn't stand up fights too quickly and seems to have an adequate idea of what fighters are doing while grappling and attempting submissions (although was he recently the one who stopped a UFC fight early when a fighter never tapped? I can't remember.) He doesn't stand too far away from fighters so no one takes unnecessary punches. The thing I like most about him is he is fantastic at judging how conscious a fighter is. He definitely showed that in tonight's main event.
The date was July 3rd, 2010. The place was the MGM Grand Garden Area in Las Vegas. The UFC was billing it as "the biggest fight in UFC history", and technically they were correct. In the Main Event of UFC 116, Brock Lesnar and Shane Carwin would be battling for the UFC Heavyweight Championship of the world. For the first time, two fighters that exceeded the 265 lb. weight limit would be duking it out at the same time. Early into the fight Brock Lesnar was smacked by a Shane Carwin punch that immediately threatened to separate Lesnar from his senses. Lesnar's legs were jelly, and he went stumbling across the Octagon as Shane Carwin poured on the punches. Lesnar was in complete survival mode, which is bad because his survival mode is awful. Over and over again Carwin punched him with his neanderthal hands and down went Brock. With a few minutes left in the round Carwin had Lesnar trapped against the fence as he pounded away looking for a stoppage. Rosenthal stood right next to them. "You gotta fight back Brock" and Brock kicks at Carwin, momentarily pushing him away and stopping the onslaught. Again, Carwin comes at him. "Brock you have to keep fighting" and once again, Brock pushes Carwin away. Brock escapes the round. As the next round begins, Lesnar is smiling. I think he noticed how gassed Carwin was from across the Octagon. He smelled fear. Lesnar opened the frame with a double leg takedown that Carwin was nowhere close to stuffing. Lesnar passed to side control and sunk in a beautiful arm triangle choke and finished Carwin. I haven't been as animated as I was during that fight and it was instantly one of my favorites. Lesnar was still the baddest man on the planet. Most people acknowledged what an awesome job Rosenthal did. He recognized that although Carwin was beating on Lesnar, Lesnar was conscious and aware of what was going on, and worked to improve every time Rosenthal told him to. A job well done.
Fast forward one month to UFC 117. Anderson Silva has been taking a beating for 22 minutes from Chael Sonnen. He throws up a Hail Mary triangle choke and in the mess of tangled limbs, it appears Sonnen taps. Rosenthal steps in to stop the fight as Chael protests. Rosenthal wasn't having any of it, and declared the fight over. Some speculated Chael was trying to quick tap his way out of the submission. Chael would go on to test positive for high testosterone levels and would end up serving a six month suspension, in addition to being caught laundering money. Can you imagine if Rosenthal missed the tap or let the fight continue and Sonnen became the champ? The UFC dodged a major PR disaster with Anderson's amazing submission and Rosenthal's quick work. Although I was rooting for Sonnen and was heartbroken at the loss, it was still one of the best fights I've ever seen. Josh made sure no unnecessary drama came out of it.
And then there was tonight. We all saw it. I can't wait to rewatch it tomorrow. Twice. Maybe three times. Dan Henderson and Mauricio Shogun Rua put on a fight for the ages. It will win Fight of the Year. I didn't think anything would be dethroning Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard's second contest from January 1st (or even their third fight). But this one bested it. Someone got rocked every round. Bombs were thrown, landed, and taken on the chin like a champ from both fighters. Specifically in the third round, Henderson was destroying Rua. Now, if Rosenthal would have stopped the fight nobody would have complained. Nobody would have said cried foul or complained of bias or fix. Shogun was getting destroyed, and Shogun's helplessness looked similar to the Jon Jones fight. This is exactly why it was such a good job done by Rosenthal. He recognized that Shogun was still conscious and still trying his best to fight back and improve position. And he did! He threatened with a leg lock and ended the round much better than anyone would have thought. In the 5th round, the same happened but the roles were reversed. Henderson's gas tank was way passed empty. He was getting mounted at will and simply beat on. Rosenthal recognized that he was fine. I honestly thought I saw a stoppage coming in the last 30 seconds of that fifth round. A stoppage in the 3rd or 5th wouldn't have been a robbery. Nobody would have called for an immediate rematch so the fighters could have a definitive end. And this is why it was awesome. Rosenthal was able to see and understand that these guys could keep going. That they had gritted through bombs that nobody else could handle, not Machida or Griffin, not Feijao, Fedor, or Babalu and they could take more. He didn't take away the beauty that was Henderson vs Rua. A five round war we will tell our grandkids about. A stoppage could have been just. But by knowing what was going on, Rosenthal helped facilitate awe-inspiring greatness. By not stopping it early, he is setting the fighters up to put themselves in positions to participate in history. We wouldn't have known the awesomeness that we missed out on if it was stopped early. But thanks to Josh, we were treated to something special. He consistently does things like this. All refs make mistakes, and one of you will probably point out an obvious error recently. But Rosenthal will continue to be my favorite ref for being a small catalyst in so many of my favorite fights. Tonight, Henderson and Rua are gods. Soak this fight in. Watch it six times. We saw greatness.
And thank Fly Spaghetti Monster for 5 round non title fights.