Consistently Inconsistent: MMA Referees
by: Marcus Mitchell
A Trip to the Optometrist
Any referee will tell you that they would prefer you not know their name. It’s better for the referee if we don’t know he’s there until he is stopping a fight or raising a fighter’s hand. Unlike other sports, MMA referees are few and far between. After a small number of events, you can’t help but begin to be familiar with their faces. A ref’s name, however, does not become recognizable until you have a mistake to attach it to. And while it’s clear that every referee is different, aren’t they all paid to do the job the same way?
Sure, not all referees are disliked. Admit it. When you saw that Steve Mazzagatti was slated to referee the Condit vs. Diaz match, you had a handful or three of names that you would have preferred. Consider John McCarthy. We lovingly refer to him as Big John. He is generally regarded as the best referee in the business. He has crossed the line from referee to MMA icon. He is the exception to the referee rule. Recently, Josh Rosenthal has begun to climb into that category. His decision to allow Brock Lesnar to continue in his bout with Shane Carwin put him in Dana White’s and, simultaneously, MMA fan’s good graces.
Even the McCarthys and Rosenthals of the officiating world have something in common with the Winslows and Mazzagattis. They have all made noticeable and devastatingly blatant mistakes. McCarthy has stopped fights far too early. Winslow has stopped fights far too late. Steve Mazzagatti represents referees like Cecil Peoples represents judges. Rosenthal incorrectly ruled a fighter unconscious from a rear naked choke at Bellator 35. Mistakes come with the occupation. They’re going to happen.
Referees are supposed to all do the same job. They are there to put a fighter’s safety first. To do so, a referee needs to make snap judgments, without the backup of instant replay. A referee must determine whether a submission or strike has taken a fighter out of consciousness. A referee is responsible for stopping submissions after a fighter has tapped. These are all tough calls to make. Mistakes are understandable, especially in the name of safety.
It’s the inconsistencies between referees that can easily be avoided. Deducting a point or advocating when fighters should stand up or break must be black and white. Less weight on the referees’ shoulder means more defined and understandable calls.
If you’ve ever heard Joe Rogan scream that a referee is out of his mind for standing up a fighter in side control, you understand. The process through which an umpire must go should include a fair amount of MMA teaching. There are plenty of cases when fighters should be stood up. Of course, if they have not been working or are not improving their position, pick the fighters up. Instead, many referees, including big name refs like Herb Dean, incessantly warn fighters without actually following through. Referees need to understand the dominant positions and follow through with their warnings of standing the action up. Learning different positions is not a difficult process for officials to go through.
The same can be said when a referee constantly tells two fighters to work against the cage. How long should the fighter be allowed to stall before a referee does something about it? It falls into the same category as parenting. If you tell your child 30 times not to do something without actually reprimanding the child, do not be surprised when the child continues with the same action. Guidelines are definable and can be determined to teach referees.
It seems as if referees cannot even stay consistent with their own decisions. Take Mario Yamasaki. He gave Vitor Belfort exclusive access to the back of Akiyama’s head. Belfort unloaded and annihilated Akiyama. Fast forward five months to find Yamasaki disqualifying Erick Silva for the same illegal blows. Regardless of your stance on either decision, it is clear that in both cases, shots to the back of the head were landed in a situation where the fight was ending. While the definition of the back of the head is clearly defined to MMA referees, the procedure to follow for these types of situations is not. Yamasaki was obviously confused on the matter, but I cannot blame him when there is no clear defined procedure.
The last situation of note came out of UFC 143. Herb Dean’s role as referee directly affected the outcome of two separate fights.
In the first fight in question, Alex Caceres accidentally struck Edwin Figueroa in the first minute of the bout with an inside kick that seemed to catch as much thigh as it did cup. Herb Dean could only judge the situation based off Figueroa’s reaction as instant replay in not an option. Figueroa took this opportunity to imitate a grown person who had just been circumcised. He flailed and rolled around, taking a fair amount of the five minute time limit a fighter is allotted. Dean issued Caceres a “strong warning.”
In the opening minute of the second round, Caceres landed an inside leg kick. This one was absolutely clean. However, Figueroa again reacted as if it was too far inside. It began to seem like Figueroa was fishing for a handout, but Dean responded, “That was a clean shot! That was a clean shot!” He had missed. Less than two minutes later, Caceres sunk Figueroa’s battleship. This time, Figueroa rolled back and forth on the cage mat.
In a move that Dana White, Mike Goldberg and various other high profile MMA figures had never seen, Herb Dean elected to instantly deduct two points from Caceres. In fact, under the unified rules, a two point deduction is only used for intentional fouls. In that case, the ruling is defined as:
“If an injury is produced and the contest is allowed to continue, the referee will notify the authorities and automatically deduct 2 points from the contestant who committed the foul.”
There is no vantage point fathomable from which Herb Dean could have seen the kicks as intentional. Instead, he made a decision that put Caceres into a hole he could not get out of. Caceres had to finish Figueroa to have any conceivable chance at winning.
Later on the card, Herb Dean found himself locked inside the cage with Josh Koscheck and Mike Pierce. Koscheck, equipped with a resume for blotting eyeballs to find his range, engaged Pierce, holding his fingers out like he needed a manicure. As in the Caceres fight, Herb Dean issued a warning to Koscheck about his fingers. He continued to estimate the distance between him and Pierce with his fingers held out and Dean continued to verbally warn him. The warnings culminated in the last round where Koscheck landed an eye gouge to Pierce’s right eye. Dean responded with, “I’ve warned you already. This is your last warning.” Not a single point deduction. Not a double point deduction. Instead, Koscheck received his final warning of several.
Why was Caceres’s foul intentional after one warning and Koscheck’s unintentional after several? Why do some referees take a single point in some low blow instances, while other referees opt to not even deduct a point?
A lot of the rulings in MMA are left to the individual referee’s interpretation. Referees are told exactly what is a foul and what is not. However, when a foul is committed, they are allowed to issue as many “warnings” as they want without even a grasp of the definition of the word.
With the desire to become mainstream, a number of things still stand in MMA’s way. All other mainstream sports have clearly defined rules and procedures for distinct situations. When a situation is presented without a procedure, one is defined immediately. In MMA, the same situation can yield a multitude of outcomes with no set correct course of action.
Many fans scream at referees that they need help to bring the play into focus. Usually, it’s in the form of, “HEY REF! WHAT ARE YOU, BLIND!? YOU NEED GLASSES!” Referees are constantly participating in eye exams. With each event, their abilities are tested. It’d be silly to prescribe glasses to officials who are not even sure exactly what to look for.
Consider yourself to be an optometrist for the referees after each event, asking, “Better one… or two?” It seems as if they’re consistently giving a different answer. Place an explicit set of procedures in front of their eyes and you’ll hear, “About the same.”