To piggyback on yesterday's editorial on Bloody Elbow, the following is an attempt to analyze the root-cause of two UFC 153 officiating issues observed by staff writer Ben Thapa. As my standard disclaimer: I respect MMA's referees and judges immensely and sympathize with the tremendous burden of making critical, on-the-spot decisions without the luxury of instant replay, multiple angles or a few days to mull things over.
The areas I'd like to address are the perpetual inconsistencies we see with referee stand ups and the manner in which rule violations are handled. My focus will be on the lack of consistency with officiating; a frustrating aspect that can never be wholly absolved because of the inherent subjectivity that permeates our beloved sport. MMA is, after all, a form of art. We, as fans and onlookers, have to accept that a liberal dose of ambiguity will always exist, but that shouldn't stop us from discussing the pros and cons, understanding the mechanics and speculating on solutions.
To demonstrate the broad range of referee stand ups and foul enforcement, let's examine some past examples that represent both ends of the spectrum. On the main card of UFC 153, Wagner Prado was warned for grabbing the fence on multiple occasions in his bout with Phil Davis. While trying to stand back up under the weighty top-side base of Davis, Prado reached out and blatantly inserted his fingers through the cage and grabbed ahold for stability.
Referee Marc Goddard was quick to step in and bark a loud warning for the infraction, and Prado released his grip and all was well ... until the scrambling Brazilian proceeded to grab the fence again not one, not two, but three more times in immediate succession, then another a few seconds later to bring the grand tally to four total rule violations in less than a minute. Let's contrast that to the most notorious point deduction for grabbing the fence, which was inflicted upon Tito Ortiz in his first match with Rashad Evans at UFC 73. Ortiz grabbed the fence once and referee John McCarthy issued a warning, but also specified that he'd take a point if it continued. Shortly after, Evans dropped for a double leg and McCarthy warned Ortiz once more, then deducted a full point when Tito clutched at the fence again.
That amounts to a full point deduction for three infractions compared to Prado getting off scot-free. Of course, the consequences were monumental for Ortiz, who beat Rashad 29-28 but settled for a 28-28 draw when factoring in the point loss, which in effect took away Ortiz' victory. At the time, many asserted that McCarthy's strict enforcement reflected how influential Evans' takedown was at that point in the fight -- however, Evans succeeded with the takedown anyway and Jose Aldo's conspicuous fence-grab at UFC 143 to stifle Chad Mendes' takedown went entirely unpunished.
So ... what's legal and what isn't? Why did Ortiz get the business while others escaped repercussion entirely?
Rather than castigate either official in those opposing scenarious, I'm simply trying to emphasize the historical inconsistency of the rule's enforcement by establishing a baseline, which lies somewhere between the aforementioned lenient and strict ends of the spectrum. I'll do the same for referee stand ups in the full entry before closing with a suggestion to improve consistency.
Continued in the full entry.
Though opinions will always vary, I don't think I have to outline an acceptable standard for referee stand ups. They typically occur after an extended absence of activity from both competitors and are accompanied by a "improve your position" suggestion from the ref. Fighters are usually in good hands under the watch of Herb Dean, Josh Rosenthal and -- the sport's most under-rated referee by a longshot -- Jason Herzog, who handles many Bellator events.
Referee Fernando Yamasaki is quickly earning a reputation for ridiculously premature interventions. In the Rony Mariano Bezerra vs. Sam Sicilia match at UFC 153, Sicilia settled back into Bezerra's guard with a flurry of punches at the 2:52 mark of Round One. Even though Sicilia had thrown a few hammer-fists and elbows, Yamasaki moved in to intervene at 2:37 but backed off because Sicilia postured up with a huge punch. Yamasaki stepped in and bent down at the 2:32 mark, just 5 seconds later, but again changed his mind, this time because Bezerra angled for a triangle-armbar. Sicilia escaped the hold, fired off 3 heavy shots from the feet and then re-embedded himself in Bezerra's guard at the 2:25 mark. 10 seconds later, Yamasaki interrupted the action even though Sicilia had rattled off a trio of short hammer-fists, a punch and then another hammer-fist within that span.
To summarize, Yamasaki allowed 15 seconds to work on the ground before intending to separate, then moved to intervene again just 5 seconds later even though Sicilia was leveling heavy shots (and Yamasaki ended up backing off) and finally committed to the restart after just 10 seconds; a sequence that included 6 meaningful strikes by Sicilia, which equates to landing a punch every 2 seconds.
Additionally, the final stand up was on the heels of multiple scrambles and transitions, busy and effective striking by Sicilia and a legitimate submission attempt by Bezerra. The fighters were not only admirably active and nowhere close to stalling, but the action was both effective and exciting.
Before I get into objective solutions, my opinion is that Yamasaki was excessively quick on the trigger. The aforementioned stand ups were completely unnecessary and actually impeded the fast-paced flow of the fight. Further, it clouds the very purpose of why a referee stands fighters up in the first place.
Generally, fighters are allotted that same amount of time, at the very minimum, with absolutely no activity or action -- yet both fighters were aggressively pursuing offense and succeeding with viable attempts. I really can't fathom any arguments to justify that. I believe that referee stand ups, designed to facilitate action, actually achieve the opposite effect and should become almost non-existent except for extreme scenarios of blatant stalling.
MMA's unified rules are enigmatic enough in the U.S. where individual states govern shows with their own unique and personalized take on the ABC's broad guidelines. Each state can and usually does institute slight variances or add-ons to the ABC's unified rules, such as the state of Nevada's passages on referee stand ups and enforcing fouls. The following are additional guidelines as instituted by Executive Director Keith Kizer in Nevada's published rule set.
If the fighters while engaged in combat during the match go to the ground the following is to be followed by the referee before bringing the combatants back to the standing position.
1. The referee shall give the combatants sufficient time to establish a dominant position on the ground.
2. Once the fighters have shown that they cannot establish a dominant position against their opponent either through effective striking or body positioning and control, the referee shall advise the fighters to improve their position if they wish to stay engaged on the ground.
3. Improvement of the position shall be determined by the fighter’s actions. The fighter in top position must either post up and begin leveling heavy strikes in a sustained and consistent fashion at his opponent, or move themselves to a more advantages position. A more advantages position would be considered, moving from your opponents guard into either half guard or side control. If this is accomplished by the fighter in the top position the fight will remain at its present position on the ground.
4. If the fighter in the bottom position wishes to keep the fight on the ground after being advised by the referee to improve their position, the fighter must, attempt to place their opponent in an disadvantages position. Examples would include, placing your opponent into a hold that could lead to their submission. Such as, Triangle, Arm Triangle, Omoplata (Shoulder Lock), Kimura, Arm Bar, Etc.
5. After being warned by the referee, if the fighters are unable to improve their position the referee shall stand the fighters and restart the fight from the standing position.
23. Holding the ropes or the fence.
A fighter may put their hands on the fence and push off of it at anytime. When a fighters fingers go through the cage and grab hold of the fence and start to control either their body position or their opponents body position, the referee shall issue a warning to the fighter to let go of the fence. If the fighter does not let go the referee shall attempt to quickly pull the fighter hand off of the fence. If this does not immediately work the referee shall issue a foul against the violating fighter. A fighter may not hold onto the ropes to gain an advantage over their opponent or to keep their opponent from being successful during a takedown attempt. The referee shall issue a warning to the fighter to let go of the ropes If the fighter does not let go the referee shall attempt to quickly pull the fighter hand off of the rope. If this does not immediately work the referee shall issue a foul against the violating fighter.
With inconsistency standing as the biggest issue with referee stand ups and foul enforcement, I believe that taking the extra time to publish more detailed guidelines, as the state of Nevada has done, is a step in the right direction. Nevada's additional verbiage is nothing more than a clear, easy to follow recommendation that serves as a rough baseline for officials.
Without establishing that rough baseline -- especially on a broader scale than in one U.S. state -- the enforcement of these rules will remain all too ambiguous and inconsistent.
Title photo via Esther Lin for MMAFighting.com