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Opinion: There shouldn’t be different styles of reffing in MMA

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Championship fights should not get more leeway from referees

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There were questions about the refereeing in both Bellator and the UFC this past weekend. Most of the scrutiny fell on Kerry Hatley’s work in the Bellator 244 bout between Ryan Bader and Vadim Nemkov and Chris Tognoni’s officiating in a pair of bouts on the UFC on ESPN 15 fight card.

The beginning of the end in the Bellator light heavyweight title bout came in the second round when Nemkov caught Bader with a head kick that dropped the two-division Bellator champ. Bader spent the next 40 seconds doing everything he could to avoid the non-stop strikes of Nemkov. Bader covered up, got to his knees, tried to stand three times, grabbed the arms of Nemkov and got dropped twice during the scramble before Hatley waved off the fight.

During the “Weighing-In” podcast, former referee John McCarthy and retired fighter Josh Thomson, who are both part of the Bellator commentary team, said they thought the stoppage was a good one. One argument Thomson and McCarthy made in favor of the stoppage was the status and experience of the fighters. Another point the two MMA veterans made were the stakes of the fight, which was the Bellator 205-pound title.

“You cannot ref all fights the same, they are different and you’ll hear people go ‘well, that’s just wrong.’ No, you’re wrong because you’re sitting on your f—ng couch and you don’t have any of the responsibility of what that guy standing in the cage has,” said McCarthy. “That guy is smart enough to know there’s a difference between what you allow a 2-0, 1-1, 2-2, 3-0 fighter against another one that’s got a record like that. There’s a difference in what you let them swim into, as I say, that the depth of the water is a lot shallower. Your decision to pull them out will come a lot quicker than it will for the fighter that is the champion or the challenger in a championship fight.”

McCarthy’s point is understandable. Referees should know a lot more about the fighters competing in championship fights and that knowledge could come into play, but I’m torn on if it should enter the equation at all. McCarthy has a point, fighters in championship bouts have earned that spot. They have worked hard to get to where they are, but should referees allow them to take more damage than they would allow a preliminary card fighter absorb? The answer to that question for me is no, no they should not.

Maybe a few years ago this would have made sense, but we know too much about brain injuries these days to allow anyone to take extra damage. Safety on fight night is the referees job, but officials should also consider long-term health. In that equation, Hatley could have waved off the fight earlier than he did.

The UFC fights that had questions arise were the Timur Valiev vs. Trevin Jones contest and the Daniel Rodriguez vs. Dwight Grant scrap.

Valiev hurt Jones with a body kick with 90 seconds left in the first stanza. Jones’ backside briefly hit the canvas before he regained his feet. Jones then did everything he could to survive. He took a lot of shots to the head and body, but he stayed on his feet, grabbed arms, covered up and threw some strikes before he scored a late takedown to close the first round.

In the second round, Valiev was once again aggressive, but Jones took the shots well. When Jones found an opening, he dropped Valiev and swarmed on the ground. During that onslaught, Valiev did not cover up and did not defend himself well. By the time Tognoni waved things off, Valiev was on autopilot, as evidenced by his attempts to wrestle the referee after the fight ended. This was a good stoppage as was Tognoni’s decision to allow Jones to continue in the first round because he was defending himself well.

The Rodriguez vs. Grant fight, which Tognoni also officiated, was much like the above scrap. Grant dropped Rodriguez with less than a minute off the clock in the first round. Grant then threw a ton of hard ground strikes. The problem with many of these was that Rodriguez blocked the strikes with his glove. Rodriguez then gathered himself and regained his feet.

Rodriguez then forced Grant to the cage where he dropped him with a left. Grant got back to his feet for a second, but his defense was down and Rodriguez scored another knockdown before Tognoni stepped in and waved it off. Again, this was a good stoppage because Grant was not defending himself when the second knockdown came.

For those who would argue that Grant should have got the stoppage in the first round, the stats show that Rodriguez blocked most of those strikes. Grant landed only 17 of 44 ground strikes.

Tognoni did a good job in stopping both of the above fights before the fighters could take any extraneous punishment.

McCarthy’s take on the UFC fights was that they were “matched fights.” With that, McCarthy said the stoppage threshold should be lower.

“Mick Maynard and Sean Shelby are matching those fights up,” said the man who refereed at UFC 2. “It’s not that those guys (the fighters) know something about each other or hate each other or have heat, it’s just a matched fight. There’s a difference when you look at a Ryan Bader, who has earned the position of being a world champ. He did that through his work and his effort at performing at a high-level he attains being the champion. Nemkov works his way into beating world champions — three of them — to get the shot at that title. It’s not that it’s just given to him, he’s worked his way into that position. So right there you have a different dynamic. These guys have earned the right to be in this fight.”

Again, McCarthy makes a good point, but the two questions I have are, first, should we have two — or possibly more — styles of refereeing on fight cards from the same referee? Second, what if the fighters expect one style of officiating — the more liberal style — but get the tighter controlled refereeing? Could that lead to issues with the referee and the commission?

Do other sports have different officiating rules? For instance, does Lamar Jackson have a different threshold for getting a roughing the passer call than Drew Brees because Brees has been in the league longer? I don’t think that’s the case. So why should it be the case in MMA? I don’t believe it should be.

As I argued above, we know a lot more about brain injuries these days than we did in the early days of the sport and consistent refereeing that puts both short-term and long-term health at the forefront of this sport, which is inherently damaging, is in everyone’s best interest.