When will we ever see consistency or continuity from professional mixed martial arts referees? Sadly, the answer may be never. That is disenchanting, to say the least, but it is also the reality of the situation, and not completely their fault.
MMA has been around for a little more than a quarter-century. While the sport and the rules have evolved along the way to try and protect both the integrity of the competition and the athletes that compete, it seems as if those that officiate the fights haven’t quite kept up with the sport and how to properly be the third person in the cage.
I don’t completely blame the officials for some of their mistakes. It is difficult to referee a fight today because of the lack of the ruleset being the same in every jurisdiction due to the fact that the unified rules are anything but unified. So where in one city a finger on the mat equals a grounded fighter which means no knee strikes to the head, in the next city that rule doesn’t apply. Keeping both fighter and official constantly trying to focus on their fight and remembering the differences in the rules in the heat of battle, an unenviable task for both.
Who is to blame for the above scenario? Athletic commissions that are run by people that let their ego get in the way of their job. Commissioners who don’t want to be told what to do in their state by someone from another state. Some commissions are run or overseen by a person drunk with power that is more concerned that people know who they are rather than doing what is right for the sport, and more importantly the athletes that compete in it. Also putting their employees like referees at a disadvantage in performing their job correctly due to not conforming to the “unified rules” but rather implementing “their” interpretation of said rules.
Understanding the above situation does afford some empathy for the MMA referee when they make a mistake based on the fact that the rules aren’t the same everywhere. However, what about a situation when there is a clear cut mistake by the referee for stopping a fight too early or too late? Or when one referee lets 2 fighters lay on the ground for as long as they want without advancing, while another referee will stand those same fighters up in 20 seconds if they are not working to his/her satisfaction?
Referees are human and therefore they are not perfect. They have one of the toughest jobs in sports officiating, and I am certain that they all try their best to carry out their responsibilities as best they can. With that being said, they have to be better than what we have today as a whole. After all, an athletes career and more importantly their lives are entrusted to the referee once the cage door closes. In other words, there is very little room for error.
Over the weekend I witnessed 4 fights where the referee did not execute their job correctly.
Three of those fights resulted in fighters being put to sleep when their fight never should have gone that far. Two of those fights the fighters tapped out and the referee missed it. In one of those fights, the referee was in the perfect position to see the fighter tap, which he did twice, once with each hand. Yet this referee chose to circle himself away from where this fighter’s hands were visible to him, and the viewing audience, and position himself where it was physically impossible for him to see the fighter tapping. That is, in my opinion, a dereliction of duty that should be dealt with by a suspension, a fine or both to the referee. Although I can’t remember the last time any commission sanctioned a referee for not doing their job properly.
In another instance this weekend, a ref stopped a fight because of illegal strikes to the back of the head. The ref then proceeded to give the recipient of said illegal strikes 5 minutes to recover, which actually isn’t what should have taken place. There is no 5-minute recovery that is guaranteed to a fouled fighter other than a groin strike.
“For a foul other than a low blow, the fouled fighter is not guaranteed 5 minutes of recovery time. If deemed not fit to continue by the referee or ringside physician, the referee must immediately call a halt to the bout. If the fighter is deemed not fit to continue by the referee or ringside physician but some of the five-minute foul time is still remaining, the fighter cannot avail himself of the remaining time.”
Shouldn’t the ref know this? In this case, they didn’t. The fight was not continued because the fouled fighter was unable, and unwilling and his opponent was awarded a victory. In reality, the fight should have been ruled a “no-contest” or the fouled fighter should have won via disqualification since he was unable to continue due to an illegal strike.
Stories and scenarios like the ones mentioned above take place every single week in mixed martial arts fights at both the amateur, and professional level, and while there are some great officials out there, the ones that aren’t great or even good continue to make mistakes costing fighters money and in some cases situations where these athletes end up going unconscious, or sustaining a more extensive injury than they should have.
So what’s the solution? How can the sport fix this problem? Do we need more extensive training and practical experience? I know one area where the situation can be helped, all commissions both foreign and domestic must adopt and implement a truly unified ruleset, and then stick by it.
Maybe there should be more specific criteria of when a fight should or shouldn’t be stood up for lack of activity instead of the referee being allowed to stop or start a fight based on their personal feelings of what they think should be happening when a fight goes to the ground. Fence grabs are treated differently by every ref I see. Some slap your hand out while others do nothing at all. Some give 4 or 5 warnings, whereas others take a point after two grabs. Should be one warning, then a point for each infraction after the warning. How is a fighter supposed to consistently deal with the inconstancy of the person in the cage with them that is supposed to keep things fair and safe when each ref does it so differently?
How about actually holding a referee responsible for their mistakes, or in some cases their glaring inadequacies at performing their jobs properly. Humans are going to make mistakes, and should all be given a little leeway when an honest mistake was made. However, there are refs out there that continually make mistakes and go unchecked, and that is unacceptable. Monetary fines, suspensions, and terminations should be used more to ensure the most important thing in all of this, the workplace and safety of the fighter.
I don’t know what and if anything will change, and that is something that doesn’t sit well with me.
Christopher James has been in the MMA industry for 15 years, Working as a ring announcer for promotions like the XFC, Island Fights, Combat Night and Fight Nights Global during his career. Chris’ love for the sport and the athletes that partake in it led him to writing and doing face to face interviews with the athletes he admired and respected. Chris isn’t conventional by any stretch of the imagination, he has his own style, and takes pride in not being a “cookie-cutter” member of the media. Unique and sometimes controversial takes are what he brings to the table, forcing folks to think a little differently about the world of MMA. He also has a love for music as he has been a dj for 25 years and his love for music gets brought to the MMA world when he gets his guests to sing on his weekly show Cage Side with Christopher James which can be seen Wednesday nights on FACEBOOK LIVE, and soon via podcast.