You are only a few feet away as one fighter slips a pawing jab from another fighter and counters with a quick right uppercut that lifts his opponent’s chin up just long enough to be smashed by an thunderous left hook. The fighter rushes in to finish his opponent and in that moment, you must decide if you should jump in and stop the fight immediately or allow the stunned combatant to attempt to pull guard, recover from the knockdown, and possibly come back to submit his aggressive foe. Fifteen thousand people are screaming and you have to make a call – a call that will likely be scrutinized and criticized by the fighters, fans, commentators and promoter – and make it right now.
Refereeing a mixed martial arts contest requires a unique blend of regulatory and technical knowledge, an understanding of the personalities and peculiarities of each contestant, and the confidence to make, and act on, snap judgments in the heat of the fight. No one but the referees themselves really understand what it takes to do the job well so FIGHT! talked to three of the best to get some in-cage perspective.
(“Big” John McCarthy. Props to MMAWeekly.)
FIGHT! Magazine: What are the most challenging aspects of officiating MMA?
“Big” John McCarthy: The time in which the referee has to make a decision is much smaller (than other combat sports). You must make a decision much quicker because time is not on your side.
Herb Dean: One of the things that set it apart is position. Say a match is on the ground and no one’s really hitting each other. You have to have knowledge of what the techniques are and what the guys are trying to do.
Steve Mazzagatti: We don’t have instant replay. We don’t have a lot of time to think about it. We don’t have a 10-count, so all of our decisions are split-second.
FM: In those split-second situations, how do you decide when to stop a fight?
BJM: The referee needs to make that decision based on whether that person can defend himself in an intelligent fashion at this time. It’s the motions that they’re making and what they’re trying to accomplish that tells you that their minds are still there or they’ve been hurt so bad and they’re just holding on.
HD: The main thing I look at is their posture. You see the blow happen, you see their limbs relax, and they’re not in a position to defend themselves. You also look at the threat the other guy is bringing. There has to be something to defend against.
SM: When a guy gets knocked down, and they’re both completely fresh, and one guy unloads with a flurry of punches, I have to give the other fighter an opportunity to work his way through that. If a guy in that same situation’s been getting beat down for two consecutive rounds, I’m a lot more apt to stop that fight.
(Herb Dean. Props to MMAWeekly.)
FM: What are your thoughts on standing fighters up when one fighter has a dominant position on the ground?
BJM: If it gets to the point that you’re not doing anything to sink a submission, not doing anything to try to damage him, and you’re not doing anything to try to bring an end to the fight, eventually you’re going to hear me say, “If you want to stay in that dominant position, do something. Improve what you have.”
HD: If a guy has a dominant position but he’s not doing anything to hurt his opponent or move toward a submission, and the guy on the bottom of the position is not doing anything to get out of it, I’m going to stand it up.
SM: As long as somebody is able to get their game going, whatever it is, whether you’re grounding and pounding, or you’re trying to get some submissions going … I’m comfortable with it. I don’t care how much a crowd boos.
FM: What do you consider an illegal blow to the back of the head?
BJM: I normally tell people, “If you can touch that ear with the fist, that’s a legal punch in MMA. If you’re getting past it and you can’t (touch the ear), it’s getting to the point it’s now illegal.”
HD: Ears are a landmark that everyone has. Behind the ears is the back of the head. If the blow lands on the ear and the head (behind the ear), you’re good. If it cleanly does not land on the ear, that’s the back of the head.
SM: As long as you’re punching the ear, you’re good to go. In other words, as long as your pinkie or some part of your knuckle is still punching the ear, that’s good. If I catch you targeting (the back of the head), I will take a point from you with no warning.
FM: Does the skill level of the fighters affect how you officiate a fight?
BJM: Well, when you’re working with guys you’ve worked with before and you understand some of the things that they can do, you might let things go a little bit farther based upon the level of the fight. Championship fights, things like that.
HD: In a way it does, but in a way it doesn’t. Basically, it’s the same criteria: Are you intelligently defending yourself? Now, if the skill level is lower, that happens a lot more: No, he’s not intelligently defending himself. The only thing that I do a little different is in championship matches, I try not to interfere as much with stand-ups because these guys are champions and they’re going about their strategy that they’re trying to win.
SM: You got the amateurs, we stop immediately. As soon as they get a little bit passive when they get punched in the face, it changes their whole game up. There’s a whole different world there.
FM: What are your most important priorities as an MMA referee?
BJM: The referee’s responsibility is first and foremost the safety of the fighters. Second is to allow two people to come in and have an even competition based upon the rules of the sport. You’re not giving any type of unfair balance to one fighter over the other. Taking those rules and enforcing them in an equitable and fair fashion.
HD: I believe that my position is a sacred trust because I understand the sacrifices that go into preparing yourself for an MMA match. You spend a lot of time away from your family. You take a lot of risks. Your dreams and goals, everything is coming together in this one moment. All they ask for is a fairly and knowledgably arbitrated match.
SM: The safety of the fighters absolutely is our number one duty. There’s a fine line between are they still competitive or are they at a point when they’re not safe. That’s the thing about this sport: We don’t have a ten-count; we don’t have an evaluation period. We don’t just have guys standing there throwing punches at each other. We got guys punching, kicking, kneeing, takedowns; it’s just so complex.
FM: How do you respond to the criticism you may receive for some of your calls?
BJM: I’ve never had anyone come in, fight a fight, and never be able to come back again. If someone seriously gets hurt and that person cannot fight again or dies, (fans) don’t have to live with it. The referee has a lot of pressure on him because there are a lot of things that have to be balanced. Many times the fans have no idea how truly hurt the fighter is. The referee does.
HD: In a lot of ways, it’s often a thankless job. There’s people who are angry at you or people who throw bottles at you. Even when I believe I’ve done the right thing. And that’s part of my job sometimes. You have your conscience to live with, and what you need to do is be true to that.
SM: We’re not perfect. We’re not going to see everything, and you can’t call something you don’t see. Whether it’s a popular call or not, the rules are there for a reason. A guy shouldn’t have to fight his way through getting fouled because the referee didn’t have the balls to do anything about it. It takes balls to make calls, there’s no doubt about it.