There has been a minor panic over officiating in mixed martial arts these days. It started a few weeks ago with UFC 96, where a bad stoppage followed by a horrible non-stoppage suddenly made us all wonder whether there are more than one or two referees who actually know how to do the job.
There are. That's the good news. There are probably at least four or five. But what we have to remember is that it's still a very tough job, and even the good refs are going to make mistakes in this sport. The best we can hope for is that they aren't the kind whose mistakes result in injuries.
At UFC 96, a relatively inexperienced MMA referee named Rick Fike worked the very first bout of the night -- a preliminary fight between Shane Nelson and Aaron Riley -- and he screwed it up. When a punch put Riley down early in the first, Fike jumped in and stopped the bout without looking closely enough to see that Riley was perfectly coherent and defending himself intelligently. It was a mistake, and the crowd showered him with boos to make sure he knew about it.
I can't say for sure that Yves Lavigne had those boos echoing in his head when he worked the Matt Brown-Pete Sell match later that night. But, from the way Lavigne began to step in and then decided against it, letting the fight go on until it entered the realm of the bizarre, he looked like a man not quite in control of his own actions. Lavigne was indecisive that night, perhaps because he didn't want to be the second ref on a single card to cheat the fans out of a fight. And, as a result, he let Sell take a series of potentially damaging and completely unnecessary blows.
But what people are forgetting is, of the four of five good refs in this business, Lavigne is certainly one of them. He made a mistake that night and he knows it. The nature of this sport played as much a role in that mistake as Lavigne or Fike or the boos from the crowd did, which is why we will never completely eradicate these types of mistakes from MMA.
The real problem, as "Big" John McCarthy pointed out, is time. An MMA referee often doesn't have it on his side. A fighter gets hit, goes down, and his opponent is on top of him immediately. It's a referee's job to determine whether the fighter is momentarily stunned, perhaps hurt, or already on his way into unconsciousness. And the official has to make this decision in a hurry, because the other fighter is already cocking his fist back to deliver another blow.
There's no knockdown rule to give the ref a chance to assess the situation, so he has to make a split-second decision. And sometimes it's going to be the wrong decision. That's part of the sport, and it always will be. Unless we want sweeping rules changes to make MMA more like boxing (and we don't), this is something we're going to have to live with.
It doesn't mean our world is coming to an end. It doesn't mean there are no qualified refs. It just means that this is a difficult job, and it's not getting any easier. The best we can ask for is refs who are experienced, educated -- on all aspects of MMA, not just the stand-up portion -- and decisive.
There are a few already who fit that description -- most of the time. But even they aren't going to get it right all the time. They can't. The best they can do is learn from their own mistakes and try not to repeat them. And if they can't do that, then they should find a new line of work. But let's not lose our heads over this just yet. There are still enough good refs in MMA to get us through the night.
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