For MMA officials, anonymity means job well done

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Assigned to handle the opening bout of UFC 96, a lightweight contest between granite-chinned Aaron Riley and former "Ultimate Fighter" contestant Shane Nelson, Fike, an Ohio Athletic Commission licensee, got himself out of position, mistook by a large margin the degree to which one fighter had hurt the other and contentiously interceded in a span of 44 seconds.

Almost by definition, refereeing in any arena is not an art of perfection. It is one of competence and consistency, which is why Fike's performance was made to stand out more when experienced referee Yves Lavigne sloppily handled MattBrown's pummeling of Pete Sell later in the evening, resulting in more than a few "stop the fight!" pleas from some of the 17,000 fans inside Nationwide Arena.

Sell, thankfully, was fine. The state of refereeing in MMA? One can't be so sure.

Two fights. Two awful results. Both examples of the worst officiating in combat sport.

"Being a fighter, there were a couple things I was always petrified of happening," said veteran mixed martial artist Jorge Gurgel, who has refereed more than 1,000 bouts and who watched from cage-side as Fike delivered the "worst call I've ever seen in my life."

Gurgel's concerns, not surprisingly, are rooted in early stoppages, and "having an irresponsible referee" that allows the fight go on too long.

Less than a decade into MMA's existence as a state government-regulated sport, its officiating can be a hit-or-miss proposition. Many of the most influential state regulators, such as Nevada and California, suggest the level of world-class refereeing offered by their licensees is on the rise. But as the sport continues to gain regulation in states across the country, it appears as though the delivery of quality officials has not kept up with the demand.

"Most people who are knowledgeable about both sports would agree that MMA refereeing is much tougher than boxing, which is by no means saying boxing isn't tough duty," says Nevada State Athletic Commission Executive Director Keith Kizer. "It definitely is. But MMA refereeing is a tougher, harder job."

Every official, even those worthy of joining the sport's Hall of Fame, has a horror story to tell about a mistake in the ring. So, too, do the fighters who suffered the effects and the fans who felt robbed.

Even the most revered name in MMA refereeing hasn't gotten a pass. "Big" JohnMcCarthy is as comfortable locked inside a chain-link enclosure with two athletes conditioned for war as he is lounging in his living room. Yet, there he was, in the middle of the biggest blunder of his career during a UFC championship fight in 2002 between Brazil's Murilo Bustamante and wrestler Matt Lindland of the U.S.Caught in an armbar, Lindland appeared to tap out, leading McCarthy to intercede. But when he shouted to stop the fight, Lindland argued he didn't tap, and McCarthy opted to restart the fight, only to see Lindland tap out (guillotine choke) a second and final time.

McCarthy promised himself that he'd never make the mistake of indecisiveness again. So far, he hasn't.

While the sport's variables and frenzied action make mistakes impossible to avoid over a lengthy officiating career, the ability to own the cage should be the first priority for every ref, McCarthy said.

"To be a referee, you have to have common sense and enough integrity and intestinal fortitude to say you don't care what everybody else wants, you go with what's right," said "Big" John, a fixture in the UFC since the organization's second event in 1994, when the notion of rounds or rules were heresy. "You have to be decisive in your actions. When you make a decision, you stick with it. We've all made that mistake of making a decision and trying to change things."

For some officials, commandeering the center of the cage is harder than it sounds. Owning a license doesn't guarantee the ability to successfully oversee every aspect of the action, particularly on the big stage. And the licensing process itself has not necessarily ensured the kind of bold action needed from most officials. Anyone can apply for a license -- just as fighters can -- and work their way up. After showing a certain level of competence and seriousness, aspiring refs may land a shot in a small show, and though each state has their different versions of such requirements (applicants may be required to shadow licensed officials for a few shows), there are no tests, no hard and fast requirements.

"I think the talent base out there and the skills of MMA referees are very good," said Bill Douglas, the interim executive director of the California State Athletic Commission. "I also think of the good ones out there, there are so few of them. That's what scares me. You have these quality officials out there but they can only be in one place at a time."

As events increase -- and they are by a factor of three-to-one in some states -- officials are in increasingly in high demand. As it stands, only a handful are thought of highly enough to earn $25,000 a year. Depending on the state, referees can make anywhere from $250 to $1,200 for a night's work. But the money, said Gurgel, isn't nearly enough to entice many fighters like him to join the ranks when their days are done, not when training can keep them around the sport and is much more lucrative. That and the notion of taking directions from regulators he believes to be under-educated in the intricacies of MMA has turned him off completely.

Still, there are some. Former UFC welterweight champion Matt Hughes intends to referee when he's done fighting. Already licensed in several states, Hughes will work a card in Utah this weekend.

There is hope among regulators that an influx of fighters like Hughes -- who says former fighters aren't necessarily the cure, and one doesn't need a fighting career to be a good official -- would ease the burden on states searching for competent officials, including a stunning lack of quality judges. Either way, the sheer volume of MMA across the U.S. makes fighters-turned-refs alone unlikely to fill the void.

In 2008, California regulated 80 MMA events compared to 86 for boxing, and the trend suggests MMA will eclipse the Sweet Science by a wide margin in years to come, particularly when the state's amateur program kicks in. Including amateur and pro-am events, Ohio held 132 mixed-fight cards last year. By comparison, only 20 boxing events were held in the Buckeye State. Nevada, widely recognized as the home of the UFC and the destination for many of combat sport's biggest bouts, oversaw 24 MMA events last year. That's an increase of more than 300 percent from just a few years ago.

These states have regulated MMA in some fashion for several years, taking the necessary time and resources to cultivate their own group of officials. California has 20 refs dedicated full-time to MMA; Ohio, close to 15; Nevada, seven. Pennsylvania, which begins regulating pro MMA on April 19, will employ officials from Ohio and New Jersey to help in its first year. After that, said commission chief Greg Sirb, the state hopes its program to educate new officials will have worked well enough to keep things in-state.

Sirb isn't as rosy on the overall outlook on MMA officiating as other executive directors who share a longer history with the sport.

"I think that's one area, particularly refereeing, that really needs improvement," he says. "And that'll come with time and experience. The more seminars we put on, the more shows that there are, I think that'll come. I really think there's a big gap for quality refs."

Education comes in two forms. First, regulators can put officials in positions where learning comes through experience, reviews and seminars. Primarily, however, each regulator said its incumbent upon the referees to prepare themselves. They suggest shadowing licensed officials at events as a fine method to learn and grow, though McCarthy isn't so sure. As he sees it, some commissions aren't in a position to properly educate because they don't understand the sport well enough. Following uninformed or weak officials would be akin to grooving a golf swing rooted in poor fundamentals. After a swing ravaged by bad habits sets in, it's hard to change.

There are programs, including one certified by the Association of Boxing Commissions, which is run by McCarthy. But certification isn't the answer either, said Ohio's Bernie Profato. He is a strong advocate of putting refs in real-life situations.

Find a gym. Work while fighters spar. Learn timing and distance. Figure out the fundamentals.

Profato has also used Ohio's amateur fighting program as a springboard for potential referees, the idea being a bad stoppage or mishandled fight is easier to swallow when the fight won't count.

Sometimes the stoppages do count, as in Fike's handling of Nelson's "win" over Riley. Profato pulled Fike from the rest of the card in Columbus, and said, despite his shortcomings, the referee would be reassigned to handle other events in the state.

Profato, a former police officer, boxing referee of 18 years and head of officiating for the American Softball Association, knows what it's like to stand in front of the crowd, demonized after making a call that may or may not have been correct.

"I think it's the satisfaction of getting the job done," Profato said of why he continues a seemingly non-gratifying profession. "I must've been a masochist my whole life. I was a cop and I was an official, so I could never win."

It is the shared trait among all officials, competent or not. No one loves you. No one cares about you. No one notices you until you screw up.

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