Yves Lavigne knows what it means to be a fighter. A lifelong martial artist, he studied judo while growing up in Quebec, wrestled in school and found his way to karate, "where I had a natural ability," he says, "and took it up very seriously." So seriously, in fact, that he was part of a full-contact Canadian national team that in the early '90s won a world championship.
A proud accomplishment, to be sure, but Lavigne keeps it quiet.
"I don't like to talk about the old days, because if people hear me talk about being a competitor they might think I'm comparing myself to the gentlemen I'm now in the cage with," said the 51-year-old, who over the past six years has become one of the most prominent referees for UFC fights. "I am in no way, shape or form near the caliber of athlete that I am refereeing for today."
Prior to making his UFC debut in 2006, Lavigne spent many years refereeing kickboxing and boxing bouts in and around Montreal. He also was a fan of MMA, having been hooked by the very first UFC event in 1993, and he ended up on the Quebec sports commission panel that legalized the sport. In 1997, he served as a ref for an International Fighting Championships card that was the first commission-sanctioned MMA event not just in the province but in all of North America.
Lavigne moved beyond the local circuit after a conversation with longtime MMA journalist Loretta Hunt, now a correspondent for SI.com, resulted in her mentioning him to Nick Lembo of the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board. That led to an invitation for Lavigne to work a show in Atlantic City in 2004. And after many more long drives from Quebec to Jersey to work small fight cards, he got the call from the UFC to referee a fight at UFC 58, an event in Las Vegas that was billed as "USA vs. Canada."
The fight card, with eight bouts pitting an American against a Canadian, was headlined by Rich Franklin defending his middleweight belt against David Loiseau and also included Georges St-Pierre vs. B.J. Penn and several other bouts featuring recognizable UFC fighters. However, Lavigne's night work was just to handle the evening's first prelim, between Tom Murphy and Icho Larenas, a couple of guys in what would be their only UFC fight. But Lavigne has gone on, of course, to make many more appearances in the promotion since then, becoming one of the sport's go-to referees.
Lavigne recently sat down with SI.com for a wide-ranging interview in which he opened up about the good calls and bad calls he's made, the criticism of refs by fans and by Dana White, and why athletic commissions might want to take a closer look at the UFC president. He also talked about a job he might soon transition to outside the cage (but nearby) and the second job he holds now ... as well as a job that he doesn't have but he's been confused for having.
It is tough. When you hear everybody yelling at you, you're like, "Oops, did I just make a mistake, or what?" At the end of the day, that time I made a good call.
Another time I received a lot of criticism was in Frankie Edgar against Gray Maynard, the first fight. In that first round, at no point did Mr. Maynard pin Mr. Edgar on the ground and ... how can I say it? He dominated for about two minutes and a half, and yes, he did inflict damage. But Mr. Edgar kept moving, kept trying to defend himself, so that's why I let it go. I was really criticized, but I think I did good, because Edgar had fight left and we ended up with a draw.
Then I started looking out at the people standing up and cheering for St-Pierre, and I went, like, "Oh, my God." Then I said to myself, "OK, Yves, go back in your bubble. Concentrate. Concentrate." Then I went back into my bubble.
You have to concentrate on what you have to do and not have a preconceived idea of the fight. Forget about the rest. And to be honest, during the fight you can hear cornermen, you can hear fighters breathing, you can hear the punches. But a lot of times you can't hear the crowd. You're concentrating on those two gentlemen, to try to make it safe for them, and you just make an abstraction of all the rest.
Maybe it's because of the structure of MMA. Maybe it's because no athletic commission wants to fine him. I don't know what goes on behind closed doors with him and the athletic commissions.
And let me add this: Maybe those who criticize should learn the rules. We go to different states, and each has its own set of rules that we have to follow. So there are people giving us crap because they don't know the rules. For example, you hear on TV that the back of the head is the area of a Mohawk. Well, no, it is not that way in every state. In some states it is and in some states it is defined as something different. We have to follow different rules depending on where we are. Sometimes people don't know that.
The other one I regret was in Vancouver, Mr. [Matt] Wiman against Mr. [Mac] Danzig, when I stopped the fight because I thought Mr. Danzig was choked out by a guillotine. It was an error in communication. We talk to the fighters before and tell them what we expect from them. And when Mr. Danzig was in the guillotine and I took hold of his wrist, I was waiting for the thumbs up to tell me he was OK. I didn't get it, so I stopped the fight. But he was OK. He told me, "Hey, I was chilling." And I said, "But you were supposed to give me the thumbs up. And you didn't. So I didn't know you were OK, and my job was to stop the fight."
I know, for instance, that I am working the year-end UFC event in Las Vegas, and since we don't know in advance which fights we will referee, I will research every fighter on the card. Now, I already know about all of the big stars, like Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos. But I am trying to figure out what types of fighters the guys on the undercard are. And once I have taken in that information, I throw it all in the garbage because, while I want to be prepared, I don't want to have a preconceived idea of the fight and react to something I thought might happen but is not really happening. I just want to be as professional as I can toward those fighters who are putting their safety into my hands.
The other person I like to talk to is Dan Miragliotta. It's not that I don't like Herb or Josh [Rosenthal] or others; all of us do sometimes check with each other about a call. But I started in Jersey, working with Dan. So I'm kind of a Jersey ref.
I remember quite a few times walking into the restaurant in a hotel, and I would see some French-Canadian fighters, like Jonathan Goulet or Patrick Cote -- not Georges, because Georges is more secluded, recluse, we don't see him much. So the fighters will say, "Hey, Yves, come sit and eat with us." And I will say, "I can't. I may ref you tonight, and I don't want to be seen sitting at the same table as you guys." I will say hello, ask how training is going, ask about the family, but I will not sit and eat with the fighters. Ninety-nine percent of the time you're going to see me sitting alone in a restaurant, reading a book.