MMA referees have been garnering a lot of attention lately. Mario Yamasaki, often criticized for letting bouts carry on too long and not sufficiently protecting fighters, hasn’t officiated a UFC match since February of 2018. Referees Kevin MacDonald and Marc Goddard have come under fire recently for controversial early stoppages in Henry Cejudo vs. TJ Dillashaw and Sam Alvey vs. Jim Crute, respectively. However is this criticism just, and more importantly, is officiating in MMA really that bad?
Compared to other sports, refereeing in mixed martial arts is quite passive. In American football, for example, referees are asked to make judgement calls every second of every play and are often forced to make calls that determine the outcome of games. In baseball, umpires are asked to make judgment calls on every pitch. Referees do play a vital role in mixed martial arts, and most importantly as the third wheel, their role is to protect fighters. While there is a certain amount of procedural enforcement, and more often than not, rule reminding, a referee’s involvement in a mixed martial arts match is usually quite limited. That is, until a fight ending sequence. And there’s the rub.
UFC Flyweight champion Henry Cejudo took on Bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw on January 19, UFC Fight Night 143 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY, with Dillashaw dropping down a weight class in an attempt to become the 4th fighter in UFC history to hold titles in two divisions simultaneously. Dillashaw was the heavy Vegas favorite, but Cejudo looked the stronger and fresher fighter, dropping Dillashaw in the first exchange of the fight. Dillashaw tried to reestablish himself, but was under a constant barrage of punches from the hungry Flyweight. Referee Kevin MacDonald had seen enough, and called the fight at 32 seconds in the first round.
UFC 234, held on February 9 from Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne Australia, featured Aussie fighter Jim Crute against Sam Alvey in the opening act of the main card. In the first round, Crute caught Alvey with a huge overhand right, dropping Alvey to the canvas. Thinking that he had just hit a walk-off home run, Jim Crute walked away from Alvey, who unexpectedly hopped up and appeared ready to continue. However, Crute immediately took the fight to the ground and bombarded the “turtled-up” Alvey with heavy punches. Referee Marc Goddard stepped in and called the fight a TKO. Without delay, Sam Alvey rose and protested the call to Goddard. And, after replay it did appear that Alvey gave a thumbs up, indicating that he was willing to continue under the cascade of strikes from Crute.
Although it could be argued that both of these downed fighters should have been allowed a few extra seconds to recompose themselves and continue the fight, it doesn’t change the fact that they were absorbing undefended strikes, inadequately protecting themselves, and giving the referee ample reason to call the fight. If a fighter puts themself in this position, whether or not they feel like they can continue, the referee can and will stop the fight. That is not the fault of officials, but the fault of fighters. While there is certainly room for improvement, officiating in MMA very rarely interferes with the overall mechanics of the fight, and even more rarely determines its outcome. Overall, officiating in MMA really is not that bad.
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