Unintentional (and unfortunately the occasional intentional) eye-pokes have been a problem in mixed martial arts for as long as I can remember. Given the structure of the gloves, which leave all digits fully exposed, it’s tough to avoid that.
We’ve seen some nasty gouges over the years. Jake Shields appeared as though he hoped to completely skewer champion Georges St-Pierre’s eyeballs at UFC 129.
Kevin Burns seemed to be experimenting with a new finishing move he may have learned from a Mortal Kombat game the first time he met Anthony Johnson in the cage at UFC Fight Night 14.
Josh Koscheck’s name alone has become somewhat synonymous with the questionable tactic.
Eye gouging has been a problem for years. Hell, it’s been a problem for decades.
But last night, while refereeing a trio of bouts on the final Strikeforce card, referee “Big” John McCarthy implemented a very unorthodox technique that was not only a blatantly simple concept, but an effective one as well.
On numerous occasions McCarthy could be heard yelling to the fighters, “close your fists,” reiterating with echoes of “watch your fingers!” He was all over the action, and any time a pawing jab, fingers extended, was thrown, John was in the ears of the fighters, hurling respectful but authoritative warnings.
And, it seemed to work. Strikeforce: Marquardt vs. Saffiedine was a clean event that featured very few fouls. In large part due to John’s assertiveness, eye-gouges were certainly dropped from the equation.
Could constant verbal warnings lead to a drastic decrease of the oft-committed foul? If the final Strikeforce event was any indicator, it could very well be.
Understand this: McCarthy isn’t the only referee to hurl preventative warnings at fighters about striking, or pawing, with open fingers. It’s been done before, but never with the consistency or intensity that we witnessed last night.
Big John was all over every finger to sail through the air, stinging warnings colliding with flailing phalanges before the moment of potentially disastrous contact.
Repeated warnings being bellowed in a fighter’s ear isn’t a sure-fire bet for resolution, that’s a fact. However, Strikeforce’s final event allowed McCarthy to show that overt vocalization can go a long way in deterring the inevitable foul.
Big John McCarthy is still the best referee in the business, and small adjustments to his practice, such as what we witnessed last night prove that.
There are a lot of quality refs in the business these days, but few revolutionize rules on the spot, without stealing a fighter’s sanctioned liberties. McCarthy found a way to do it, with complete respect.
Hopefully, more referees will take notice of this approach and begin implementing similar tactics.
John, an on-the-spot thinker, may have just developed a new standard for caution inside the octagon (one that any man to ever be poked in the eye will likely commend), and that’s precisely why this sport needs the man so badly.
He cares about the combatants' safety, and he’s got the moxie to say what must be said, and do what must be done!
Follow me on Twitter.