There may not be a more thankless job in the entire mixed martial arts industry than that of the referee.
The third person in the cage at all times is there to oversee the bout and ensure both competitors are performing within the rules while protecting the safety of the fighters.
Routinely, referees are asked to make tough calls in terms of stoppages, and for every great decision that's made, the few questionable endings can mar an official forever. Sometimes, however, analysis has to be made for a referee that either makes the wrong move or no move at all.
On Saturday night, referee Kim Winslow came under fire on a couple of occasions for her judgment calls at The Ultimate Fighter 17 finale. During an early preliminary bout between Maximo Blanco and Sam Sicilia, Winslow was repeatedly heard warning Blanco about grabbing the fence.
While warnings were given, Blanco was never penalized or had a point deducted for his repeated infraction. Referees are given the discretion of making that judgment call, but what ended up as a close decision some believe would have been a draw if Blanco had lost a point for repeatedly grabbing the fence.
Winslow's refereeing came back under fire during the women's fight between Cat Zingano and former Strikeforce champion Miesha Tate. In this case, it was Winslow trying too hard to be involved in the bout to let the natural course of events play out.
Take, for instance, the first round between Tate and Zingano and the amount of orders being shouted by Winslow at the two fighters.
The first command came about a minute into the fight when Winslow shouted at Tate for grabbing the fence. At the time, Tate's fingers were through the fencing, but she never actually grabbed or held the fence while battling to get out of a guillotine choke from her opponent.
At just over two minutes, when the bout hit the ground, Winslow shouted at Tate to "watch the eyes" when grappling with Zingano and also warned her about grabbing her opponent's hair. Again, at the 3:40 mark of the fight, Tate was admonished for coming close to Zingano's eyes, and the order was repeated at just over four minutes into the round as well.
Winslow continued to shout at the fighters in Round 2 when Tate had Zingano on the mat. Tate was in constant movement to try and pass Zingano's defenses, but still Winslow shouted "work" at the two fighters, which prompted the former Strikeforce champion to push forward even more to try and keep the fight on the ground.
Tate was warned twice more in the round to "watch the eyes" when placing her hand near Zingano's face. Tate was also warned to "watch the upkicks" when she was going for Zingano's legs from the bottom. At the time, Tate wasn't even throwing a kick from the bottom; she was merely positioning her legs to block a potential attack from Zingano while working for an ankle lock or heel hook.
With about 30 seconds to go in the second round, Zingano was then warned about watching the eyes during a grappling exchange. As Zingano then worked for top control, she moved her head and pressed into Tate's jaw area and was warned by Winslow to "watch the head butting."
Round 3 saw more of the same, with Winslow back in the fighters' faces just seconds after the fight restarted. Winslow warned both fighters to watch the eyes yet again.
Winslow then cautioned the fighters about shots to the back of the head, and continued to yell at Tate while she was on the bottom about throwing punches to the back of Zingano's head. The fighters were again warned about clashing heads during a grappling exchange later in the round.
The end of the fight has brought up the biggest criticisms of Winslow's refereeing, as she shouted at the fighters during the exchange that eventually brought the end of the bout. With Zingano in control on the mat, Winslow shouted "fight back," which prompted Tate to move and ended up with her getting kneed in the face.
Winslow's voice could again be heard shouting at Tate while she tried to defend Zingano's attacks once the fight hit the ground again. While the referee's orders were inaudible, Tate said after the fight she was continuously warning her to "show me something" or the bout would be stopped.
"(Kim) came in and told me before we ever left the locker room that if I warn you to move, all I need to know is you want to stay in the fight and I felt that I did that. I got from the bottom up, I got kneed a few times on the way, tried to shoot another shot and the fight was stopped," Tate said at the TUF 17 finale post-fight press conference about the referee's orders. "She told me 'show me something'. I don't know what you want."
The end of the fight came as Zingano blasted away at Tate with knees to the head. Tate fell back against the cage, and just as she lunged forward for a takedown, Winslow stepped in and stopped the fight.
Now it has to be noted that Tate's face was quite bloodied up from what is likely a broken nose from the damage done by Zingano. Tate's movement forward appeared to be a takedown attempt, although Zingano seemed to back away with very little trouble. This all happened in the matter of a few seconds, but Winslow stepped in to stop the fight before anything else could go down.
"I sat up, I shot a double leg, I got back up to my feet, I took some damage because of that because I was trying to listen to the referee and she f—king stopped the fight," Tate stated. "What do you want?"
In this case, Winslow appeared to try too hard to be involved in the fight when she may not have been needed. It's always the referee's discretion as to what orders he or she gives or doesn't give during a fight, and every bout is going to be different in terms of what fighters are or are not doing that could be against the rules.
However, an earlier fight in the evening that went almost the exact same amount of time as the Tate/Zingano bout had a fraction of the warnings from the referee.
In the middleweight bout between Bubba McDaniel and Gilbert Smith, the two fighters exchanged several positions both on the feet and on the ground. During that fight, however, referee Steve Mazzagatti (who has been accused in the past of poor decisions in his referee duties) only made one audible command during the entire fight and that was given during the first round. Outside of that, Mazzagatti remained an onlooker while McDaniel and Smith battled for the upper hand.
If referees can routinely be called into question because of what some perceive as bad judgment calls or no judgment calls at all with infractions, the pendulum also has to swing back the other way when it seems like an official is trying too hard to be involved in the fight.
Winslow's commands, while not against the rules, seemed to almost serve as a distraction to the two fighters gutting it out inside the cage. Tate explained that her instructions during the fight led to her standing up from a downed position, which eventually led to the end of the bout.
While Winslow has come under fire numerous times in the past for making bad calls, it appears this time she tried too hard to make the right call. If referees can be held to the fire for not catching a foul, they must also strive to allow fights to unfold in a natural manner and not interfere with too much direction.
The ultimate outcome of Tate vs. Zingano would have likely been the same if the fight continued. Zingano could have easily unleashed a few more punches or strikes on the ground, and then Winslow could be accused of letting a fight go on longer than necessary. Still, her actions inside the cage have to be noted.
It's unlikely, however, that Winslow will receive any kind of punishment or potential training as a result of her actions judging by the amount of high-profile fights she continues to oversee as assigned by the Nevada State Athletic Commission.
Damon Martin is a Featured Columnist at Bleacher Report and all quotes were obtained first hand unless otherwise noted.
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