In the past few months, there has been a great deal of speculation surrounding the state of judging in combat sports. Scratch that. There has always been a great deal of speculation surrounding the state of judging in combat sports because it has always been pretty abysmal.
Judging changes careers; in a parallel universe, Johny Hendricks and Alexander Gustafsson are champions, and Quinton Jackson's record has about five more losses on it.
Bad refereeing, however, changes lives and—in the worst cases—can end them. We have not experienced an in-ring death in any major professional promotion in MMA. All of the accidents have been on smaller shows or even in unsanctioned bouts, but every time a referee goes into the cage with an incorrect understanding of how to execute their job, lives are put in danger.
I want to give you fair warning, this isn't going to be a upbeat article. I hope that you can enjoy it and learn from it, but you are going to see fights in which fighters suffered undue punishment and some boxing matches that resulted in deaths, and we are going to assess how refereeing affected the outcome.
I have the utmost respect for all ring officials and fighters. It is a terribly hard job to referee a fight, but time and again in late stoppages and bad calls, there are positional failings of referees that we can point to as significant.
With that said, let's discuss refereeing.
Position in the Ring/Cage
It is a common theme in my writing to say that footwork is everything. What you might not have realized, though, is that the referee has to focus on it as much as the fighters.
The only position from which you can police a fight effectively is one where you can see both fighters at the same time. This means getting between them on one side while simultaneously not getting in the way if one of them chooses to move.
One of the reasons that controversial judging is hard to avoid is because of how fights must be viewed. If all you can see is the back of one fighter, you can't effectively judge what either is doing. This is something you can watch for as a viewer. Any time a broadcast shows the back of one fighter, it is failing to give you a good view of the fight, and you can appreciate how hard judging from a fixed position might be.
Before we talk about good refereeing position, let's talk about bad refereeing position. A referee doesn't always have to be right on top of the action, but he does need to make sure he is staying in position to see both parties and judge if one is hurt, intelligently defending himself or committing a foul.
For our first example, I am going to use the referee of a boxing match between Beau Jack and Ike Williams. BoxRec lists the referee of this bout as Charlie Daggert; I can almost guarantee you that by the time we're done looking at him you will be disgusted.
Notice how Daggert, instead of being close to the action, is strolling around the ring. This is completely permissible. Referees can't be expected to shuffle around near the fighters at all times, but they are supposed to keep a clear view of the action.
He walked around the back of one fighter, changed direction, walked around again and then walked all the way behind the other fighter, obscuring his own view of the action for as much time as possible.
Now this might seem like me being a pedant, but let's take a look what happens later in the same match as a result of the referee not understanding where he needs to be.
Daggert's own inept positioning prevented him from seeing the obvious damage that Jack was taking. Williams angled off, as any good fighter would do, and Daggert's view was obscured again. He sauntered around the other side, then couldn't make up his mind about which side he wanted to be on. While he was behind Williams, he could not see the defenseless Jack's head being snapped back and forth. Williams actually appealed to the referee to stop the fight.
Jack was fine afterward, and the two actually met three more times, but fighters have died in similar situations. One need only think back to the flurry with which the normally middling puncher Emile Griffith caught Benny Paret along the ropes. That was the last thing Paret ever felt.
Though Daggert's positioning obstructed his view and meant he was out of position as many of the heavier blows connected, we cannot blame his positioning entirely. Daggert simply seemed to have been far too stupid to look after the fighters he refereed.
Daggert's other famous appearance in boxing history was as he opted to give the face-down, fully unconscious Jersey Joe Walcott a full 10-count before allowing the doctor and Walcott's corner to come in.
Now every referee makes mistakes and bad calls. That can't be helped, and referees will always be the villains of the fight game, but the ones who are better at their jobs do receive some of the appreciation they deserve.
I'm going to use the example of Mills Lane in the second Mike Tyson vs. Evander Holyfield fight to illustrate good refereeing position.
Despite being incredible fighters within the rules, Tyson and Holyfield were both terrible cheats. Tyson elbowed his opponents almost as much as Holyfield butted his own.
Lane was not a heavyweight, he was not in the prime of his life and he wasn't going to change who both of these fighters were. He did, however, do a fantastic job of staying on top of the action.
Lane was a boxer in his youth, so he knew how to move. It's not necessary to have any combat sports training to be a referee, but understanding the basic footwork that applies to every sport isn't a lot to ask.
Lane did walk at a distance to the fighters, but for the most part, he remained on a side so he could see the action, and he immediately moved in when he needed to. He switched to a shuffling side-step when in close so that he didn't get in the way of the action.
Early in the first round, Holyfield cracked Tyson, and Tyson backed onto the ropes. Because Lane had kept the same position relative to the fighters, he was already in position next to them along the ropes. He could see Tyson and exactly how troubled he was or wasn't. As soon as Tyson hinted to be circling toward Lane, Lane moved around.
As a referee, you obviously cannot work from home for the same reason you can't stand on the opposite side of the ring or cage from the fighters. You have to be close enough to actually have some say in the action.
Let's contrast Lane's positioning with MMA referee Kim Winslow.
Winslow gets a lot of stick, and a few defend her because she is the only female referee currently working the high-profile fights in MMA. Criticism of her can be sexist, but most criticism stems from her incredibly poor decision-making and stoppages.
In the bout between Cody Donovan and Gian Villante at UFC 167, Winslow showed more ineptitude than usual.
Notice in this GIF how Winslow, standing almost on the other side of the Octagon from the combatants, is forced to run across the cage, then runs around the fighters before placing her hand on the shoulder of Villante as if to ask him to stop punching.
This highlights not only Winslow's positioning, which is awful, but her lack of authority.
Some complain that she doesn't have the strength to pull large, strong, male fighters off of each other, but in truth, it is a matter of authority.
Lane is a small guy, especially compared to Tyson and Holyfield, but he made them respect him, and he called them out on all the dirty shenanigans he saw (though both were masterful at hiding their fouls).
I want to contrast Winslow's performance with what I consider a good showing for an MMA referee.
I'm going to use the example of Yves Lavigne in the Michael Johnson vs. Joe Lauzon bout. With two light, fast fighters, Lavigne kept pace with both and made sure he was almost always in good position.
Check out this GIF and notice how Lavigne commits to side-skipping to stay in between the fighters and keep a good view. Notice that, when Lauzon is in trouble along the fence, Lavigne immediately moves around to one side. He doesn't waste time switching sides or staying behind Johnson.
On the subject of authority, Lavigne also did well to impose himself on the fight.
As Lavigne broke the fighters for a stand up, Johnson shoved Lavigne's hand away. While I am sure it was a thoughtless action in the heat of the moment (Johnson had just dropped Lauzon for the second time), it was not the sort of behavior that can be allowed to go unchecked if a referee hopes to keep control of a fight.
Lavigne immediately warned Johnson in no uncertain terms, and as soon as the round ended, he followed Johnson back to the corner to make it abundantly clear to Johnson and his team that a disqualification would be forthcoming for further misbehavior.
Lavigne has made plenty of mistakes—every referee has. It is the hardest job in combat sports, but this fight was a fantastic example of positioning and authority.
The Limitations of a Referee
It would be unfair to put blame solely on a referee for preventable ring deaths. The referee's powers in a fight are extremely limited at points. It doesn't matter if a fighter is taking undue punishment. As long as it is not unanswered punishment, the referee's hands are pretty much tied.
There are three parties whose responsibility it is to look after the fighter: the referee, the doctor and the fighter's corner. The doctor can only act when he is brought in by the referee, which is normally for a cut rather than to assess a fighter's demeanor. The corner, however, should be more invested in the health of their fighter than anyone.
If a fighter is taking punishment but returning fire and landing blows, the referee has no grounds to stop the fight, and this is where the corner must assess the danger to their fighter of continuing.
In the sad case of Leavander Johnson, his corner and the referee both let him down. Johnson looked wooden and uncomfortable all evening, and something was clearly not right. Yet as Emanuel Steward pointed out, the referee cannot stop a fight when a fighter is taking a beating but is fighting back, especially in a title fight. (This was also the reason that Duk Koo Kim was allowed to continue taking punishment from Ray Mancini in the bout that caused his untimely passing.)
Up until the last round, it would have been the corner's duty to look after Johnson's health. In the final round, however, Johnson was let down by the referee.
As Johnson took a prolonged flurry against the ropes, the referee was in the center of the ring, behind Johnson's opponent. The negligence of Johnson's corner and the ineptitude shown by the referee more than likely cost Johnson his life.
I want to wrap up by stating something that will perhaps turn readers against me.
Some deaths are unavoidable in combat sports. Deaths in sanctioned combat sports are rare, and each time one takes place, there is a concerted effort to improve post-fight and post-knockout care. Nobody is trying to inflict permanent damage on their opponent; fighters are just out to make a living in what they consider a sporting pursuit.
Damage, however, is part of the game, and it's a big part. You'd be kidding to pretend that the slurred speech or declining motor skills of aged fighters are coincidental.
Equally, gymnasts have been paralyzed in training, jockeys have been crushed underneath horses and goalkeepers have broken their necks on the pitch. Sometimes good refereeing cannot prevent the misfortune of a combat sports fatality.
A sad example of that is the death of Pedro Alcazar.
In his loss to Fernando Montiel, he did not take a remarkable amount of punishment, he simply acted out of sorts, and the fight was stopped (from a good refereeing position) when Alcazar simply covered up against the ropes and refused to return fire. He did not seem badly hurt, yet the next day he collapsed and ultimately passed away.
The tone of this piece has been pessimistic. I have shown you several fights that ultimately ended in the death of the defeated fighter. In-ring fatalities, though, are a rare occurrence. While they have made romantic subjects for some journalists, there is no greater sadness in the sporting world than a death in competition.
There are so few referees who garner the respect of the fans, but the ones who consistently make the right calls (though far from faultless) earn the reputation for excellence that they deserve. They are not always appreciated for it when a competitive fight is stopped, but good referees are saving lives.
We cannot control all the aspects of a fight or the damage that a fighter takes, but if referees are not taught how to actually control a fight and stay within sight of all of it, we will continue to see late stoppages, and unnecessary injuries will result from these.
Mixed Martial Arts has yet to experience a high-profile death. Boxing has experienced plenty. Yet neither sport has anywhere near enough referees who actually know how to do their job. It is getting to the point where if you see a referee strolling around on the other side of the ring or cage from the fighters, you might actually hope that nothing happens while they are so far away from the fighters.
It is one thing to say that Winslow is a bad referee (and she is), but with few pointing out the effective habits of good referees, it will be hard to improve the standard of those referees who clearly mean well but have no clue.
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