What kind of man throws himself between two warriors hell bent on winning at any cost? Risking stray punches, the unbridled fury of a disorientated fighter and sometimes the wrath of thousands of fans and critics alike.
These men are the referees overseeing the thousands of MMA fights across the globe each year. For the most part they remain in the background but should a contest need ending timing is everything and a rash decision is usually followed by intense criticism and analysis. Coming in the form of magazines, TV shows, websites and most importantly each and every fan.
Fighter safety is paramount in a sport longing for mainstream acceptance. Nobody wants to see a fighter seriously hurt and striking the balance between entertainment and safety can be troublesome as UFC referee Herb Dean explains “My first responsibility is safety. As a referee my job is to prevent the fighters from receiving unnecessary damage. In a MMA match anything can happen in the cage. Knowing when to stop a fight is a challenge, an enormous amount of damage can happen in a split second or a fighter can receive a devastating blow and recover quickly”.
Most stoppages are accepted by both parties and they realise the referee had to make a quick decision based on the fighters situations. Constant communication takes place with a fighter appearing in trouble, both verbal and physical. This could be by simply shouting “I'm Okay” to assure that they are not in serious danger, or improving their position when asked to do so.
Sometimes even this is not enough if the ref deems they have been punished enough. In the case of Brandon Vera's loss to Fabricio Werdum the stoppage was not graciously accepted.
Vera expressed his dissapointment during the UFC 85 post fight press conference "That ref sucks, I don't agree with that stoppage, and I'm pissed. I had to walk away from the ref”. He went on to explain his anger "The referee was asking me, talking to me, saying something like, 'are you okay?' He was talking to me. I remember he was talking to me and I was saying, 'I'm okay. I'm okay. I'm okay.' I said it three times. I made sure I stressed, 'I'm okay'... I figured I'd just have to ride the ass-whooping out for the next 20 seconds, get up to our feet in the second round, and I was going to give it to him”.
In some cases the reverse can occur, fighters calling for the end of a fight as they rain down even more punches on their victim. During Michael Bisping's destruction of Charles McCarthy at UFC83 Bisping called for a stoppage shouting “come on ref!” before delivering twenty seconds more punishment then walking away shaking his head come the end of the round. The fight was stopped in between rounds and McCarthy subsequently retired from MMA.
Sometimes the only person bewildered by a stoppage is the defeated fighter. In the ultimate fighter finale Amir Sadollah submitted CB Dolloway via armbar once again. Dolloway was less than impressed screaming “what the f**k!” in protest. He continued his protestations and confused demeanour long into the night although replays showed a clear tap.
Later CB remarked on the fight “with the tap, I didn't fully commit to the tap, but I did hit him once...I guess they ruled that a tap. I thought you had to go on and start tapping out. I did hit him once. Right as I did that, I felt my arm get into a position where I could get out. At that point Herb ruled it as a tap out”. Hopefully an experience the talented Dolloway can learn from now he's growing more accustomed to the big stage.
Prior to his recent Petruzelli loss the much hyped Kimbo Slice showed chinks in his armour against experienced Brit James Thompson at Elite XC “Saturday Night Fights”. Kimbo took a lot of punishment and was rocked before Thompson's cauliflower ear exploded and a few good punches to the head drew referee Dan Miragliotta to step in. The decision was met with a chorus of boos and the repetition of “terrible” by the events commentator.
The stoppage was especially frustrating for Thompson who in an earlier round was unloading elbows on to the face of Kimbo who showed no defence whatsoever. An upbeat but disappointed Thompson had this to say “I had him trapped there for God knows how long and I would have thought it would have been stopped. But you know, it wasn't...then to go and stop it so early in the third and give such a benefit to Kimbo is blatantly unfair”.
Shrewd refereeing has given us some great fights and it has given us the impressive safety record MMA currently has. End things too early and we will lose out on unbelievable comebacks and epic fights. However too much leeway could deliver a punishing blow to both the fighters and the sport itself. This is the fine line the referees walk every time they signal 'Fight' to the two zealous fighters either side.