By Elias Cepeda
With all the talk of how the judges scored last weekend’s UFC 143 main event between Carlos Condit and Nick Diaz, CagePotato thought it would be interesting to shift the focus and speak with the man charged with mediating the fight – referee Steve Mazzagatti. In this exclusive conversation, the veteran top ref and occasional owner of one of the best mustaches in all of MMA, talks about Dana White’s hate for him, bitch slaps, shit talking and much more.
Nick Diaz and Carlos Condit have had some intense staredowns before. When you know you’ve got to bring two guys like that together moments before they fight for final instructions, how do you approach it? Do you ready for yourself for any extracurricular activities between them, so to speak?
No, you know they are both very intense fighters. That’s what it is all about. It was a great stare down and those are part of the sport. Both guys are extremely fair fighters as well. I don’t think I’d ever seen them break one rule. Plus, they are not stupid. They were not going to push each other and all that. They didn’t ‘hook ‘em up,’ like I say to do. But they hooked you guys up [with a great fight] and that’s what it is all about. When I say, ‘hook ‘em up,’ it’s not just not just about touching gloves, it’s about those guys hooking it up in the fight and hooking up the fans with a great bout.
In the UFC 143 main event, we saw more slaps. Nick Diaz slapped Carlos Condit at least once with an open hand. What is the deal with slaps? We’ve seen fighters warned by referees about having their hands open during fights to prevent against eye pokes. But at the same time, a guy like Diaz or Fabricio Werdum back in his fight with Andrei Arlovski, have gotten away with slapping their opponents. Is it against the rules to slap your opponent in MMA or not?
Absolutely not; slapping is perfectly legal. We’ve seen it a lot. We’ve had some fighters slap the ears of their opponent while in full mount. Bas Rutten was a huge palm striker. MMA is an open-hand sport. What we are concerned about is fighters leading with their fingertips. That’s what Herb [Dean] was doing [in the UFC 143 bout between Josh Koscheck and Mike Pierce]. And exactly what he realized could have happened, did happen. It is just part of the sport. I’ve dealt with a lot of situations where guys got poked in the eye. I called a fight against Anthony Johnson for it [at UFC Fight Night 14 in 2008). In fact, had we had the ability to look at instant replay at that time, my call would have been overthrown. But in large part because of that fight, now we have instant replay in state of Nevada. It does help in those types of situations. Right call bad call.
So pokes to the eye are bound to happen. Obviously, a fist knuckle to the eye is legal – that can happen with a punch. But we have to be able to judge if it was a finger in the eye or a knuckle. I can understand why guys keep their hands open – they want to parry punches out of the way. What we are trying to keep from happening is them leading with the finger tips. The same thing can happen with heads. We see it in boxing all the time, where fighters lead with their heads and head butts happen. It’s not allowed and its called that — leading.
In other sports, like football and basketball, there are now all sorts of rules about so-called taunting and the like. One of the most interesting things about a Nick Diaz fight is how he talks trash to his opponent while they are fighting. What are the rules under unified MMA rules and did you during the UFC 143 main event or have you ever come close to penalizing fighters for any type of talking during a fight?
The rule states that fighters are not allowed to use foul language. That’s where I would use a warning. Fights are chess matches. These guys are trying to take each other out of their respective games and there’s a lot of talking that go on, not just with Nick Diaz. Believe me these guys have interesting conversations on the ground. I’ve seen and heard a guy get tagged hard by an elbow while on the bottom and tell his opponent, ‘that was awesome!’ I’ve also had guys say they were sorry to their opponent after hitting them with a big shot. I’ve seen guys apologize for putting a whooping on a dude (laughs) So these guys talk a lot and it’s just part of the game. Sometimes, like with Diaz, they want to get under each other’s skins.
That’s really interesting. But you said the rule states that no foul language is allowed by the competitors. Are you saying that Nick Diaz didn’t use any foul language with Carlos Condit at UFC 143?
(Laughs) I’m not going to say that. I didn’t feel there was any reason to intercede there. Everything that happened was part of the sport. He wasn’t foul.
Did Carlos Condit say anything back or was it just Diaz talking?
They had their ‘lil conversations.
As a referee, you’ve got so many things that you’ve got to be paying close attention to. Through all that, do you still develop a sense, or I should say, opinion, on who is winning or who has won, when it goes to a decision?
No, not at all. When I see the stuff go down, I can just appreciate all that goes into them being able to do what they do.
There are rules against timidity in MMA, correct? Fighters have to engage with one another. In the UFC 143 main event between Condit and Diaz, we had an interesting situation where, on the one hand, Condit literally turned his back to Diaz and ran away from him on multiple occasions. But on the other hand, he landed many strikes each round — enough to win the fight, in fact. Did it cross your mind at all, at least the first couple times you saw Condit turn his back and run away from Diaz, that you might need to tell him something or get involved in some way?
No, not at all. It never even crossed my mind. At worst, he was tactfully timid. Like you said, Condit landed a ton of shots, even though he was being elusive. We have lots of fighters that use that style. It’s a part of the evolution of the sport of MMA.
Not to harp on Diaz as if he is a ticking timebomb, but given that he’s been involved in at least one post-fight, in-ring brawl, were you preparing yourself in any way for one guy or team reacting poorly to the decision after it was announced and any ruckus breaking out? Expecting at the end, if any guy reacted poorly to decision?
I can’t say that I didn’t think about it, but I wasn’t worried about it at all. You’ve got to go with the flow in there. When you start thinking that certain things are going to happen you get caught off guard. Anything can happen at any time. You might get assigned a fight with two wrestlers and expect it to be a grappling battle and then they end up striking on their feet the whole bout.
With Condit and Diaz, as soon as the final bell rang, I could tell that they had emptied their cups. Very seldom does that sort of thing — an after fight scuffle, ever happen. MMA is an extremely respectful sport.
This isn’t a new topic but UFC President Dana White has been publicly critical of you in the past. How does it feel to know that the people who matter to you — your actual bosses, have enough confidence to still put you in charge of important fights like the UFC 143 main event, despite the protests of an influential person like Dana White?
We don’t work for the promoters; we work for the state in which the event is being held. I can understand his feelings. He’s got outcomes he wants to see. He’s a promoter. It’s just the way it goes. I’m in there to enforce the rules. I do that the best I can. Do we like actually enforcing the rules? No, we hate it. It throws a wrench in to the whole game. No one wants to see the referee get involved. I don’t want to stand fighters up; I don’t want to break them off cage. All I want to do is tell them to start and stop, and that’s exactly what happened in the Condit and Diaz fight. If every fight was like that I’d be extremely happy. Unfortunately, referees are not there to be liked. We are there to enforce rules, and when is that ever going to popular?