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Exclusive Interview: Inside the Mind of MMA Referee Mario Yamasaki

(Not only does Yamasaki officiate MMA bouts, he also resurrects blunt force trauma victims. Photo Credit: Esther Lin)

By Jason Moles

In a world of barbarous blitzkriegs and surreptitious submissions, seasoned referee Mario Yamasaki is the epitome of thinking on your feet. Having reffed over 400 fights in the UFC, Strikeforce, WEC, EliteXC and Pride Fighting Championships, Yamasaki has been in the cage with the best fighters the world has to offer – and tried to keep them safe in the controlled carnage that is professional cage fighting. CagePotato caught up with Yamasaki earlier this week and we asked him about everything from controversial stoppages to being accosted by Joe Rogan. Here’s what one of MMA’s best referees had to say.

CagePotato: How long have you been an MMA referee?

Mario Yamasaki: I started around 1992 at local shows in Brazil.

CP: What first captivated you about MMA and is that what lead you to your current profession?

MY: I started doing Judo back in 1968, so the mat was my home. My father had 14 studios in São Paulo and when I was either 19 or 20 years old I thought that I was a great fighter because I use to train with the Brazilian National team in Judo and could kick a lot of people’s butt. When I met Marcelo Behring I got controlled on the ground like I never had before, so I was intrigued with that situation and instead of walking away I said, “Let me learn that so I can become even better than I am.”

From the beginning, I had an advantage against other students because of my background in Judo so I became one of the best students he had. So was my brother, so we started helping him in his private classes so we could learn more and faster. As far as the refereeing part, my father & uncle went to 5 Olympic games as referees and I learned from them.

CP: What is the most important thing a referee should always remember about their job?

MY: That they are there to protect the fighter’s integrity. [Ed. Note: You hear that Winslow?]

CP: What is your philosophy towards MMA refereeing?

MY: To be correct, impartial and honest.

CP: At UFC Fight Night 26 you reffed the Travis Browne/Alistair Overeem fight – one that could have arguably been stopped sooner in favor of Overeem. What was your thought process letting the fight continue when Overeem was hovering over a turtled Browne?

MY: This fight was a good example about when and when not to stop a fight. When Overeem knocked the wind out of Travis I heard him grind, making some noise and I knew he was having some difficulties breathing. But I also knew that he was conscious and trying to stay in the fight. And Overeem’s punches were [landing] on his arms and shoulder – good knees too, but not well enough to make him drop. Then he stood up, recovered, and Overeem caught a kick to the face and went down semi-conscious. I gave him the chance to recuperate, but Travis came down with 2 punches to his head that he couldn’t defend intelligently and I had to stop it.

CP: How often are referees forced to chose a side in the battle between the Letter of the Law and the Spirit of the Law? How difficult is it to be consistent in your judgement?

MY: Well, as a referee, we can’t choose sides even if one is more friendly than the other. When we get up there it’s to prevent accidents, [keep things safe] and to make sure all fighters and camps follow the rules. The biggest difficulty is to be consistent. We don’t want to make mistakes, but we are human and every fight is a different fight.

CP: Should referees take into account each fighter’s history (wins, losses, fighting style, past concussions, etc.) when determining whether or not to stop the fight or let it play out?

MY: No, we can never go by that but I always recommend that the referees learn about who they are and their styles. But as I said before, every fight is a different fight, so we can never predict what is going to happen there.

CP: Do refs ever approach one another after an event and tell them when they think someone messed up?

MY: We do some meetings to exchange thoughts and to discuss some things, constructively! It’s always good.

CP: MMA is a lightening-fast sport that forces referees to make equally fast decisions. MMA refs are arguably the most scrutinized of all sports, in fact, you were put on the spot by UFC commentator Joe Rogan after the controversial fight between Erik Silva and Carlo Prater at UFC 142. That being said, what do you consider to be your biggest career regret?

MY: Hmmm… That makes the top of the list, but not for what I did in the fight, but what I did after. I should never wait there to try to explain myself. A decision is a decision, if you follow the rules. I acted correctly, but if you follow the facts and your heart, I could give a no-contest because later Erick came to me and said that he didn’t understand English and didn’t understand my warnings. So based on that, if we were to use our hearts… and Velasquez vs. Pezão (AKA Bigfoot Silva), I should’ve let Velasquez punch him more so [Bigfoot] would not have anyone to blame but himself.

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