By Marcus Mitchell
It wasn’t the vicious first-round submissions that followed it. It wasn’t the stiffening spinning wheel kick knockout that preceded it. It wasn’t even the devastating KO from the champ’s knee in the main event. It was a single controversial decision that had everyone’s attention after the UFC’s last visit to Brazil.
How is it that names like Rousimar Palhares, Gabriel Gonzaga, Jose Aldo, and even Vitor Belfort paled in comparison to Mario Yamasaki? Never mind that Gonzaga finally got a big win or that the Phenom had rebounded from his embarrassing loss to fellow Brazilian Anderson Silva. Yamasaki’s decision to overturn an apparent first round TKO had everyone up in arms.
Most notably incensed by the fight’s result was UFC President Dana White. Steve Mazzagatti could only listen in disbelief as Dana White actually defended a referee that made a mistake. Instead of blaming Yamasaki personally, Dana White rekindled the ever-smoldering topic of instant replay: “There’s nothing wrong with making mistakes. There’s nothing wrong. We’re [expletive] human. We’re going to do it. But you have to be able to go back and say, ‘We made a mistake. Here’s the proof. Let’s overturn it.’”
But would the addition of instant replay in MMA really be the answer to botched referee decisions? Or would it create even more unforeseen problems?
Consider the situation where a fighter is on his back and receives a deep cut that could be interfering with his vision. The referee stands them up and takes the bleeder over to the fight doctor. After a short break, they are re-positioned and the fight continues. The break so brief because a large part of fighting is about stamina and recovery time. Each fighter is allowed one minute between each five-minute round to rest. The only other breaks in action you see during a fight are when a foul is committed (a shot to the groin, an illegal knee to the head, etc.) or a mouthpiece accidentally falls out of a fighters’ mouth. In those scenarios there is an evident sense of urgency from the referee to get the fight to continue. One of the referee’s many duties is to maintain the pace of the fight.
Imagine that the UFC used instant replay when Brock Lesnar fought Shane Carwin. If for some reason the referee wanted to check for an illegal strike, he would be out of the cage for a fair amount of time viewing each angle. All the while, the beast that is Shane Carwin is regaining oxygen. A fighter with a serious disadvantage is having the playing field leveled for him. By the time the ref finally returns, Carwin would be rejuvenated and someone in the first row would be taking home Lesnar’s massive head.
And if instant replay were allowed at UFC 142, what would Mario Yamasaki have done? Would he stop the fight while he checked the tape? If he returned and saw that Silva had indeed landed a blow or two to the back of Prater’s head, would he deduct a point or stop the fight? Prater could not continue, so stop the fight, right? Or does he just give the fight to Silva because in between smacking the direct center of Prater’s head he landed some convincing blows on Prater? But, if Yamasaki does restart the fight, after giving both fighters ample time to recover, does he put Prater right back into Silva’s clutches like he would for a doctor check?
And where are you while this is taking place? Have you lost interest? The length of break and commentary are similar to the time before and after Bruce Buffer announces the decision of the fight. Do you want to wait while Yamasaki puts on headphones and sticks his head into a small television screen?
As a fan, the right call is the major concern, but is it something you’re willing to wait for?
Let’s refer to one of the oldest cases in need of instant replay: Kazushi Sakuraba vs. Marcus Silveira at UFC Japan in 1997. Sakuraba was being abused by a barrage of strikes by a man that outweighed him by 60 pounds. Sakuraba decided he did not enjoy having his skull reshaped and went for a single-leg takedown. “Big” John McCarthy, who is widely regarded as MMA’s most beloved referee, immediately stopped the fight stating that Sakuraba was knocked out. When the Gracie Hunter popped to his feet, McCarthy knew he made a mistake. There was no instant replay to fall back on.
Instead, like the situation with Erick Silva, Sakuraba had to wait during an appeal. In both cases, replay was looked at and the right call was determined. Essentially, a replay was used for the right call, but not an instant replay. For safety purposes, the fights were stopped and decisions were made afterwards. Luckily for Saku, the decision was overturned and he got his rematch the same night.)
Another question, as if there weren’t enough already, is who would be in charge of determining when instant replay should be used? As stated previously, Dana White is an advocate for instant replay. When discussing the topic, he frequently compares MMA’s lack of the determining tool to virtually every other major sport’s use of it. In American football, instant replay is generally determined, between plays, by one team’s head coach throwing a red flag onto the field to signify that he would like the previous play re-examined. In baseball, the umpires determine if instant replay is needed, between plays, if there is any argument over a home run’s validity. In both sports, the final call is still somewhat questionable and the process is always time consuming.
Would instant replay be determined by Dana White in MMA? Does he throw a red flag into the Octagon in between tweets? Should a fighter’s coach be in charge of throwing the flag? Joe Rogan apparently thought he was the deciding factor when he took it upon himself to publicly humiliate Mario Yamasaki seconds after his decision. The UFC could give him and Mike Goldberg a few flags and see what happens. However, going by how often they pre-emptively declare the ending to a fight, it wouldn’t be long before they tore a rotator cuff. Instead of anyone throwing flags, does the referee take it upon himself to judge when something needs to be reviewed? If so, prepare yourself for questionable delays while the referee checks if, in fact, that kick landed on the thigh or testicles.
Implementing instant replay in MMA opens up a gigantic can of worms. Imagine how many fighters wake up on a Bud Light logo to furiously debate whether or not he left consciousness. Does the referee look at the tape? If he does, is it safe to bring a fighter who may or may not have just been knocked out back into a fight?
Recall Cheick Kongo’s need to check Cro Cop’s bits and pieces. If instant replay were intact, how many times would this fight have been reviewed? Sitting through that many delays would make a Jacob Volkmann fight look interesting.
When it comes down to it, out of all the fights in the history of MMA, an almost negligible percentage has created a buzz for instant replay. The rest have been refereed absolutely correctly. Implementing instant replay in MMA would be like using a hatchet when a scalpel would do. There are other ways to adjust the issue at hand. The first, and probably easiest, would be for commissions to be absolutely sure that referees are consistent. If referees had penalized or even disqualified Vitor Belfort for the many times he has attacked the back of an opponent’s head in a heated adrenaline-filled rush to end the fight, then Yamasaki would not have looked so bad with his decision.
There are far too many questions with instant replay. Maybe some fights would be changed for the good, but at what cost? Without instant replay, there is only one question: Why doesn’t MMA have instant replay?