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Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Refereeing — And Why Nevada Needs “Big” John McCarthy

(We’re going to have a clean, fair fight. Obey my commands at all times. If you don’t, I’mma jam this mic so deep in your eye socket you can hear yourself think. / Pic Props: The Fight Network)

By: Jason Moles

There are only three certainties in life: Death, taxes, and dreadful refereeing in mixed martial arts. With tax day behind us and a clean bill of health from the doc, the only thing left to avoid is blunders like those that occurred this past Saturday night at The Ultimate Fighter Season 17 Finale at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas. The offenses ranged from unrepentant fence-grabbing to controversial stoppages. (Surprisingly, we’re not talking about Steve Mazagatti this time.) Sadly, this might have been prevented if Nevada State Athletic Commission executive director Keith Kizer would squash his beef with the godfather of MMA referees, “Big” John McCarthy.

What’s the beef about, you ask? To hear McCarthy tell it, Kizer got upset and took his ball home when UFC’s first head referee said the same thing the fans have been saying for years. Via MMAFighting:

“I thought he was putting some people in positions to judge fights that didn’t understand actually what the fighters were doing, and that’s wrong,” McCarthy explained. “I said that and I stood by it. He got mad, and from that, he has never licensed me again. And that’s okay. That’s his choice. I’m not going to cry about it and worry about it.”

McCarthy apologized publicly to Kizer and three years ago resubmitted his application for licensure. Not surprisingly, he hasn’t heard back, other than an ominous note stating that his “application will stay on file.”

That’s funny; Dana White told CagePotato the same thing about my press credentials. Fast forward to this Saturday, and instead of sitting on press row in sunny California for UFC on FOX: Henderson vs. Melendez, I’ll be sitting in Ben’s living room with a bunch of boxercisers. [Ed. note: How. Dare. You.] Where was I? Oh yeah, most MMA refs are incompetent and terrible at their job.

Case in point: Maximo Blanco vs. Sam Sicilia. Warnings were given and warnings were dismissed. Repeatedly. During the early preliminary tilt, referee Kim Winslow was heard several times warning Blanco about grabbing the fence. In the first round alone, the Venezuelan latched his fingers onto the chain-link cage three or four times, each receiving another warning. To prove she meant business, Winslow walked over to Blacno’s corner after the round to reprimand him for his blatant defiance of the law and inform him that any future infraction would incur the maximum penalty of the law. Just kidding, she just made another empty threat, which was immediately ignored.

As a father of small children, I can attest that empty threats are easily detectable and rarely heeded by even the youngest of rule breakers. Thankfully, they haven’t stumbled upon former CP pen monkey Chad Dundas‘s inimitable article on why you should always cheat. (It’s scary just how right he is.) In the end, the judges awarded Maximo Blanco a unanimous decision victory with a final scorecard of 29-28. Had a point been deducted for the unabashed fence grabbing, the fight would’ve been a draw at worse, a knockout/submission finish at best.

Not content with being “one and done,” Winslow’s rap sheet grew in the third round of the Fight of the Night tilt between undefeated Cat Zingano and former Strikeforce champion Miesha Tate. This time the former air-traffic controller made her presence felt when she prematurely halted the action instead of letting the fight unfold organically, causing her refereeing to come under scrutiny once again. Don’t even get me started about the legality of some of those knees either. Whether you like it or not, the course of the women’s division has been altered forever.

The implications for the winner of the UFC’s second women fight in history were tantamount with being cast in the next installment of The Fast and the Furious; just ask Gina Carano. Fame, fortune, and all the exposure a girl could ever want — all wrapped up and ready to go. All you have to do is nail the audition. The winner of Tate vs. Zingano was promised a coaching gig on The Ultimate Fighter season 18 and an automatic title shot against the Queen of the Cage, Ronda Rousey (read: three months of free exposure on FS1 and an abundance of sponsorship opportunities). While I’m genuinely happy for Zingano, I can’t help but think that maybe Tate got jipped.

Entering the final frame ahead on two judges’ scorecards, “Cupcake” was set to just coast finish strong against the first mother to ever compete inside the Octagon. Zingano went full “momma bear” and started to beat the living daylights out of Tate. An appropriate subtitle for this Cat fight would’ve been ‘There Will Be Blood.’ The former champ’s face was a bloody mess, but the rest of her was still in the fight when Winslow stepped in too soon. Tate said so herself at the post-fight press conference:

“[Winslow] came in and told me before we left the locker room that, ‘If I warn you to move, all I need to know is that you want to stay in the fight.’ And I felt that I did that. I got from the bottom, up. I got kneed a few times on the way, tried to shoot another shot, and the fight was stopped. I didn’t feel like I was out of the fight.”

Okay, so what fighter wouldn’t protest in this situation? Maybe the outcome of the fight wouldn’t have changed, maybe it would’ve. Think about it, though: How many times have we witnessed amazing comebacks from fighters in similar situations? Heck, one ref even let Cheick Kongo continue fighting after being KO’d twice by Pat Barry. Tate’s come-from-behind win against Julie Kedzie comes to mind as well. When will we learn that sometimes you need to let a fighter keep fighting?

When Chris Tognoni was assigned to referee Gabriel Gonzaga and Travis Browne engaging in fisticuffs, I didn’t think anything of it, but I should’ve expected nothing more than was delivered. I mean, this was the guy who stood up Yushin Okami despite having side control of Alan Belcher at UFC 155. Just 71 seconds into the opening round, an unconscious Gonzaga crashes to the canvas after absorbing six consecutive hellbows to the skull. Kudos to “Hapa” for his ability to cultivate such ferocity with his back against the cage and end the fight from a defensive position. After watching the replay, you can see that the first two shots were legal, landing to the side of the head. The last three… well, not so much.

The fight hinges on the third elbow, whether or not it was legal, and if it even matters at all. Gonzaga’s camp thinks it does, hence their appeal of the ruling of the contest. As my colleague Seth Falvo explained, “… since Gonzaga was already out when they landed, they didn’t potentially affect the outcome of the fight. The NSAC’s ruling on the third elbow will more than likely decide the outcome of this case.”

In aftermath of the short scrap, I “overheard” a conversation between “Big” John McCarthy himself and former UFC fighter Kenny Florian in which McCarthy admits that legal shots put Gonzaga to sleep. So this should be a non-issue, right? Not for the Brazilian’s wife and children who may someday have to strain to understand the mumblings of the man they love dearly. Nor for his brain cells that took unnecessary abuse after the fight was all but over, but not officially called off because the ref was dangerously out of position. In a perfect world, Tognoni would’ve been closer to the action so as to better see what did or did not land in the mohawk area of “Napao”‘s head and at what point the hairy man lost consciousness. In a perfect world, I would be arranging to fly to Cali this weekend. You see where this is going.

MMA referees have the pivotal role of protecting the fighters while maintaining a fight’s integrity. Some do a better job of this than others. However, some perform so terribly they are altering the course of history, stealing money out of the fighter’s pockets, and more importantly, putting the fighter’s health and well-being at enormous risk. And it’s happening on such a consistent basis that corrective action must be taken. All refs should be held more accountable for their actions and properly educated on the intricacies of the great sport of mixed martial arts. Some, though, should be treated like War Machine at a holiday mixer, spit bag and all.

The Nevada State Athletic Commission is guilty of allowing inept people like Winslow, Mazagatti, and Tognoni to protect fighters in the cage instead of utilizing the well-versed John McCarthy — and all because of Keith Kizer’s bruised ego. Unfortunately, we’re not likely to see any change until someone dies in the cage. What then? Will Nevada concede its willful negligence of fighter safety in blackballing a man who has been in the sport since the foundations?

Having reffed thousands of fights, McCarthy is a man fighters trust and respect. He’s a guy they know will make the right call, whether it goes in their favor or not. How many other refs can say that? If allowed to work in the Silver State this past weekend, there would be less controversy swirling around the fight card because the action in the Octagon would’ve been handled appropriately. The NSAC owes it to the fans, promotions, fighters, and most of all themselves, to use the best referees at their disposal in order to ensure fighter safety. Anything less is criminal.

Cagepotato Comments

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CWill859- April 19, 2013 at 4:21 pm
I believe there should be some sort of review period after each event. The athletic commission should sit each ref down individually and have them explain their reasonings for stopping a fight, not stopping it, warnings for fouls, etc. They should be held accountable and have evidence based justification for their actions inside the cage. This would serve as a crucial education and rule reinforcement tool for all referees. Not just scolding them for doing wrong but explaining how they could've handled te situation better.
onskmbla- April 17, 2013 at 10:17 am
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cman- April 17, 2013 at 9:37 am
To an extent I get your point, though I thought (always) the rule applied to power slams like what Hughes and page used to do, the to the shoulders and drive variety. I'm not sure 10 inches equates to spiking, and I've never seen it called so. It's almost the same as bottom hugging and doing push up drops IMO. I may be wrong in how it's written. And I'll admit I've never read the official rule.
I have seen the escape done dozens of times and never called though, so I've accepted as within the guidelines.
danomite- April 17, 2013 at 4:49 am
First off, I think I read somewhere after I posted that last comment where Samman said the armbar was close to finishing him or something like that, and he would know better than you or I how bad it was.

you still didn't explain why you are allowed to commit a foul when someone has you in a submission. The rules clearly state that slamming a guy on his head is illegal. It does not say "slamming someone on their head is illegal, unless you need to escape a submission. In that case, you can totally just spike a dude on his head." If it says that somewhere let me know and I'll stop talking about this. Let me try to explain it a different way: Right before Samman lifted Casey off the ground, he was in a position where he was standing and Casey's back was on the ground. At that point, If Samman had stomped on Casey's head to get out of the armbar he would be penalized and possibly DQ'd. Instead, he picks him up, slams him on his head, and is rewarded with a win after Casey lets go of it.
cman- April 17, 2013 at 1:14 am
Dano, if you are attempting an armbar, and your shoulders leave the mat, getting lifted by a guy with a hyper extended elbow, and don't 'realize' your hold made you vulnerable, you have no central nervous system. Further, bjj accepts that as an escape. And if they have the time, pain threshold, leverage to do this, you don't 'have' the armbar.
Otherwise your talking standard rule breaks which equate to smAll digit manipulation, which was outlawed even in one (groin strikes later, but in truth, no one believed anyone WOULD).
But your armbared, you can't lift your own weight and 'spike' it in a blink.
danomite- April 16, 2013 at 5:55 pm
We get a full article devoted to last saturday's referee fuck ups and still no one can even mention fucking head spikes?! Kevin Casey had Josh Samman in an armbar and Samman picked him up and spiked him on his head twice. When the fuck are we going to start penalizing people for committing the most dangerous foul that exists?
Before anybody uses the 'he has the ability to let go the armbar if he doesn't want to be spiked' argument let me explain to you really quickly how fucking stupid that excuse is so that you don't look like a moron. First of all, the guy getting spiked probably doesn't realize what's about to happen until he's dangling upside down ten inches off the mat. He's too busy concentrating on trying to end the fight and suddenly it's "oh shit, i'm upside down". Secondly, please tell me why we should make an exception for this foul but not any of the other LESS DANGEROUS fouls. Are you allowed to gouge a guy's eyes out to escape a rear naked choke? NO. Are you allowed punch a guy in the dick to get out of a standing guillotine? NO. So why do these fucking refs keep insisting it's perfectly legal to potentially paralyze a guy to escape an armbar or rear naked? If you're caught deep in an armbar it's your own damn fault, you shouldn't be allowed to break the rules to help you get out of it. It's fucking beyond stupid, and if they don't change it someone is going to end up seriously, permanently injured.
cman- April 16, 2013 at 5:54 pm
While I do agree there are bad ref's (DUH) and the opening to even apply in very limited and new ref's even sanctioned are rarely called up to even be given the shot, monopolizing the job for a select few, for what appears to be arbitrary reasons. Big John is far from the best in the biz anymore and has surely lost something over the years. He would have robbed us of many fights because he tends t o jump in way to fast. Both Edgar/Maynard fights I could not see Big John letting out of the first, Brock/Carwin would have been stopped for sure.
If I was going to Use Big John in Nevada or elsewhere, I would say commissions need to have him be over Refs and Judges and rate performances to decide future use. Right now no one actually oversees them in any active manner and have zero accountability. The biggest need is them to have an actual boss and person they have to report to.
Alan K- April 16, 2013 at 3:04 pm
Well it's not like Big John is perfect either...
beetle_tits- April 16, 2013 at 2:18 pm
Was there anything about the night you didn't wanna bitch about Jason?
Willa Ford- April 16, 2013 at 12:43 pm
I agree with your basic point, that a lot of mma refs aren't great at their jobs, and certainly aren't as good as Big John, but I take issue with your specific examples. Winslow is definitely a bad ref, but her stoppage in the Tate fight was totally reasonable and acceptable, and even Dana thought it was ok. In fact, I would say Big John's stoppage of the still standing Cyborg Muxlow fight the week before was way closer to premature. And I find it really hard to imagine anyone stopping that Gonzaga fight any faster than Togoni did, Browne dropped those elbows so damn fast, and Gonzaga went to sleep so damn quickly, I really don't see what could have been done differently. I agree reefing is generally bad, but I don't think it's fair to write an article in which you complain about a totally reasonable stoppage being premature, then a paragraph later, complain about a relatively speedy stoppage being way too late. There are plenty of shitty stoppages to choose from, so why use these two as examples?
Nealio- April 16, 2013 at 11:49 am
Finally a good article! There will be much rejoicing..
mcdolph- April 16, 2013 at 10:15 am
Surely the fighters need to start protesting against certain refs a la Brock v Mazzagatti. If a fighter is too stupid to protest the possibility of Mazzagatti or Winslow 'taking care of them' in the cage then it is somewhat their own fault, right?

But fighters get punched in the head for a living so why did I even mention that?
eradz- April 16, 2013 at 9:19 am
Damn good article CP! That knee by Cat looks very questionable and I personally think it was an early stoppage. Big John needs to slap KK around a little bit so he can get his lic. Boycott all UFC events in Nevada until Big John starts to ref!
The12ozCurls- April 16, 2013 at 9:09 am
"in Ben’s living room with a bunch of boxercisers."

Really Boss? Really? Say it *LMFAO* ain't so!
Fried Taco- April 16, 2013 at 8:12 am
Didn't Kim threaten to whip Blanco with her braided pony tail?
MorningwoodII- April 16, 2013 at 8:12 am
from looking at the photo I thought this was going to be a "Big John" article to amateur porn actresses
Fried Taco- April 16, 2013 at 8:19 am
Big John, you're using that Fleshlight incorrectly!
ArmFarmer- April 16, 2013 at 7:55 am
The elbows that put gonzaga out were legal so I don't think that one should be overturned.. But I do think travis is a huge dick for trying to murder a clearly unconscious man...