(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.