I lived in Green Bay, Wis., until I was 19 years old. I grew up about three miles from Lambeau Field. I went to Vince Lombardi Middle School. Needless to say, I love my Green Bay Packers.
So it was with an extraordinary amount of anger and passion that I launched into an unpublishable tirade of expletives following the ridiculous call that ended the Packers’ game with the Seattle Seahawks this past Monday night. Like the majority of the sports world not employed in an executive-level position with the NFL, I thought the video evidence seemed to pretty clearly show M.D. Jennings intercepting Russell Wilson’s throw. But that’s not the ruling that was made, and here we are.
As Nick Diaz would say, it’s whatever.
Well, the referee lockout has ended, but the three weeks of poor NFL officiating really brought into sharp focus the importance of having highly trained referees overseeing professional competitions. While the call at the end of the Packers/Seahawks game was probably the most egregious example of what can happen when officials aren’t up to par, it certainly wasn’t the only one from the NFL’s first month. We’ve seen dirty hits that have not resulted in penalties, phantom calls made in the absence of infraction, and occasionally the sort of buffoonery that must make fans ask themselves how these referees were possibly deemed qualified to officiate NFL games in the first place.
This is why MMA fans should consider themselves lucky that there is an extremely reputable group of referees in their sport who can consistently be relied upon to professionally officiate even the most important fights.
Starting with the pioneer himself, John McCarthy, the UFC (and MMA generally speaking) has worked to ensure the officials overseeing caged combat know what they are doing. These days, fans can generally rest assured that when McCarthy, Herb Dean, Josh Rosenthal, Mario Yamasaki and the other UFC officiating standbys are controlling the action, the chance that the fight will end in controversial fashion due to the actions of the referee is minimal.
In an ideal scenario, the way fans will talk about a referee’s role in a fight would go something like this:
Fan 1: How great was that title fight last night??!! What an incredible finish!
Fan 2: I know, right??!!
Fan 1: Hey … who was the ref in that fight?
Fan 2: Uhh … Herb Dean, maybe?
Fan 1: Yeah … that sounds about right.
Unless a referee makes a pretty serious mistake, they blend into the cage like so much metal. In most fights, they really only enter the consciousness of any fans when they dive in between two fighters to stop the one on top from doing any more damage to the one on the bottom, or after the fight when they stand between the winner and loser to raise the appropriate hand.
This is certainly not to imply that the job of an MMA referee is easy. There are many more facets of MMA officiating than simply deciding when enough punishment has been doled out to stop a fight. It takes a carefully trained official to get all the little things correct, and it’s in those little areas where the difference between good officials and bad ones becomes evident.
Good officials will spot an eye poke or a groin kick as soon as it happens. Good officials know when it’s okay to stand grounded fighters up and when it’s too soon. Perhaps most importantly to the fighters’ safety, good officials will stop a fight the second a fighter is no longer intelligently defending himself.
Still, even with good officials, mistakes happen. MMA officials are criticized most often for either not stepping in soon enough or, more frequently, stopping a fight too quickly. The consequences are far more brutal in the former situation, but the latter can elicit a lot of anger from the losing fighter and his camp and has obvious financial ramifications for both combatants.
Probably the most salient recent example of legitimate referee criticism has been for Rosenthal when he allowed Chris Weidman to get in a few extra shots on a clearly incapacitated Mark Munoz in July. Rosenthal owned up to this error, however, and it hasn’t happened since. This ability to learn from one’s mistakes, particularly when that mistake involves the ability to make split-second judgements that will forever impact the careers of two professional fighters, is the true mark of a great referee.
Given the different employment circumstances between officials in the NFL and MMA, fight fans will not have to worry about the top officials being locked out of the UFC’s events like we’re seeing in the NFL. (I’m not going to get into the relative merits of unionized and non-unionized labor here, but the fact remains that with no union, there’s no collective bargaining, and therefore no possibility of a referee strike or lockout.) One can only imagine, however, what would happen if the referees from local promotions were suddenly called in to replace the likes of Dean, McCarthy and the rest. Such a substitution would inherently degrade the product and put the fighters in potentially greater danger than is already present in a professional cage fight.
In every sport, fans take the officials for granted. Again, they’re really only noticed when they make what a large enough group of fans consider to be a serious error. With that in mind, MMA fans should take a moment to appreciate the sport’s finest referees. Without them, we’d all be cursing at our televisions a lot more often.
Photo: Josh Rosenthal (Fight Nerd)