With every year that goes by, the sport of mixed martial arts has grown. There are a number of major promotions, each holding more events than have ever been held. There are fans who love this because it gives them access to as many fights as they could ever want, but there are fans who hate it because it dilutes the product inside the cage. While both sides of this argument are legitimate, there is one aspect of the popularity boom of MMA that appears to be overlooked, and that is the demand for quality refereeing.

Whether you’re working for a commission or a promotion, fighter safety needs to be the No. 1 priority of anyone involved in operations of the sport. Due to the fact that there are now more fights than ever, it is as crucial as ever to have referees that are capable of properly officiating a bout.

No matter if it’s youth, high school or professional sports, there is always a high expectation when it comes to the quality of the officiating. Referees are expected to be perfect on day one and improve every day afterwards. Obviously, that is an unrealistic expectation, but the point is there. It is one thing to have a loose or inconsistent strike zone in baseball, but, in combat sports, the referees must be able to make proper judgement calls on the fly in an effort to keep a fighter from any unnecessary danger.

But what happens when a referee makes a terrible decision and lets a fight go on longer than it should have? For example, last Friday night at Bellator 113, Frederick Brown suffered a TKO loss to Daniel Gallemore in a fight that should have been stopped long before it actually was. Referee Chuck Wolfe allowed the short-notice replacement, Brown, to absorb more than a dozen extra punches and elbows from Gallemore after it was apparent that Brown was out.

Unfortunately, situations like what happened in the Gallemore vs. Brown fight happen more often than you would think.

Last June, Josh Burkman secured a fight-winning guillotine choke on Jon Fitch in just 41 seconds. Everyone who was watching the fight knew that the fight was over and done right then and there…except Steve Mazzagatti, the referee overseeing the action. Burkman recognized that his opponent had gone limp as a result of the choke and stood up to celebrate his victory. All the while, Mazzagatti stood around like a pedestrian waiting at the bus stop. Thankfully, Burkman had known to stop choking Fitch, otherwise who knows how long it would have taken for the referee to step in. That delay in reaction by the official could have resulted in injuries to Fitch.

When Pat Curran won the Bellator featherweight title from Joe Warren, referee Jeff Malott was assigned to be the third man in the cage. After a strong knee landed by Curran in the third round, Warren was clearly hurt. What ensued was close to 25 seconds of unanswered strikes to the head of Warren, who was only able to stand with the support of the cage at his back. The fight could have been justifiably stopped 20 seconds earlier than it was, and it would have protected the fighter from several major blows to the head. Malott needed to jump in earlier to keep the vulnerable fighter as safe as possible, but he didn’t.

Commissions and promotions hold fighters to extremely high standards. Anyone entering the cage is responsible for knowing the rules and all of the things that may be sprung on them, such as random drug tests. Whether it is a failed drug test, grabbing the cage too many times or holding a submission too long after their opponent has tapped out, fighters know that they can and will be penalized. It is time to hold referees to a similarly rigorous set of standards.

A system needs to be developed where referees are fined and/or suspended when they are blatantly negligent in performing their jobs. Fighters who test positive for banned substances such as performance-enhancing drugs are fined and suspended by the respective commission. The reasoning is that by putting these substances into their body, they make themselves more dangerous and put their opponent at greater risk. It should not be any different to fine or suspend a referee who has failed to notice a fighter who has been choked out cold, or a referee who lets a helpless fighter take too many blows to the head when they are clearly out.

Officials that are appointed by the commission who sit cageside should have the authority to prevent a referee who made a bad call—like Wolfe, Mazzagatti or Malott—from returning to the cage later in the card to officiate another fight. Most fight cards have at least three referees working any given event so that they get a break from the action, while still being able to referee more than one fight in a night. If a major blunder is made by one referee, they should be relieved of their duties for the rest of the night at the judgement of the cageside officials. Just think about it—if you were scheduled to fight later in the night with the same referee who let a guy deliver 10 unnecessary hits to the head of an already knocked-out opponent, would you want him to oversee your fight? Wolfe was rightfully yanked from his duties at Bellator 113, which suggests that commissions are improving on this issue.

Most fight nights result in at least one fight where a fighter may receive some unnecessary damage, but when a referee lets a fighter get hit an egregious amount of times or fails to notice that they are out cold due to a choke, they need to be held responsible. It doesn’t matter if it is one of the best referees in the business, like Herb Dean, John McCarthy or Mario Yamasaki, or an official with a lower profile, all referees should be held to the same standards. They need to be held accountable for their actions or, in the cited cases, non-actions.

About The Author

Brian McKenna
Staff Writer

Brian McKenna was born and raised in the suburbs of Boston, Massachusetts. A sports nut from as long as he can remember, he came to be a fan of Mixed Martial Arts from a roommate watching The Ultimate Fighter while attending Westfield State College. Brian came to writing by starting his own blog, Four Down Territory, which focuses on Boston based sports, life, and of course MMA.