Some Thoughts on MMA Refereeing

Go watch this clip of the ending of the Jai Herbert vs. Francisco Trinaldo fight from one of the much-ballyhooed ‘Fight Island’ cards that the UFC put on over the summer.

This is an example of a referee, in this case Herb Dean, making the kind of baffling mistake where it seems like they must be watching a different fight play out than everyone else.

I really cannot fathom why some people have tried arguing that this was either a not-so-bad or even (incredibly!) a fairly good stoppage. I just don’t get how anyone could say that with a straight face. Herb’s blunder in this moment is pretty much as open-and-shut as it gets. It’s not the most egregious stoppage in the world — far from it, really — and it’s not an unforgivable error. But it’s a notably bad stoppage, no question about it.

There is, I’ve noticed, a tendency for newer or more casual MMA fans to believe — I suppose understandably — that a fighter has to actually be laid out stiff as a board, with his eyes closed and his body still, for him to be genuinely ‘knocked out’. The more fights you watch, the more obviously untrue this becomes. There are times when someone is so completely out of it that they might as well be unconscious, given that they have absolutely no idea what’s going on around them and absolutely no ability to react to it appropriately. They might technically still be on the right side of unconscious, but in a fight that’s a meaningless distinction, because the practical effect of it is the same: the fighter can no longer ‘intelligently defend themselves’. And this particular bout illustrates that point.

Here’s how I would describe the finishing sequence, in dissected slow-motion detail. When Herbert gets clipped with that picture-perfect overhand left, the first thing that happens is there’s that weird, slightly disquieting liminal half-second where he’s clearly stunned but it’s like a delayed reaction, where the full impact of the blow is only just now belatedly walloping him. Right before he had gotten hit, he had thrown out a probing jab and his brain evidently had enough residual processing power left firing to remind him to double-up on it, so he goes to throw another one. But it’s just then that the circuit-breaker finally gets flipped and he’s going out, and resultingly that jab is abandoned half-way through and becomes him just limply pawing at the air above Trinaldo’s head.

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