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.

This is where Herbert goes down hard. And the manner in which he goes down tells the whole story, unmistakably. He falls backwards in that rigid way which looks like a statue toppling over. He doesn’t fall onto his butt (i.e. when a punch “sits you down” but it’s just a fleeting knockdown); he falls flat on his back and his head bounces off the canvas.

I mean, that right there has been enough to stop many a fight, and without protest from either the fighter receiving the loss or even the fans rooting for them. Because when you go down lapidified like that, you’re almost always out cold or mere seconds away from being so. You just got hit hard enough for your body to completely fail you and for your brain to even forget to compel you to protect the back of your head from slamming into the canvas. That’s a wrap right there. Herb probably should have stepped in, or at least been on a hair-trigger to do so, as soon as he saw Herbert fall in that tell-tale way.

Anyhow, for the first second or two whilst Herbert is on the canvas, his arms are just splayed out at his sides, because he’s so out of it. And only after that does he instinctively bring them back towards his face. Trinaldo unhurriedly walks over and stands over him. Here, again, you can tell that Herbert’s lights might ostensibly still be on, but nobody’s fucking home. He doesn’t try to scramble away and get out of there; he doesn’t try to throw his legs up and get Trinaldo in his guard; he doesn’t even try to rotate so that Trinaldo at least isn’t standing in such a perfect position (i.e. at Herbert’s side and up by his head) to easily rain down sledgehammer shots. Any hardcore MMA fan who looks at even just a snapshot of this moment knows that it’s only going to end one way. I mean, Herbert’s a sitting duck, how could he possibly counter-attack from this position? He’s in no state to go for a hail-mary leg-lock or even just a sweep. Is he gonna spin around, like a break-dancer twirling on their back, and land a nasty one-and-done up-kick on Trinaldo? Come on, man. It’s ridiculous.

Credit to Trinaldo here, because he clearly sees that Herbert is toast and palpably hesitates for several seconds — I’m sure it’s not easy to feel a pang of tender mercy when someone’s been wailing on you for two rounds — as if to allow Herb Dean as much opportunity as possible to step in and do the right thing. Now, this is an interesting moment here. Because obviously a referee shouldn’t allow a fighter to persuade them about the timing of when to call the fight. And we’ve all seen countless instances where a wily fighter dishonestly tries to do so. (My personal favourite is when fighters yell “they’re out! they’re out!” during a choke attempt, despite the fact that it’s not even in that deep and their opponent is very visibly still working to escape it. I suppose they figure it’s worth a shot. After all, if you have a nervous, inexperienced referee, there’s a decent chance they’ll get flustered and panicked and just wave it off at that point. And MMA commissions have shown that they’ll almost never overturn the result of a fight, no matter how heinously botched and/or unfair a referee’s call was. So if you’re fine with getting an unearned win bonus, it’s an easy, no-risk gambit to try.) That being said, what’s strikingly unusual here is that Trinaldo doesn’t even look to Herb, let alone say anything, to explicitly prompt him to step in. He kinda just has a private moment of compunction, like “shit, wait, am I really going to pummel this poor bastard whose eyes just rolled back into his head?”

All the same, this pause in the action is where it starts to become inexplicable why Herb Dean is still taking a hands-off, let’s-see-what-happens approach here. Because even given these extra few seconds of free time, Herbert still doesn’t try to get up or at least improve his position. If there was even a sliver of uncertainty left about whether or not he’s aware enough to protect himself, that should obliterate it. And the fact that Herb is given an opportunity here to visually assess Herbert’s condition without any obstructions or distractions and nonetheless lets the fight continue is what elevates this to an awful stoppage. It was just so easily preventable. No-one’s asking for supernatural powers of discernment here.

Trinaldo’s hand (or, rather, fist) is forced by Herb’s inaction, and he has to keep going or risk giving Herbert a chance to recover. He lands four hard shots on a defenceless Herbert before Herb, at long last, belatedly steps in to save him. And I do mean defenceless. There’s an alternate angle of the finishing sequence which they played after the fight which provides a much better view of this part. (I’d link you to the shady, illegally pirated dubiously-rehosted video I found online of the entire fight so I could double-check this aspect, but I don’t need a beet-red Dana White suddenly bursting through my wall like an enraged Kool-Aid Man. I’m sure you understand.) This reverse-angle shot really makes the situation plain.

Herbert’s arms are indeed moving around as he takes these superfluous coups de grâce — which I saw some people asserting meant he was still in the fight — but if you look carefully they’re just waving around uselessly: they don’t block a single punch, they’re not even tracking where the punches are coming from: they’re just held up and jerking around as he’s getting bombed on. (I also encountered some comments suggesting this might be the so-called ‘fencing response’ which can accompany being knocked unconscious, but I just don’t know enough to be able to venture a guess one way or another.) It reminds me a bit of Brendan Schaub getting flatlined in disturbing fashion by Ben Rothwell, where Schaub looks like he’s reaching up to gather invisible fairies dancing above him in the air. If that KO doesn’t convince you that you can be truly out cold whilst your eyes are still open and your limbs are still moving, nothing will.

Herbert shouldn’t have had to eat those follow-up shots (which, as you can see, were both deadly accurate and had considerable power behind them.) Herb should have ended the fight before that. Like I said earlier, I just can’t grasp how in the world anyone can seriously argue that Herbert was still in the fight after he goes down. He’s not just ‘dazed’ or ‘rocked’, he’s simply not cognizant anymore. That’s what being knocked out without being ‘knocked out’ looks like: he’s asleep with his eyes open. I would bet the dude didn’t even know where he was or what the fuck was going on. A parade of flayed circus clowns with twitching exposed muscle-fibers could have hopped on by riding day-glo pogo sticks, and he would have been none the wiser.

I guess the reasoning that some of the defenders of this stoppage use is that even if a fighter plainly gets starched by the shot that drops them, you ultimately have to make their opponent kind of ‘prove’ that they’re subsequently not capable of defending themselves by landing a bunch of power punches on them. I find this not just wrong but also very perturbing. Not to mention incredibly dangerous. The second it becomes clear that a fighter just got the plug pulled, you stop the fight. And it should be abundantly clear to anyone from the way that Herbert hit the dirt and then furthermore from the way he didn’t even turtle up on the ground that he had ZERO chance of blocking/avoiding any follow-up shots. (And, yeah, I do mean anyone. You don’t need to be a trained referee to discern something so obvious.)

Herb Dean fucked up badly here. It’s really that simple.

And listen, I get it, reffing MMA is an exceptionally difficult job. Underlying everything is the fact that you’re exposing yourself to the dangers of being right up close to a whirling dervish of multi-limbed violence: potentially getting accidentally clipped by an errant spinning backfist or what have you. On top of that, you have to force two highly-trained badasses, who are in an amped-up and adrenaline-filled primal state, to obey the rules and heed your authority. And you have to maintain absolutely maximum, unflickering vigilance for the entire fight. And you have to make very tricky split-second judgement calls with only incomplete information and intuition to guide you. Getting that decision wrong could, at best, mean unfairly depriving someone of their win bonus (which results in less money to support their family). That’s very significant when you consider that most fighters only get two or three fights a year. Additionally, you’re negatively affecting their record, which unless you’re in the tiny pool of renowned fighters is pretty much the only commodity and negotiating leverage you have. And on the flipside, getting that decision wrong could, at worst, mean someone unnecessarily getting a bone snapped or receiving extra brain trauma. The seriousness of that speaks for itself.

It’s also a thankless task. When you do your job correctly 99% of the time, you might as well be wearing cage-fence print camouflage, because you’re basically invisible. No-one’s gonna pat you on the back or be grateful. Yet when you mess up during that other 1%, not only is the fighter you screwed over gonna hate your guts until half an hour after Judgement Day, but scumbag MMA fans are probably going to mercilessly harass you and send you death-threats. And that genuine 1% gets inflated to like an alleged 5-10% because of all the times when people think you dropped the ball but you actually didn’t. One has to especially keep in mind that fighters are usually going to be inclined to contend that a stoppage is too early. Because even if they’re the type of fighter who isn’t too blinded by their pride and/or shackled to their machismo to realize when they’re done and can’t continue, when someone is rocked badly, they’re in no position to accurately take stock of their own accrued damage/remaining dangerousness. Hence why there’s a referee in there, which is supposed to make that irrelevant. And they therefore have to be able to absorb the flak they’re gonna get when they act in the best interests of the fighter despite the fighter not even realizing it.

But none of this means that an error shouldn’t be called out as an error. It’s not a personal attack on a referee to do so. To the contrary, referees wield so much power and bear so much responsibility that it’s vital they be held accountable when they make a consequential slip-up.

The Dan Hardy aspect to this whole thing is where it gets a little more complicated. As you can hear in the clip, he angrily yells out “stop the fight!” as Trinaldo is smashing an oblivious Herbert’s face in. And then after the fight he gets in a heated argument with Herb Dean, where he’s apparently berating him for the late stoppage. (You can see a brief snippet of it here.)

The important piece of missing context is that earlier in that same card, Herb was involved in another questionable call. (In case you’re curious, you can watch it here.) This stoppage was definitely quite a bit late, but it’s still not as bad as the Herbert one because the guy, although clearly done and wanting out of the fight, was still fully conscious and was at least covering up and absorbing the final flurry on his guard. (Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure that having a UFC heavyweight ground-and-pound you is still very much No Fun At All™ even if your guard is up. But you get what I’m saying. There’s a world of difference between taking those earth-shaking shots on your forearms or on your chin.) Even though ideally Herb would have jumped in sooner and it is fair to ding him for that, at the end of the day it wasn’t that big of a deal. It’s the kind of imperfect refereeing which understandably happens now and again. Such things must be pardoned if we want to make sure that being a referee doesn’t start to seem like an impossibly exacting job. The profession needs a steady stream of new blood, it shouldn’t be forgotten. The old guard will hang up their black polo shirts and comfortable sneakers eventually.

But, yeah, that incident undoubtedly primed Hardy to be extra outraged when Herb once again had a lapse of judgement — this time much worse — in the Herbert/Trinaldo fight.

My take on this is that, all things considered, it’s fine that he yelled that the fight should be stopped as he was commentating the finish. It was a kneejerk emotional reaction in the heat of the moment, born out of concern for the fighter getting mollywhopped whilst essentially already KO’d. The interesting wrinkle here is that during a normal UFC card, whatever anyone from the commentating team shouts out has no effect on the fight itself because the roar of the crowd will drown it out and neither the fighters or the referee will be able to hear it. However, as aforementioned, the card that the Herbert fight took place during was one of the UFC’s ‘Fight Island’ events, which meant it was held in a small venue with no crowd because of the coronavirus pandemic. This meant that the commentators were audible inside the octagon. (Indeed, there were some funny memorable moments during fights where, during a lull in the action, one of the fighters would shout back a wry response to something one of the commentators had just said.)

Obviously a commentator shouldn’t be trying to directly influence the outcome of a fight whilst it’s still happening. And when you’re commentating during special circumstances which actually enable you to do just that simply by yelling something out, you should really be even more careful not to commit that breach of etiquette. But, again, I think Hardy’s is a very human slip-up. He’s a passionate guy (which sometimes veers into hot-headedness, as we’ll get into) and cares a lot about fighter safety, which I greatly admire. (Far too few people in positions of influence in the MMA world are willing to keep harping on about it even when some fans start getting bored of hearing about it.) He also knows first-hand what it’s like to be in there competing because he used to be a UFC fighter, so when he’s watching someone get brutalized because the referee failed them, I’d wager that he probably feels the outrage a bit more keenly and can empathize a bit more vividly than the average person.

Also, you have to keep in mind that he saw a troubling pattern emerging, where a referee was repeatedly negligent in their duty to protect the fighters from unnecessary harm. If it had been Referee A the first time and then Referee B the second time, that would be one thing, but for it to be the same referee that’s continuously presenting a danger to the fighters under their control during the same night, that’s immensely serious. Now normally you’d hope that after a referee makes a really bad call early on in a card where they’re reffing several fights, officials from the particular Athletic Commission overseeing that event would step in and either talk to the referee and tell them to get their shit together pronto or even remove the referee if necessary. It’s my understanding, however, that when the UFC travels to locales that don’t have a bona fide Athletic Commission, they basically act as one themselves and claim to regulate their own event in the same strict way that an independent body would. (The absurdity of that is a whole other can of worms, for another time.) And I’m guessing that this was the case with the ‘Fight Island’ events. Meaning that when Dan Hardy sees a referee endanger a fighter with a blunder twice in a row, he knows that there’s no real Athletic Commission officials to intervene and take care of it so it doesn’t happen again.

Nevertheless, although I can sympathize with Hardy’s exasperation and I get all these anxieties that may conceivably have been running through his mind, I have to say that him chewing Herb out between fights is a step too far. Of course, I don’t know who approached who in that verbal dispute — it is possible that Herb initiated it by coming over to defend himself — but my gut tells me that Hardy continued jawing at him and kinda drew him into a shouting match. (EDIT: after writing this post, I came across a video where Hardy gives his account of this moment and the incident as a whole. For what it’s worth, Hardy contends that Herb came over as he was leaving the cage/passing the commentary booth and started the back-and-forth.)

I know that emotions were running high and Hardy feels very protective of his fellow fighters, but he really shouldn’t have let his temper get the better of him here. It just wasn’t the right way to go about it. A) It’s not your job to step in and make a floundering referee shape up. You’re on the payroll for the promotion putting on the fights and the referee is, after all, crucially supposed to be independent from the promotion and insulated from its whims or coercion. And B) even to the extent that you might perchance be able to find some ethical wriggle room that would permit you — operating outside your role as UFC employee — to civilly express some concerns to Herb about his performance, this is still not the time to do that. Go talk to him after the event, if you absolutely have to. Then neither of you are on the clock anymore, and you can’t be accused of trying to influence a ref while they still have more fights to work that night, which your interference could feasibly have an effect on. Avoiding even the appearance of impropriety has to be the priority here.

Herb Dean put out a video addressing the controversy. He spends most of the video arguing why it’s dangerous for a commentator to be yelling out “stop the fight!”, given that a referee might mistake that for the ringside physician doing so, which obviously a referee would take very seriously indeed. (He also mentions that he might think it’s the fighter’s cornermen, which I have to say I found quite odd, given that the referee surely shouldn’t be taking any direction from cornermen. I mean, I’ve always heard that the rules themselves explicitly state that the corner can’t throw in the towel, either physically or verbally.) This is a fair criticism and a worthwhile thing to point out. Like I said, although Hardy’s impulsive reaction can be empathized with, that doesn’t mean it was ideal. It definitely could have caused some outsize problems. (Though, it is intriguing that Herb said he registered that call-out in the moment. Would he still have waved off the fight exactly then if he hadn’t heard it? Did that prompt jolt him into action? It’s a very eyebrow-raising open question, I think.)

But Herb also comes out swinging to defend himself and the way he handled the ending of the fight. He asserts that “by no means was that a late stoppage.” And he explains his thought-process like this: “the fighter got hurt, fighters get rocked all the time, but we’re looking at his actions: he’s tracking his opponent, he knows where his opponent is. He’s put both arms between him and his opponent. He’s lifted his leg up. Head off the mat. He’s doing everything I could ask for him to do to stay in that fight. So, it wasn’t a bad stoppage.” [Emphasis mine.]

I really find this jaw-dropping. Even in retrospect, he not only stands by the stoppage, but he doesn’t see any problem with it whatsoever? That, to me, is really quite disturbing. It reveals either a lack of honesty or a frightening dearth of sound judgement. If I was a fighter and I saw Herb claiming a stoppage this egregious was totally a-okay, I imagine I’d probably request that he doesn’t ref any of my future fights. Mistakes are one thing and are to be expected, but when someone fucks up and then tells you it wasn’t even remotely a fuck-up because it’s exactly how they believe they should be doing their job, that tells you something very important about their whole outlook. You’re potentially dealing with a miscalibrated instrument, in an environment which is already so dangerous that the applicable safeguards must be as impeccable as humanly possible. It would be like taking a stroll in the forest surrounding Chernobyl with a Geiger counter that sometimes doesn’t start beeping until after you’ve already soaked up a few hundred rads. You just wouldn’t do it.

Instead of doubling down on a bungled stoppage, which is a move that just reeks of ego and a sort of kneejerk defiance against the no doubt hideous influx of online abuse he received after the fight, here’s what he should have said:

“Yep, my bad. Looking back at it now, with the advantage of hindsight and multiple camera angles, I can see that I should’ve stopped the fight a bit sooner. But that’s very different from the limited vantage you have in real life. The knockdown was kind of weird, and came out of nowhere, so it caught me off guard. I was put on the spot in a high-pressure moment and I perhaps failed to analyse the situation as well or as quickly as I should have. I referee countless fights and errors are inevitable, but I’m going to take this experience and learn from it and use it to be better going forward. Still, what Dan Hardy did was inappropriate and unprofessional. It was wrong of him to come and yell at me. He works for the UFC, not an Athletic Commission, and he has no right to lecture me on how to do my job or to try to change how I do it. It’s super important that that not happen again in future.”

Who could have objected to that statement? That would have been perfect. Mature, restrained, objective, even-handed, self-critical. Everything you’d want to see from someone in his position, with his level of experience. But, alas, ’twas not to be. We got the total opposite. Just a bunch of hand-waving and “nothing to see here, folks.” It’s both so disappointing and so baffling to see a veteran referee who’s been under the bright lights reffing some of the biggest, most iconic fights in the sport’s history feel the need to whitewash a mistake he made during an undercard bout on a non-PPV card. That’s some amateur-hour shit. Is a futile attempt at saving face worth making people question your ability to fundamentally comprehend what’s happening right in front of your eyes? I think you can guess what my answer would be. This type of thing is just so simple when it comes down to it. Put your pride aside and cop to your mistake.

And let me say this: I actually like Herb Dean, and generally think he’s a good referee. For a long while there he was rightly held up with Big John McCarthy as the ‘gold standard’ of the profession — sharing that accolade with the godfather of MMA refereeing is no mean feat — and I was always happy to see he was reffing whatever main event I was watching because I knew he could handle the pressure and do a top-notch job. He really has made some notably great calls in the past. (One that sticks in my mind, though this is going way back to UFC 48, is when he stopped Frank Mir vs. Tim Sylvia because he was perceptive enough to realize that Sylvia’s forearm had been snapped like a twig during a gnarly arm-bar that was fully locked-in and extended. He literally exclaims “oh shit!” as he jumps in. It’s pretty great. And the whole crowd ferociously boos him because they didn’t pick up on it happening in real-time. I’m talking, if this was a cartoon, the octagon would have been pelted with a red hailstorm of mushy rotten tomatoes, and the camera would’ve suddenly whip-panned over and zoomed into the nosebleeds, where a row of drunk fans with Sylvia shirts on are cranking the handles of Gatling guns that are just rapid-firing tomato rounds. Yet, in the end, I’m sure Herb felt a nice rush of vindication when the replay was shown and proved him dead right.)

But you know what? You can’t rest on your laurels forever. And he’s been sliding down a bit in terms of quality in recent years. He has accrued a list of shockingly horrendous stoppages in that time, I’m sorry to say. Just off the top of my head, there was that really inexcusable C. B. Dollaway one, where I don’t know if Herb had pulled out his phone and put his headphones on mid-fight and decided to check out whether ‘Tiger King’ is as captivating as everyone says, but Dollaway is straight-up curled in a ball getting pulverised and Herb lets it continue all the way to the bell. How you can watch someone whose foetal-position body language is practically screaming at you that they want out of this fight get their brain scrambled and not step in, I just truly cannot comprehend.

The other example is obvious. I’m sure I’m not the only one who will never forget Rockhold vs. Weidman. That was a classic case of a fighter just simply being too tough for their own good and desperately needing a referee to rescue them. Unfortunately, Herb Dean had presumably bet his mortgage on Weidman coming away with the win, because I can see no other explanation for why he seems so incredibly determined to let Weidman make it to the next round no matter what. Because this meant standing by impassively as Rockhold got full-mount and utterly mauled Weidman for over a minute, which included a series of slicing elbows where it looked like Rockhold was using them in the same meticulous way a cosmetic surgeon employs a scalpel.

(Y’know, when Rockhold won that fight, I was dead certain that he was gonna be the Next Big Thing in the UFC and stay champ for a long time. He just seemed so dominant and was so big for a middleweight. By which I mean to say don’t ever come to me for predictions. Further evidence to that end: the only MMA bet I’ve ever made in my life was on Khabib beating McGregor, which I considered to be a straightforward no-brainer. I was right about that part. Sadly, I took Khabib winning by either KO/TKO or points, and so I still managed to find a way to lose my money. Like I said, I ain’t the guy you wanna come to for betting advice. I retired from that world with the estimable record of 0-1.)

By the way, this whole “nah bro, you can’t stop a championship fight if there’s only twenty seconds left in the round” thing is such hogwash. A referee should take nothing else into consideration besides the safety of the fighters. I don’t give a flaming fuck if there’s only one yoctosecond left before the buzzer at the end of an epic five-round slugfest for the ages: if a fighter is no longer able to defend themselves, wave the fight off immediately. And that also applies to when a fighter instructs a referee backstage to give them extra time to work their way out of a dire situation. The fact that people genuinely think such things should carry any weight is just astonishing. The rules should be enforced exactly the same in every fight, no matter who the fighters are and no matter the stakes.

Look, there are bad stoppages and then there are HOLY SHIT THAT’S BAD! stoppages, and it goes without saying which one applies to Herb letting Weidman suffer that hellacious, prolonged beating (which I’m sure, to him, felt like an eternity), and only for it to be resumed shortly into the following round. It was frankly reminiscent of the notorious Mario Yamasaki, which is not a comparison to be made lightly. Yamasaki is a fellow whose patented refereeing style is best described as… absentee. He had the same kind of approach as disciplined wildlife documentarians who take great pains to only observe and never interfere with their subjects. A sort of ‘let nature take its course’ philosophy where unless a fighter’s grey matter was leaking out of their earholes, he was quite content to stand back and just kinda see how things played out in the long run. (It disturbs me that Yamasaki apparently has a successful martial arts academy that he helps run. I don’t know if they also provide referee training, but I fucking hope not. I’m pretty sure he’d just wheel out a TV & VHS player, slap in a battered old videotape of Rocky IV and show his class the scene where Ivan Drago coldly states “if he dies, he dies” on a constant loop. Because if that sentiment somehow took human form and became sentient and was accredited as an MMA referee, it may not physically resemble Yamasaki, but their conduct would be virtually identical, as Mike Goldberg liked to say.)

Naturally, when a ref forgets that although, yes, MMA is a spectator sport, it isn’t one for them when they’re on the job, the outcome is never good. And Yamasaki indeed presided over so many unforgivably, inhumanly late stoppages — arguably some of the worst that the sport has ever seen at the televised MMA promotion level — that his name has become synonymous with refereeing that is extremely hazardous to a fighter’s health. Some people speculate that he harbours a secret bloodlust, where he’s hoping to deniably enact a human sacrifice to propriate the dark and surly gods of unarmed combat. I don’t know if that’s strictly true, I really don’t. I also can’t say for sure whether he really dabs up the unnecessarily spilled blood (and spinal fluid and et cetera) with a sponge and takes it home to a shrine erected in his closet, to wring out into an obsidian chalice with which to toast that violent pantheon of many-armed divine pugilists. I do have my suspicions though.

Anyway, my point being that Herb having racked up a few (non-)stoppages in recent years that can even be mentioned in the same breath as Yamasaki’s atrocities is a pretty big goddamn deal. To not beat around the bush here: I think that whenever you screw up that severely as a referee, you should be put on some kind of probation. Much closer attention should be given, by the commissions who are routinely deploying you, to reviewing your next performances for a certain period of time. I think in Herb’s case his worst blunders are very much isolated incidents, so that precaution would just be a formality. But its value is in making sure we don’t get another Yamasaki, where even after it became clear he was incompetent to a level where the legal term culpable negligence springs to mind, he was permitted to continue his reign of terror for an appallingly long time afterwards.

(And, even then, I believe that when the UFC finally put their foot down and protested against him reffing any of their future events, he was just bounced down to handling fights at regional promotions. I mean, can you imagine? If I was a young, aspiring fighter showing up for a bout taking place at, you know, Xtreme Mighty Blood-soaked Cagefighting Warriors 12 in some little podunk town and I stepped into the cage and saw Yamasaki standing there giving his customary finger-heart gesture — a disquieting irony, given the man apparently has zero concern for human wellbeing — I dare say I’d ask my corner to google the number for a local priest and have him pre-emptively read me my last rites over speakerphone. Might as well cut to the chase and accept the inevitable.)

What really disturbs me most is that it seems like there’s no single mistake an established referee can make that’s so egregious and so demonstrative of spectacular unfitness that it’s sufficient to shitcan them on the spot. It’s always just “ah well, nobody’s perfect”, always just forgive-and-forget. Well, the fighter you abandoned isn’t going to forget their concussion or their fractured orbital anytime soon. So maybe your career prospects should reflect that too.

The thing you have to remember is that these are potentially career-changing/career-shortening beatings that a bad referee is permitting fighters to needlessly incur. Longevity is understandably an extremely valuable asset for a fighter (especially because it can take such a long time to reach the pinnacle of the sport and thus the highest pay-bracket) and to have that cut short because a referee seemingly superglued their eyelids shut before stepping into the octagon with you must just be so infuriating and heart-breaking. Fighters already have such a narrow window to make their money in, they don’t need anyone rendering it even narrower. But when you get a pupil of the Yamasaki School in there with you, you’ll probably walk out with it squeezed down to a fucking arrowslit.

At a press scrum, Dana White was asked about the Herbert incident and made an impassioned speech where he was obliquely castigating Hardy and warning him he’ll get fired if he does anything like that again.

The thing about Dana is that whenever he gets all indignantly sanctimonious about something, you can be pretty damn confident that if you go back and take an even cursory glance at his past actions/statements, you’ll find that he’s actually very much occupying the moral lowground on the issue.

To take just one example, I particularly liked in that video how he went on to say “if you’re a fighter and you put your hands or, you know, threaten any official, you will never ever fight here again.” A nice sentiment. But Dana has a way of applying his conception of justice differently based on your value to him and his company. When Jason High roughly shoved a referee in retaliation for stopping the fight in his opponent’s favour, Dana cut him from the UFC. Now, I distinctly remember that there were a lot of fans at the time who thought that was too harsh, but I actually wholeheartedly back that decision because there has to be a no-tolerance policy towards fighters getting physical with referees. (Obviously there are those rare exceptions when someone’s waking up from a KO and they don’t know what’s happening and they try to double-leg the ref. That’s regrettable, of course, but it’s not really their fault.) It’s so important for the image and legitimacy of the sport that shit like that gets clamped down on hard. If you can’t control your temper and abide by a solemn undertaking to only employ violence in the confines of a sanctioned bout, then MMA ain’t for you, pal. But you might like this fantastic new craze called ‘Going to a Junkyard and Smashing Old TVs with a Crowbar’. It’s the fastest growing sport for people with unmanageable rage issues. They show the world championships each year on ESPN 3 at 2am in the morning.

However, when you unpack it a little bit, you realize that the reason why Dana was willing to be so decisive and do the right thing was because he didn’t stand to lose much at all. Jason High is not at all a high-profile fighter, which means he’s not a big money-maker for the company, and did not seem like he was heading for stupendous success in his future either, given that he got five fights in the UFC and lost more than half of them. So shredding his contract requires no sacrifice. He’s very easily disposable. In point of fact, they’ve cut fighters simply for losing the percentage of fights that he did, so you could argue the decision was really a low-key twofer.

But what happens when the fighter in question is a big deal? What if they’re literally the biggest fucking deal in the whole of MMA? Well, that’s Conor McGregor, no question about it. And several years ago, during a Bellator card, McGregor acted like an absolute lunatic. He was watching a teammate’s fight from the audience and, immediately upon their victory, ran up and leapt over the cage to hug them. After being pulled off and scolded, he was furious, stomping around the cage and directing his belligerence hither and thither. This involved shoving referee Marc Goddard and issuing vague threats to him about coming for him where he lives. McGregor was finally herded out of the cage, only to try and get back in it twice: first attempting to aggressively push his way back in through the officials at the door, and then once more when attempting to climb over the fence again. During the latter, he was blocked by a lone official, who McGregor then slapped in frustration. (You can see the televised footage of the first part here and then phone footage from the crowd of the whole thing here.)

It goes without saying that this is appalling behaviour. It’s disgraceful in so many ways. And almost any other fighter who did this would get the book thrown at them, would be made an example. It’s bad enough that the commissions that actually license Conor didn’t have the balls to do anything to punish him (which is sadly unsurprising, as it’s usually the case with commissions that anyone who brings a fuckton of revenue to their locality will be given free pass after free pass.) But what did Dana White do on behalf of the UFC? I mean, given that he’s so passionate about the sacrosanctity of referees and officials and Conor just neatly assaulted one of each? Well, sweet fuck-all, of course — what else did you expect? He instead took refuge in the excuse that it all happened during a different promotion’s event, so… hey… what can you do?  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

That bullshit is so thin and so transparent, you could stamp it into manure windowpanes. There have been many instances where a fighter even doing something disreputable simply in their personal life, completely unrelated to the world of MMA, has been enough for the UFC to show them the door. But McGregor’s guaranteed to get you >1 million PPV buys every time he fights, so he’s in a special can-do-no-wrong category unto himself, right? Not only did the UFC not suspend him or even fine him, I can’t recall Dana ever even harshly reprimanding him for it in a public statement. But that’s just par for the course. Wouldn’t want to hurt the feelings of your close personal friend/gargantuan cash-cow, now would you?

Anyway, my point being that it’ll be a cold winter’s day on the surface of the fucking sun before I listen to Dana White lecture anyone about ethics and professionalism without cracking a smile. The list of his hypocrisies is a hundred miles long. You’d need an electric bicycle, and maybe a spare battery to swap in at some point, to get from one end of it to the other.

I have to say that I don’t know that it’s necessarily a good thing that refs, who in many cases have become sort of like mini-celebrities in the MMA world, regularly issue defences of their conduct directly to the fans.

I admit that beyond MMA my knowledge of sports doesn’t amount to a hill of beans, but what other sport is there where it’s like that? In what other sport would a referee post a video on their personal Instagram to tell the fans ‘their side of the story’ for a controversial decision? Maybe I’m wrong, and it is indeed like that elsewhere. Maybe in Handball it’s just accepted that officials always do a two-hour Twitch livestream after each game to break down and defend their disputed calls.

I wouldn’t deny that MMA probably inherently lends itself more to the fans focusing on the referee and gaining a familiarity with them over time. For one thing, unlike in some other sports with large teams or sizable playing areas, there’s only one referee for each contest, so they serve as a single focal point. For another, the camera angles are generally nice and zoomed in so you can see the two fighters up close, which incidentally means that you’ve got a very good view of the referee too. And lastly, for whatever reason, the rotating line-up of referees who are regularly assigned to high-level televised MMA fights is really quite small, so it’s easy to (even inadvertently) learn the faces and start keeping track of them fight-to-fight. All this combines to encourage the viewer to notice the particular referee a lot more and that in turn, I suppose, leads to them becoming known figures both inside and outside the octagon.

Let me be clear: I’m not bemoaning the fame that results from this, nor am I saying it’s a problem in itself. It doesn’t bother me at all that Herb Dean has over 80k twitter followers. (Though there is perhaps something curious about the fact that that’s surely a higher count than like 80-90% of the UFC roster. But that’s neither here nor there.) It’s not like referees need to be cloistered between events or shun any kind of public spotlight. Given that the whole premise of their job is doing something which millions of people are going to watch, any attempt to stay low-profile would just be like trying to fight back the tide.

However, I do think there’s something odd about a referee directly addressing the fans to justify their decision-making. The only people you should feel accountable to are the commission and the fighters themselves. They’re the only people you should be explaining yourself to because they’re the only people you owe an actual concrete responsibility. And so by entering into a dialogue with the fans about how you did your job, you’re blurring the lines and engendering the false impression that the fans have a right to have questionable refereeing explained to their satisfaction. (And, trust me, there’s already enough entitlement in the worst parts of the MMA fanbase as it is.) I mean, if you end up having to answer for your actions to a commission, that explanation could maybe be released by them as part of demonstrating that they really did investigate that dubious instance of refereeing. But then at least it would be coming out through the official channels of a higher body, instead of referees taking up a private megaphone and starting to seem like independent contractors who are almost like one-man authorities unto themselves.

And if you’re kidding yourself that you’re somehow helping to ‘educate’ the abusive fans in your Twitter mentions about MMA and the refereeing of it, someone needs to sit you down and let you in on the fact that these toxic dipshits aren’t lashing out because they’re ignorant or confused, but because one of their favourite fighters just lost and you’re the only person they can direct their ensuing rage at. Whether you followed the rules to the letter will make no difference. So attempting to placate them or win them over is futile. In fact, the sad truth is that most MMA fans — not just the repugnant dregs — do not know or understand the full ruleset which governs the sport (let alone the small ways in which, ridiculously enough, it can differ depending on where the event takes place) and have absolutely no desire to rectify that. In their mind, there’s just an ineffable, intuitive way to determine who won a fight and when it should be called off, and anything which contradicts that murky subjective judgement is an outrage. Simple as that.

Also, you know what it reminds me of when I come across one of these justifying-my-bad-call videos/statements from a referee? An online influencer who gets enmeshed in some scandal and so puts out a careful PR response to try to control the spin and protect their personal ‘brand’. Seriously, why does a referee give a shit about guarding their reputation in the eyes of the fans? That’s just egotism, when it comes down to it. What the fans think of you or any one of your official decisions should be utterly irrelevant. By paying attention to that, you’re taking your eye off the ball and dwelling on considerations which should be taking up zero brainspace when you’re doing your job or even just preparing to do it again.

I appreciate that referees, like anyone else, are going to have a certain amount of professional pride. They dedicate their lives to what they do and try their best to do it well, and so it’s only to be expected that they’d feel the impulse to publicly stick up for the quality of their work. But I think it’s just not a good idea, on balance. There should ideally be a wall of separation between the fans and the referees, when it comes to what they do inside the octagon. Again, that doesn’t mean that referees shouldn’t ever weigh in on anything MMA-related on social media or be able to pursue a life as a public figure. But by worrying whether the fans think you screwed up and even putting out videos to combat that, you’re inching closer to the possibility that when you’re next overseeing a fight, part of your decision-making matrix will be given over — even just subconsciously — to assessing the optics of what you’re about to do. And when you’re entrusted with the immense responsibility of making sure that two people conduct a fistfight within certain parameters and are protected from physical damage prohibited under those rules, you can’t afford to be thinking about anything else. Not even 0.01% of your mental processing power should be expended on anything besides the reality of the fight taking place right before your eyes.

And, after all, your performance should speak for itself. Because you either properly executed your role as referee or you didn’t, you either made reasonable calls or you didn’t. To any knowledgeable onlooker, good work is always its own defence.

I have to tell you, I really think that the whole notion of when a fight should be stopped ought to be rethought and reinvented along the lines that protecting the fighter is much, much more important than preserving their ability to win the fight. Or, to boil it down, it’s preferable that there be a hundred ‘early’ stoppages (as defined by the current rubric) rather than one really, really late one. And if that’s the trade-off required to secure that, then so be it. It’s kind of like applying Blackstone’s Ratio to the moral calculus of MMA.

This is something I’ve thought for a long time now, but a recent-ish fight which really reinvigorated this notion for me was Petr Yan vs. Jose Aldo. That one really left a bad taste in my mouth. I came away just feeling so disgusted. I’ll give you a quick recap. In the fifth round, Aldo was clearly broken and finished. Yan had his back on the ground, while Aldo just turtled up and covered his head and dripped blood onto the canvas, and was unrestrainedly unloading on him for several minutes. These were hard, hard shots, which Aldo was unable to see coming and had little to no ability to block. What was really aggravating was that the referee (whose name I’ve forgotten, else I’d name-and-shame him) simply crouched down next to them as this was happening, constantly shouting “fight back” to Aldo. This, of course, is the magic phrase a referee says when they’re literally about to pull the trigger and stop the fight, unless you speedily escape the bad position you’re in. But Aldo did not do that, could not do that. All he could do was shift slightly left or right, depending on which direction the punches were bludgeoning him towards. Yet the referee just went on repeating “fight back”, in a really absurd and sickening pretence of understanding what was happening and being concerned.

I mean, what the hell are you waiting for? A guy like Aldo is never going to tap to strikes and he’s never going to theatrically play up being hurt to force your hand. That’s why the referee is empowered to act on his behalf. You need to step in and save his ass. That’s what you’re there to do. Instead, this referee apparently decided to allow Aldo “to be a warrior,” as our old friend Yamasaki once defiantly said about one of his most horrifically bad stoppages. (Someone should tell that moron that losing a fight isn’t supposed to signal you to facilitate seppuku-by-beatdown. When fighters refer to themselves as being like samurai, I don’t think they’re hoping you’ll take it that literally.) Having watched MMA for close to fifteen years now, I’ve predictably become somewhat inured to the shockingness of violence, but this one managed to pierce through that layer of numbness and rattle me. Quite frankly, it was stomach-turning to watch. Aldo was so blatantly done and yet was forced to just absorb so much gratuitous punishment for truly no reason whatsoever. It looked way more like the ending of a vicious street-fight than the ending of a carefully-regulated sporting contest. Incidents like these make such a mockery out of the painstaking, millimetre-by-millimetre effort to try to legitimize MMA even in the eyes of the most cynical outsiders. It gives ammo to all those people who consider John McCain’s infamous “[it’s just] human cockfighting” remark from long ago to be the last word on the subject.

You know, I sometimes think that one of the worst things that can happen to a fighter is to get labelled a ‘durable veteran.’ Take Donald Cerrone: an extremely well-respected guy who’s thoroughly earned his stripes in the octagon and who’s known as someone who can endure brutal all-out wars in there, often giving as good as he gets. (You even hear commentators half-joking that he needs to get his clock cleaned a few times in the first round to kinda ‘wake him up’ and get him fired-up.) Yet the thing about that is that referees, as a result, seem inclined to give him much greater leeway, by waiting longer to step in for a stoppage when he’s on the receiving end of an ass-whupping. Certainly waaaay longer than they would for a UFC newcomer or even another veteran who’s exhibited a weak chin later in their career. I would wager that Cerrone is glad of this. But should he be?…

(Talking of which, if you wanna see another one of Herb Dean’s lowlights, go watch how he handled the Masvidal fight. Cerrone gets practically KO’d during the waning seconds of RD1, to the extent that Herb literally reaches out to stop him from falling over as he’s unsteadily getting up off the canvas after the buzzer. Herb then inexplicably declines to stop the fight between rounds, even though Cerrone is sitting on his stool with the blank thousand-yard stare of someone who’d struggle to tell you their own name. Naturally, RD2 starts and Cerrone gets quickly finished. I wouldn’t say that he was particularly well-served by Herb’s faith in his powers of recovery. Would you?)

To cut to the chase, I think we need a new, better definition of what it means to not be ‘intelligently defending yourself.’ Right now, it’s basically taken to mean that you no longer have any real ability to stop significant damage being inflicted. However, the problem is that referees usually want this to be proven, quote-unquote, in a short period of time and in an intense, concentrated way. That’s why if you’ve got your opponent hurt and you follow them to the ground, the best strategy is generally to pepper them with twenty half-power hammerfists in very quick succession. (I remember John Dodson in his prime was an exemplar of this. It was like watching someone be pecked to death by a woodpecker on speed, if its beak was a fist in a 4oz glove.) As opposed to taking your time and posturing up and carefully trying to land some big, lunging full-power punches to put your opponent away for good. Because although oftentimes you’re doing way more damage that latter way, it’s more spread out and so the referee doesn’t perceive your opponent to be in the immediate danger they need to be in for the fight to be stopped. Whereas if the referee sees someone being subjected to a blitz of half-decent shots for like ten seconds after they got stunned, no matter how pitter-patter the shots were they’re most likely going to use that as an opportunity to step in and call it. (By the way, it’s quite remarkable how many fighters otherwise have such good ‘fight IQ’, yet don’t seem to realize this point. They end up squandering easy finishes that were briefly right there in front of them on a silver platter.)

But now here’s my point. Think about it another way. A guy takes you down right off the bat and just sits in your full-guard the whole round, lining up an endless, though unhurried, stream of elbows and punches that have some nice snap behind them. While this is happening, you’re showing that although you’re technically able to take these shots — insomuch as they’re not quite threatening to put you out — they are steadily inflicting a serious degree of damage and you’re simply not able to block them. Nor are you able to land any real offence in return. (Listen, you’re not Bas Rutten defeating Randleman from the bottom at UFC 20 for the heavyweight strap. I get that your mother always told you that when she’d tuck you in at night, but it’s a goddamn fucking lie.) Nor can you plausibly threaten with submissions or even simply improve your position on the ground, let alone get back up. You’re just getting your ass beat in a protracted one-sided manner.

So, if you take, say, 60-70 unanswered strikes in this position, can it really be said that you’re still genuinely demonstrating a capacity to ‘intelligently defend yourself’? Truth be told, I sure as hell don’t think so. You are, for all intents and purposes, being dominated to the point of essentially no longer being ‘in’ the fight. I believe that fight should therefore be stopped. Gritting your teeth and just eating countless shots so you can make it to the end of the round should not be deemed a passable defensive strategy. And the necessity of extrapolating this principle to all different kinds of situations during a fight is why I think referees needs to be much more overcautious and stop fights sooner and more often.

To clarify, I’m not asserting that fights should be waved off simply because they’re no longer ‘competitive’, if you get what I mean. The grim reality of MMA is that skill disparities are just a fact of life. Even if a bout isn’t a glaring promotional-malpractice mismatch where some up-and-coming prospect has purposely been given a can to crush, it can sometimes just be the case that one fighter isn’t on the level of their opponent, but you only find that out once the cage door slams shut and they throw down. It’s acceptable that there be a big differential in strikes or takedowns landed or whatever. What I’m saying is that the referee should step in as soon as a fighter gets put in any predicament where there is a very high likelihood that they cannot escape it/re-gain the upper hand and they’re destined to just get badly busted up with impunity (e.g. when someone’s exhausted and they get trapped in a mounted crucifix, it’s almost always game-over — especially if you’ve got a Roy Nelson type on top of you.) This can take many forms: it’s not merely a question of positional advantage in a grappling context. But a smart, well-trained referee should be able to recognize it however it presents itself.

My underlying reasoning is that in these kind of scenarios, if you allow the fight to continue you’re looking at like a 90-95% chance that the hypothesized undefended-damage comes to pass. So why make the fighter receive it just to provide a superfluity of proof, when you already know it’s going to happen? I mean, we already apply this sort of logic when it comes to injuries during a fight. When Anderson Silva’s leg did the ol’ bendy-wendy after getting a kick checked because he’d snapped his shin-bone (that horrific image will forever haunt me BTW), did the referee wait for him to get pounced on and thrashed for like thirty seconds before they stepped in? No, the fight was declared over then and there. Because any referee with an ounce of sense can look at a fighter with a broken leg and work out that in basically all foreseeable outcomes if the fight carries on, that fighter is emphatically and ineluctably doomed. And all I’m saying is let’s extend this principle beyond just when a fighter gets physically compromised in some specific way, let’s admit that there are instances when a fateful shift in the fight’s dynamic means that a fighter has been rendered so defenceless that they might as well have a newly-fragmentary tibia.

Obviously, the fighters themselves would blow a gasket if such a seismic change in refereeing were ever enacted, but that’s inevitable. How many times have we seen a fighter puff out their chest and proudly proclaim some variation of “I’m willing to die in there rather than lose?” I would venture a guess of… fifty thousand times, at an absolute minimum. And I’m sure they even mean it. When you’ve made sacrifices aplenty to dedicate your entire life to fighting and accordingly your identity and sense of self-worth becomes inextricably tethered to your success therein, it’s presumably very easy to lose all perspective and view the prospect of being defeated like it is a sort of death even worse than the real one.

That’s why, for a lot of fighters, they’d happily accept the devil’s bargain of taking a dozen extra shots when they’re already out cold if it would definitely prevent even the possibility that a referee makes an early stoppage and denies them the miniscule chance to come back and turn the fight around and snatch that all-important W.

If this doesn’t sound like such a terrible trade-off to you, you may well fall into the same camp as those who glibly retort “uhh, they’re signing up for getting hit in the head for 15-25 minutes, so what’s the big deal about a few extra blows at the very end anyway?” To which I would point out that there is a world of fucking difference between taking a punch while you’re upright and aware and can at least block/parry it or even just roll with it and dampen the impact… and taking a punch when you’re laid out and your opponent can fully wind-up their shots without worrying about being countered and your head is just right there, an impossible-to-miss target absorbing the entire impact of each punch and then rebounding off the canvas.

Even still, there are a fair number of fighters who’d gladly endure this getting-your-brain-rattled-whilst-helpless coda in every single one of their fights if it meant securing the aforementioned benefit. But, well, too bad. As much as some people (especially the more neanderthal fans) want MMA to be no-holds-barred, savage ultra-violence — tiptoeing closer and closer to resembling a showdown in the Colosseum, where two gladiators enter and only one leaves — that proposition should disgust any person of moral feeling. Ever since the Marquess of Queensberry lent his endorsement to a set of civilizing rules (and, no doubt, beforehand too but you get my point), it’s been understood that two people can employ measured violence as part of a sport whilst still ensuring an absolute minimum of barbarism. And despite its hybridized DNA with prizefighting, MMA is at heart a sport, and pointless excesses of incurred damage is not what a sport entails or should permit. The referees are there to protect the fighters: both from their opponents and, probably more crucially, from themselves.

It often gets forgotten that even though MMA is undeniably a relatively young sport, the holistic conception of what adequately protecting a fighter should mean in practice has already evolved quite significantly. (Sometimes via actual rule changes, sometimes just via an organic collective shift in approach.) I would posit that it was one thing back during the inception of the sport in the 90s and then palpably advanced at the dawn of the modern era in the early to mid 2000s, and then did so again as MMA was becoming mainstream in the late 2000s/early 2010s, and perhaps even got slightly refined one last time in the latter half of that decade. That’s four distinct stages of progression, each being a smaller adjustment but always moving closer towards the ideal of utmost caution. It’s really remarkable when you think about it like that. What other sport has remade itself so much so quickly? For example, take a fight from ’96 and compare it to a fight from 2011: the fact that they’re only fifteen years apart is pretty mind-blowing. In some ways, they almost don’t even seem like the same sport.

And all I’m really arguing is that we haven’t reached some perfect endpoint in terms of fighter safety. There is still plenty of improvement left to do. I know it’s easy to get anxious about how further changes might negatively affect the watchability of the sport. But let me just say this. Even just a decade ago, it was way more common to straight up see someone get KO’d and then be roughly jolted back to consciousness with punches and then KO’d again. (I mean, gosh, pour one out for Frankie Edgar. That tough son of a bitch had some true emotional-rollercoaster fights, where it was like watching a little kid with ADD play around with flicking a light-switch that was connected to his brain.) Remember that shit? Nowadays, thankfully, it’s noticeably more rare. Referees are less gun-shy about assuming the worst when a guy is kaboomed by something and gets dropped. I consider that to be a step in the right direction. And, ask yourself, do you really miss fighters getting repeatedly KO’d being a prevalent thing in MMA? I’m betting you don’t.

Now let’s get rid of everything else that we won’t end up missing one jot, but which may help fighters avoid slurring their speech in their late thirties. Doesn’t that seem like a good deal?

The issue is that fans sometimes forget that they’re watching two real human beings on screen. To some extent, this is understandable. Turning the volume down on your usual stirrings of empathy is necessary to watch and enjoy MMA, because you’re witnessing people get hurt (sometimes very severely) and if you’re too busy focusing on the shocking unpleasantness of that and feeling bad for the person, you won’t really be able to zoom out and appreciate the athletic spectacle of the fight itself. And there is indeed a lot to appreciate. The impressive level of technique being exhibited. The mental and physical toughness on display. The riveting back and forth fluctuations of fortune between the two fighters. Et cetera, et cetera.

The downside is that this detachment can snowball to the point where fans solely think about their moment-to-moment experience and being maximally entertained. So that — in some people this is subconscious, in others it’s very much not — they’d be fine with someone taking a few dozen extra punches after a fight should really have been stopped if it makes the finish even, say, 30% more exciting.

Yet those extra shots might mean that the recipient walks away, or is perhaps stretchered away, with a skull fracture or broken jaw that they didn’t need to get. Y’know, some life-changing injury that will require expensive surgeries and a lengthy period of recuperation/rehabilitation (a.k.a. down-time where all fight-related income ceases). And if only that was the lone shitty part. Depending on what kind of injury it is, it could also negatively impact that fighter’s performances for the rest of their career or, even worse, simply leave them with some lasting disability which dampens their quality of life forever. You know what I’m saying? This is serious stuff we’re talking about here. I know we’re all deathly tired of hearing Joe Rogan incessantly describe MMA as “high-level problem-solving with dire physical consequences,” but, hey, he ain’t wrong. (And, to be fair, when you coin a nice snappy aphorism like that, you wanna get your money’s worth from it.)

The thing is, the above-mentioned labile, selfish MMA fan doesn’t have to see any of that, so they don’t care. When the bout is over and those two fighters leave the octagon and head into the back, they might as well be swan-diving into a black abyss for all that fan cares. They are stepping out of sight and out of mind. And that’s the way a lot of fans like it. They don’t want to have to see the true impact of whatever happened to these fighters. They don’t want to have to reckon with the fact that the aftermath of a late stoppage can potentially stretch for years and years, can potentially ruin someone’s life.

To a certain degree, this kinda veers into the classic conundrum: how can it ever be ethical to pay to watch two people knock each other unconscious for your entertainment? And it’s a fair point. But if you’ve ever heard fighters talk about their relationship to the sport — and not in some phony PR interview where they’re trying to act as an upbeat MMA ‘ambassador’ to the mainstream media, but just in some real, unguarded moment — it’s abundantly obvious that they’d be doing this whether or not a single person was in the crowd or there was even a single dollar to be made, because they love it. They’re inescapably drawn to it, like a moth to a firestorm. If MMA was outlawed tomorrow and the dream of maybe one day headlining Madison Square Garden was dashed for all of the fighters, I don’t think they’d just permanently hang up their gloves. The smart money would be on a massive surge in people duking it out in basements and backrooms, ‘Fight Club’ style. I’m being a little tongue-in-cheek there, but there would sure as fuck be an explosion of new gyms that exist basically just to hold endless unsanctioned ‘smoker’ bouts. Something would arise to fill that vacuum. You can’t just expect people to turn off their passions because it makes you squeamish.

Given that MMA fights are going to happen whether paying customers tune in to watch them or not, the issue then becomes striking the best ethical middleground. Fighters are going to get hurt and they are going to get damaged. They know that, they know that’s what they’re signing up for. It’s the price of entry for this sport. I mean, don’t take up swimming if you’re not willing to get wet, right?. But the point is that there are still reasonable reductions in the quantity-of-received-damage that can be enacted without sacrificing either what makes the sport fun to partake in or fun to watch.

There are several important cultural shifts and practical behind-the-scenes changes that I think would help advance MMA in a beneficial direction (and smooth the way for the stopping-fights-earlier proposition I’ve been talking about.)

The first one is the hardest. The sport needs to get to a place where the men and women competing in it don’t view the prospect of losing a fight like it’s the end of the world. This could be partly achieved if the rankings for each promotion were based on a fixed system of fair, objective, transparent criteria. It would be totally automated, brooking no manipulation by the promoters. (As opposed to right now, where in the UFC, for example, it purportedly depends on a handpicked list of MMA ‘journalists’ no-one’s ever heard of making subjective judgement calls about where each fighter should be. It’s opaque and antiquated and wide open to abuse, often producing inexplicable results. My favourite type of shell-game fuckery is when the UFC wants a low-ranked guy to fight for the belt and then suddenly, *POOF*, he’s catapulted up to number three or four, to make the matchmaking seem more credible…) It should also cover way more of each division than the Top 10 or Top 15 models we have currently. There should be a Top 50 or even Top 100, so that even the fighters further down the totem pole can figure out exactly who they need to beat to get ahead.

These reforms would remove a sizable portion of anxiety from fighters, who typically feel like the rankings system is very much unfair. They have to fight tooth and nail over years and years to ascend it agonizingly slowly, but as soon as they lose one stinking fight, they’ll plummet back down it like a lead weight thrown into a well. Or the promotion can even sabotage you directly by pulling ridiculous shenanigans like lowering/removing you from the rankings for refusing to take a certain fight or for being out with an injury too long.

Moreover, the path to getting to challenge the champion is unreliable. You can be on a long winning streak and in the top 3-5 of your division and still get passed over constantly because the promotion doesn’t think you’re a big enough name to hang a PPV on. The hypetrain prospect ranked #12 and with just a handful of UFC fights (against mostly unranked guys) gets to skip the queue and leapfrog all you suckers who made it to the top the hard way. And god forbid you’ve got some established star fighting at your weight: you might well have to just sit back and watch them hold up the division as they keep getting chance after chance to win the belt. So you reach the point where you just throw your hands up and yell “jesus, what the fuck do I have to do?!” This would all be fixed if the rankings system mandated that the champion always had to defend their belt against the next guy in line. If you win, they drop down the rankings a bit and you then fight the guy after him, and so on. No immediate rematches unless you’re a long-time champ who finally gets dethroned and no getting gimme-fights against the aging, past-their-prime vet who’s been barely hovering on the edge of the top ten for the last few years. That makes way more sense than the ad hoc bullshit that goes on presently.

Look at Tony Ferguson, the quirky mad-hatter of lightweight. That motherfucker put together a twelve fight win-steak in perhaps the most stacked UFC division — a stupendous feat — and never got to fight for the undisputed belt! Yes, there were fights that were borderline-cursed and repeatedly fell through and there were injuries and all that malarkey, but even still. If the UFC likes you and thinks you have big $$$$ potential, they’ll move heaven and earth and fucking purgatory as well to make sure you soon end up in a championship fight no matter what. They’ll even strip a title or force it to be vacated, if that’s what it takes. Or consider Khamzat Chimaev, who they’re already hinting at fast-tracking to a title fight, despite the fact that he’s only fought three unranked, unheralded fighters I’ve never even heard of. (The UFC absolutely refuses to learn its lesson about elevating people before they’re ready. Anytime someone shows a spark of possible stardom, they rush them into big-name fights or even title fights before they’ve had time to thoroughly acclimatize to high-level competition.)

But Tony was apparently too much of an unmarketable weirdo to get that whole-hearted push. He was just stuck clearing out the other contenders and waiting and waiting and waiting. In the end, he took a tough fight he didn’t really need to take and finally lost. And lost in quite dramatic and worrying fashion. So the bullet-train of his momentum is now very much off the tracks. It’s been violently derailed and lies in a half-flooded ditch. I have no doubt that a lot of other fighters learned invaluable lessons from his example. Winning a lot isn’t necessarily the be-all and end-all route to ultimate success in the UFC. This is because the UFC wants to act like a sport when that’s convenient and act like prizefighting when that’s convenient. And so the fighters never know where they stand and they always get the short end of the stick.

Another cultural shift that needs to happen is ending this manic obsession with perfect records. Listen, I’m not going to try to tell you that there isn’t a special aura around fighters like Khabib Nurmagomedov, who just this week seems to have done the impossible: retiring as an unbeaten champion. Or Jon Jones, despite his phantom disqualification loss. (Although, to be frank, he’s a guy whose legacy has so many asterisks attached to it, you could make a fucking ASCII portrait of him with them. Even ignoring his varied misdeeds outside the octagon and the questions concerning his PED use, not only was Jones the undisputed eye-poke king for a long time but by my rough count — and it amazes me that this fact isn’t more remarked upon — five or six of his title defences were against former middleweights. I can’t think of another champion who’s spent so many title fights against opponents from a lower weight class. And given Jones is blessed with strikingly advantageous physical attributes even for a light heavyweight, that’s pretty significant if you ask me. Don’t get me wrong, I still think he has perhaps the best claim to the P4P G.O.A.T. mantle any way you cut it, but these things are worth thinking about nonetheless.)

It seems to me that fighters often seem afraid that a loss, even early on in their career, will pre-emptively disqualify them from the G.O.A.T conversation way down the line, which would become relevant if their career ends up being spectacular. And yet, look at Georges St-Pierre. He has two losses — turns out that at one point his kryptonite was hard-headed guys named Matt — and he was actually finished in both of them to boot, but you’d have to be a raving fool to claim that he doesn’t still deserve to at least be considered in that debate. Also, GSP proves that there’s way more to one’s greatness and reputation than simply the sterile accounting of your wins and losses. Sure, he was unquestionably a dominant champion, but what helps set him apart is that people admire him for his commitment to the precepts of honour and sportsmanship. (In case you just opened a new tab and started drafting an indignant email to me: yes, we can talk about the greasing incident if you really want to. Personally, when I watch his performances during his prime, I find it inconceivable that he’d feel the need to try to brazenly cheat to win grappling exchanges, of all things. Call me naive, if you like. But he had a charging power-double that could fell a fucking ox on a planet with hypergravity. I just don’t see why ensuring slippery shoulders would be a priority for him.) He’s revered for the way he conducts himself both in and out of the octagon. So if you’re just looking at things in terms of a numerical tally, you’re missing the bigger picture. A guy like Jon Jones might have a more impressive record than GSP’s because it’s unblemished, but would anyone seriously argue that he’s more respected as an overall MMA figure than GSP?…

In terms of a structural change which would makes an absolute world of difference, let’s look at how promotions arbitrarily split a fighter’s paycheck into guaranteed ‘show money’ and then a contingent ‘win bonus.’ Because holy shit should that be a thing of the past, a mere relic from the dark early days of the sport where swindlers and exploitation were the standard. I mean, fighter pay needs to be increased substantially across the board to begin with anyway. (It’s so tragic that MMA fighters will probably never unionise, though they urgently should. The ‘every man for himself’ mentality is just so deeply ingrained. If there was ever an underpaid workforce that needed collective bargaining power, it’s people who get punched in the face for a living.) But it’s already so ethically gross to contrive a system where you’re ensuring that in every single fight one of the fighters will only get half-pay. That’s just crazy. How did that ever become normalised? Fighters should get their full pay, no matter if their hands are raised at the end of a fight or not. You know why? Because you’re paying them to step into your promotion’s octagon (or ring or round cage or whatever that gimmicky hybrid that M-1 cobbled together was) and fight. To perform as best they can. Sometimes that’s enough to net you a W and sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes incompetent judges rob you of a rightful victory because they only have a background in judging Tai Chi ‘push hands’ competitions and don’t know what the fuck they’re looking at. So it goes. But those fighters are still getting in there and putting on a show for you and your television cameras and that should be enough to get paid a full purse.

I’m so tired of hearing the asinine arguments that promoters love to throw out there about how if fighters don’t have a strict financial incentive to do everything they can to win a fight, they’ll just half-ass it to get an easy payday and there will be an ensuing epidemic of boring fights. The reason I so disdain this counterargument is that they’re aware it’s pure drivel. They know fighters, how their minds work and what drives them. All fighters want to get paid, so they can support themselves and their families — like, duh! — but there’s a zillion other ways to earn an equivalent living without having to train until you puke for six-to-eight weeks so that you can be locked in a cage with someone who wants to clobber or strangle you. The reason they do it is because they want the chance to compete at the highest possible level and earn the glory of emerging triumphant. (And, don’t forget, nobody wants the humiliation and possible physical cost of a loss.) They want to make a name for themselves and prove what they can do. That’s why you see UFC newcomers fighting their hearts out and putting on FOTN performances, despite the fact that they’re on fucking $3000/$3000 contracts. After paying their coaches and defraying other miscellaneous expenses, they’re walking out of there with very little money for their trouble, but it doesn’t matter. They’re just psyched that they notched one in the win column in the MMA big league. That’s its own reward. No-one can ever take that away from them now.

And, it bears repeating, there already is an inherent financial incentive to keep winning fights, even though it’s more of an abstract and/or long-term one. First of all, if you go on a skid, you’re probably going to get cut from your promotion, which means you’ll have to sign with a lower-tier one and your earning potential just got slashed. Secondly, winning a lot will eventually get you a pay-rise, because when your contract is up and you’re due to negotiate a new one, you actually have some leverage you can use to get bumped up to the next pecuniary tier. Wins are also the best way to raise your public profile, and if that keeps up to the point where you’re enough of a name to headline a card, you might well be able to demand PPV points on top of whatever your standard purse is. And those are famously how you make the big bucks. Breaching that stratosphere is what puts you on the road to being set for life.

If fighters were indeed successfully persuaded to stop viewing losses as such a cataclysmic setback, they would start viewing the practical calculus of a fight being stopped differently.

Right now, it’s all “I always tell the ref backstage: don’t stop it, no matter what” and “I want to go out on my shield” and so on. Good old fashioned macho guff. (The less amusing flipside, however, is fighters railing against a stoppage imposed on them that they vehemently disagree with, because it often devolves into flinging invective at the referee in question. Remember when Dominick Cruz basically accused Keith Peterson of being drunk because he was mad at the Cejudo fight being stopped? And then he kept making bitter little oblique references to it for months afterwards during his commentating? To say this isn’t at all a good look would be putting it very charitably. He was so salty that if you suspended him from a crossbeam in a barn, a whole farmyard’s worth of cows could happily lick him for a year or two.)

The reason for this never-say-die tough talk is that, as I touched on earlier, they want a chance to pull off that crazy, miraculous comeback that happens in… oh, I don’t know… about 2% of lopsided-beatdown fights. If you ask me, comically insane fights like Cheick Kongo vs. Pat Barry, where Kongo gets slept twice in like ten seconds and then somehow fires back his own knockout punch out of nowhere, have really done a lot of damage by lodging in people’s minds and skewing their perceptions.

Yet if fighters were in a position to not get so hung up on a single win or loss, but rather take a bird’s-eye-view of their career as a whole, they’d be able to look at this more rationally. They need to ask themselves whether it’s better to have a few times where an ‘early stoppage’ cost you an extra loss (even though most likely you were in a situation you weren’t getting out of, so it’s really just your pride that got dinged) or to have a few fights where it was a really ‘late stoppage’ and you were forced to sustain a large amount of life-altering head trauma?

Think about it like this. Would you buy a lottery ticket where you have a tiny chance of winning a small jackpot, but if you don’t win, you receive permanent brain damage? And the really dark aspect to all this is that the more brain damage you receive, the less capable you become of wisely assessing the likelihood and downsides of incurring further brain damage. Or, in a nutshell, have you ever noticed that the more visibly ‘punchy’ a fighter is, the more eager they are to just bite down on their mouthpiece and get into sloppy, knock-down, drag-out brawls during their fights? That’s the tragic slippery slope to the fight game. Nothing makes you foolhardy and reckless quite like CTE. And once that brain damage progresses to a certain point, guys seem to even become easier to hit. They seem slower to react to things and their overall ‘fight IQ’ decreases.

(Fighters also need to think about their future life after retiring from fighting. Which, after all, might be at like 35 — MMA is a young man’s game, as they say. They’ll almost definitely need to get another job then and they’ll also want to spend more quality time with their family, and it would just be so heart-rendingly sad if they’re already too punch-drunk to really do either.)

To be honest, if you wanted to break it down with utmost pragmatism… and I know this is anathema to fighters and the whole gladiatorial death-before-dishonor culture which infuses professional combat sports… but fighters tapping to strikes or retiring between rounds should probably be a much more common occurrence. I know, I know, you’re hurling your cherished Bushido handbooks at me in disgust, but just hear me out. Brain health is a fighter’s most crucial asset. However, as a resource it’s not only fragile, it’s finite and non-renewable. It must therefore be expended as sparingly and efficiently as possible.

So, let’s imagine you’re a fighter in a three-round fight and you’ve spent the first two getting just thoroughly outclassed and brutalized. Your opponent is evidently just way better than you. And furthermore you’re not the type of fighter who specialises in suddenly ripping an instant finish out of nowhere, either by landing a one-punch KO or pulling off some crazy submission in a split-second. (If you wanna see the quintessential example of that, go treat yourself to watching Ryo Chonan land a completely preposterous flying scissor heel-hook on Anderson Silva back in PRIDE. That might just be the most gloriously slick submission finish of all time. It’s definitely one of my favourites. Also, talk about a win that aged like a fine wine. Chonan must have dined out on that victory many a time. It’s like having pulled off a fucking gogoplata or a banana-split on Jon Jones early in his career.) Therefore you’re almost certain to spend that upcoming final round being used as a punching bag yet again, and it’s pointless because you no longer even have a path to winning the fight on the scorecards left open to you. (I.e. even if you’re only down two 10-9s and you somehow magically accomplish a 10-8 round, you can still only get a draw.) That’s why, in a sense, the most prudent thing to do would be to skirt the sunk-cost fallacy and quit on your stool between rounds. You’re sparing yourself an unnecessary extra portion of brain damage in a fight you’re already pretty much guaranteed to lose, and that self-preservation gets paid forward to your future fights because you’re making sure you’re in the best possible condition for them.

Again, I know this is just a thought experiment, because that proposal would horrify the average fighter. It’s worth pondering though. From a purely game-theory perspective, it would be the smartest way to go about it. Still, believe me, I’m not trying to ‘Moneyball’ the sport and sap all the fun unpredictability out of it. All I’m saying is, would anyone blame someone for forfeiting a match in [INSERT SPORT HERE] if they were down like 104-7? No, of course not. In point of fact, there are sports that primarily use tournament formats for competition where it’s seen as completely routine to bow out of a particular contest if all hope of winning is lost, so you can stay maximally fresh for the other ones coming up that you do still have the chance to win. But fighting is somehow supposed to be different, there’s somehow disgrace attached to admitting that you’re not going to win, even if it’s unmistakably obvious to you, your opponent, and every single person watching…

EDIT 29/10/20: I feel like I’ve gotta come back and say a few things about the Khabib vs. Gaethje stoppage because it’s relevant to so much of what I say in this piece. (Frankly, the referee coming out and saying something is what pushed me over the edge.) You can see the ending of the fight here, though it sucks that it doesn’t include the reverse-angle replay too because that really gives you a much better view.

I was reading a Reddit thread about the stoppage and at least half of the responses were along the lines of “Who cares if it was a late stoppage? At least it removed any uncertainty about who won the fight!” They don’t give a shit about Gaethje or his safety, they only care about getting the momentary satisfaction of seeing a definitive, uncontroversial ending to the fight. It amazes me how people like that will say anything, no matter how stupid or ridiculous, to dress up and indirectly justify this selfish impulse.

I saw someone claim that the referee’s hesitancy was understandable — downright prudent, even — because those taps could have been palm strikes. I’m not fucking with you. They said exactly that. And, by god, that makes perfect sense, right? Surely a fighter trapped in an extremely tight choke might very well throw some light palm strikes to the top of his opponent’s head and chest. That’s just textbook. No better way to escape a triangle, in fact. Don’t bother trying to peel away the legs or slamming your opponent on his noggin or even lying back and pushing off your opponent with your feet (à la Sonnen/Silva I). Just try some open-hand slaps on your opponent’s clavicle. That’ll do the trick. Honestly, it’s so effective and/or dangerous, it should probably be banned like 12-to-6 elbows…

I also came across many people bleating that it was no big deal because it’s just being choked unconscious, which is ‘harmless’. First of all, there’s no reason Gaethje had to go out despite tapping repeatedly, so that’s irrelevant. It was totally avoidable, and should have been avoided. The referee is there to stop the fight as soon as there’s a tap, but failed to, and thus failed the fighter under his care. End of story. Secondly, yes, although a blood-choke usually doesn’t have any health repercussions to speak of, there have been very rare cases where a freak accident happens and the person unfortunately suffers some negative effects of varying severity. It’s also possible to be injured incidentally upon being choked out. Your opponent could drop you. (Who could forget the unpleasant moment when Jon Jones trapped Machida in a guillotine right up against the fence and then emphatically dropped his lifeless body, so that Machida slammed his face against the canvas?) Or you could end up passed out in an awkward/horrible position, for example with a foot twisted round the wrong way and bearing your full weight. (I remember seeing that exact thing happen at least once, actually. But, irritatingly, I can’t recall what specific fight it was. Take my word for it though. I’m a trustworthy type.) And thirdly, given that his parents were granted special permission to be cageside watching the fight, I’m sure that if Gaethje had his druthers, he would’ve preferred that they not have to see the very disturbing visual of him fully unconscious with his eyes still open and drool snaking down his chin. I mean, I’m just guessing here. Presumably that’s not a snapshot that Mr. and Mrs. Gaethje are going to want to put on their holiday cards this year.

What really got me, though, was that referee Jason Herzog even issued a quasi-defense of his late stoppage on Twitter. This despite the fact that it was objectively an error. There’s literally no debate or grey area. Here’s the sequence of how it went down. Khabib had the triangle locked in tight; Herzog moved into position to be able to see everything; Gaethje tapped several times on Khabib’s head; then Gaethje tapped several times on Khabib’s chest; then Gaethje went completely limp and stopped moving; then Khabib looked up at Herzog and said something, and I think we can guess what it was; only then did Herzog grab Gaethje’s hand to check if he’s still conscious; and finally Herzog stops the fight, pulling Khabib’s legs apart to break the choke. That’s as clear-cut as you could ever need it to be. The guy tapped multiple times, twice. In full view of you. And you needlessly waited to intervene until he was unconscious and his opponent was forced to ask you to do your job. And you’re still going to come out and try to blow smoke up my ass? You can’t even admit that was a mistake on your part? I mean, what in the actual fuck. If that doesn’t prove my point about refs sometimes giving in to the dangerous urges of ego, I give up. Hit me up on my pager if you need me; I’m going out for a fucking walk around the block.

Herzog’s someone who I’ve seen a lot of people claim is maybe the best working referee at the moment. I’m not sure I would really demur from that assessment either. (Though Marc Goddard is making a very respectable bid for that title too. Most referees are way too timid about deducting points for fouls. He’s very much not. I like that a lot. In fact, I ardently hope that no-second-chances approach becomes ubiquitous.) But what does it say when even the best do this head-in-the-sand shit and no-one blinks an eye?

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