Watching the Watchers: MMA Referees Need Independent Oversight

There are some things that you should never see inside of a mixed martial arts cage. One is a fighter being put to sleep 100% legally during a bout, yet waking up to find that she has somehow been awarded a victory from the local officiating crew.  Yet that’s just what happened when Amy Montenegro took on Celine Haga at Invicta FC 21 last night.

Montenegro was apparently on her way to a decision win with 15 seconds to go in the contest when Haga suddenly sprung to action and clamped onto Montenegro’s neck, very much in the spirit of Miesha Tate versus Holly Holm.  With about two seconds left in the contest Montenegro fell unconscious without tapping, a fact that was evident to viewers but obviously escaped the notice of referee Greg Franklin.  When the fight ended Haga released the hold and it became immediately clear that the slumped Montenegro’s lights were totally put out; here’s your video proof:

Unfortunately for Haga, referee Franklin completely disregarded the fact that Montenegro had been rendered unconscious and decided to send the fight to the judges’ scorecards.  The fact that the fight was scored for Montenegro almost isn’t completely ridiculous, as she definitely took round 2 and was winning round 3 handily if you considered the would-be fight ending choke an unsuccessful submission attempt. The problem, of course, is that Haga’s choke was perfectly successful and that the error in judgment lays entirely at the feet of the referee and the state commission that failed to advise him properly when he failed to make the appropriate call in the first place.

The fact that MMA events are governed by the authority of state commissions is a persistent impediment toward progress in the sport. Local governmental tentacles like the Missouri State Athletic Commission are not operated on a merit system, featuring agents who are selected based on the level of competence they bring to the job. Athletic commissions reside in an unimportant cranny in the tangled bureaucracy of their state’s government, a revenue-generating footnote that apparently lacks regulation or real accountability. Look at the way that states like Missouri (and plenty of others) continue to trot out the same local referees who routinely botch calls, show lack of knowledge of the rulebook, and display poor judgment on stoppages to the detriment of fighter safety. 

Nobody is claiming that refereeing MMA is easy; in fact, if officiating the sport was easy then it would be fine to let anybody continue to do it at the professional level.  But there are some humans who are simply not capable of learning to properly apply the rules of MMA in a way that protects the fighters and maintains the integrity of the sport, no matter how many years of experience they have. Currently these referees are allowed to continue to officiate matches, no matter how bad their performances are.

It’s time to change that.

State commissions get to decide which referees may work in their state through licensing procedures, a system which will no doubt continue, but it would be a huge benefit to the sport of MMA if professional referees were also subject to licensing from an independent governing body. This governing body would be in charge of maintaining records of referee performance, and would have the power to place on probation or decertify referees who regularly fail to properly apply the rules of the sport or neglect to behave in a manner that promotes fighter safety.

The most obvious candidate for heading up a hypothetical MMA officiating oversight organization would be none other than Big John McCarthy. Big John has always been an advocate of the sport’s growth and has already shaped its evolution, and given that he’s suggested that his career as an active ref may come to an end soon this seems like a logical next step for the devoted martial arts official. McCarthy has written half of the rulebook, and there is probably no man more qualified – by experience or by deed – to assess whether other officials are handling their duties in acceptable fashion.

Look, if you’re a below-average MMA fighter who makes it to the big leagues then your weaknesses will quickly be exposed and you’ll be sent packing to the minors if you wish to continue your fight career.  Yet currently if you’re a below-average (or even terrible) referee you can continue officiating significant major league MMA bouts as long as the relatively randomly appointed local commissioners say it’s okay. This is a fairly insane system when you think about it. Imagine if Major League Baseball teams were forced to use local umpires selected by a basically unsupervised committee of bureaucrats – the officiating would probably end up at the quality level of the local high school baseball umpires. Well, that’s pretty much the same system we see employed in MMA, and it explains exactly why in some states fighters are constantly subject to the whims of little league-level officiating.

Much like umpiring a baseball game, there’s a right and wrong way to officiate an MMA match, with very little gray area for interpretation. There’s no reason why MMA refs couldn’t or shouldn’t have their performances graded by a credible organization headed up by folks like McCarthy who know every facet of the rules intimately. Maybe when MMA was considered deadly bloodsport it made some sense to leave the officiating decision making (and thus a larger portion of the liability) solely in the hands of government representatives, but this is a complex sport that has clearly evolved past the understanding and decision making capacity of the types of bureaucrats who find themselves on state commissions.

It’s time for the creation of a centralized organization to start grading professional MMA referees on their performance. It’s time to make sure that the ones who present a danger to fighters are no longer certified for state commissions to employ. And it’s time to make sure that referees who fail to properly apply rules are relegated to the lowest levels of the sport, not until they reach some arbitrary experience threshold or until they convince their buddy on the local commission to get them another gig, but until they can prove that they have actually improved their game – just like an ex-UFC fighter who wants to get back to the big leagues.

It’s time for the best fighters in the world to only be officiated by the best referees in the world, and nothing less.


(Correction: The original version of this article indicated that the Kansas Athletic Commission uses local referees for top level fights, but Executive Director Adam Roorbach pointed out to CombatDocket that their commission employs top referees such as John McCarthy and Rob Hinds for all major events.  Apologies for the error – DC)


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