Refs should be concerned about fighter safety, not who wins or loses
Whenever UFC Women’s Bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey wins a fight, it seems to cause a chain reaction where many mixed martial arts fans will voice their displeasure.
But it wasn’t the champion this time that was the recipient of the crowd’s ire. Instead it was referee Herb Dean.
After Rousey dropped her opponent Sara McMann with a knee to the liver and followed up with a couple of shots, Dean stepped in and stopped the fight.
Fans quickly went on social media and declared their frustrations with the quick outcome. Some suggested that Dean, who many regard as the best referee in mixed martial arts, should be exiled from the sport for his actions not only in the Rousey vs. McMann title fight, but also in previous bouts.
I’ll admit that Dean’s stoppage in the title fight was a little premature. But referees are not perfect. Sometimes they make mistakes like the rest of us.
As we watch a contest from the comfort of our own home or the not-so comfort of the bleachers, referees are right in the center with the two combatants. They see the fight differently than the rest of us.
Unlike fans, a referee does not show bias when it comes to a bout. They don’t step into the cage and secretly hope that their favorite fighter gets a quick finish. Their interest does not revolve around who wins or loses. It is the job of the officials — like in all sports — to make sure that the athletes are safe and following the rules.
Sometimes when a referee stops a match, the loser will rise to their feet with a confused look on their face and claim they can still compete. This is seconds after their opponent was pummeling them on the ground, while the referee was asking if they could continue.
In most cases, referees will let bouts go on when fighters show they are defending themselves, whether it’s by blocking some of their opponents’ punches or answering the official’s questions. Being face-down on the canvas and not responding — three seconds after the referee warns them that he will stop the fight—does not count as defense.
In an interview with MMAJunkie.com, McMann mentioned that she had heard the referee’s warnings and knew she had to respond.
“I’m not going to blame a referee for something I feel like I should be able to control,” McMann said. “I should get up quicker. If you want to win fights, you just have to do it, regardless of what’s going on.”
Referees are not mind readers. If they can’t see that a combatant is defending him or herself, they are going to assume something is wrong and stop the fight.
Some fans and media personnel have argued that because of Dean’s stoppage, referees should give more leeway to competitors when it comes to championship matches because there is more at stake.
Although title bouts feature two more rounds than regular contests — not to mention a shiny gold belt and a bigger fight purse on the line —the same rules apply and a referee should officiate a title match no different than he or she would a regular bout. If referees are lenient, it would increase the chances of permanent damage to a competitor. If a fighter sustains permanent damage and makes a comeback to become the world champion, they may have to wait several months to make their first title defense or forfeit the belt because of the punishment they sustained during the previous fight.
We might criticize an official for what we consider an early stoppage, but their actions may have prevented the combatant from sustaining further damage that could hurt them in the end.
Al Stover can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.