Men in Black: Exclusive interview with UFC Referee Steve Mazzagatti

STEVE MAZZAGATTI UFC

When I first convinced MMAmania to let me join their ranks (amazing what $20 and a bottle of Mad Dog will get you), I asked to have my column called "8 Sides To Every Story." I thought the title was representative of how different we can interpret the action inside of the Octagon based on what side of the cage we're seeing it from.

In that respect, there is one perspective that we rarely get, which is surprising since it is also the one closest to the action. I'm referring of course to the men in black: our beloved (and sometimes detested) UFC referees.

I was fortunate enough to catch up with Steve Mazzagatti after he finished taping The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 5. I was surprised to learn that in addition to being a referee since 1993, he's also an accomplished boxer and mixed martial artist.

Aside from mastering such techniques as Hung Gar and Wing Chun Gung Fu, he's also perfected the art of Muay Thai and was the first person to open a Muay Thai training school in Las Vegas (where he trained up and coming fighters for more than 10 years).

Talking to Steve was like talking to a friend I've known for 20 years. Funny, easygoing and surprisingly down-to-earth. He was open and candid about everything from growing up in Las Vegas to his job as a firefighter and engineer.

I got the sense that this was indeed a man with life experience. And, while I budgeted our interview at 30 minutes, we talked for more than two hours. To be perfectly honest, we probably could have talked all night as I listened and laughed to the life and times of the man with the most famous mustache since Yosemite Sam.


Jesse Holland (MMAmania):
Steve first and foremost thank you for taking the time to talk with us here at UFCmania. The first thing I want to do is clear up a common misconception about your position, especially for some of our newer fans. You're not actually employed by the UFC are you?

Steve Mazzagatti: No, certainly not. I work for the Nevada State Athletic Commission (NSAC). They control the officiating for combat sports here in Nevada.

Jesse Holland (MMAmania): If you're employed by the NSAC, how difficult is it to travel to another state when you have a pay-per-view (PPV) in California or say, Ohio?

Steve Mazzagatti: Well the commission in each state regulates their own guys. What happens is the promoter will organize an event and request the refs they normally use. Most states it's not an issue but a place like Florida it's hard to get an out of state ref to come in because they like to use their own guys.

Jesse Holland (MMAmania):
Can the UFC choose which referee will officiate which bout?

Steve Mazzagatti: No, that falls under the NSAC as well. In fact, the commission is meeting on Monday (3/5/07) to determine the refs for each fight at the next WEC event.

Jesse Holland (MMAmania): How difficult is it to officiate in different organizations when the rules are sometimes drastically different? In PRIDE you can use stomps but not elbows, and in the UFC it's just the opposite. Is it hard to remember where you're at?

Steve Mazzagatti: Oh yeah, it's a challenge, especially when the events are so close together. But I feel if fighters can do it then so can I. It's all part of the job that's why it's so important for me to stay sharp. What a rule is today might not be a rule tomorrow so as the sport evolves as a ref you gotta evolve too.

Jesse Holland (MMAmania): You mention staying sharp. I can assume you don't just pull up to the arena five minutes before show time, call your fights, and then catch the first cab back home?

Steve Mazzagatti: (Laughs) No, it's not that easy. I have a responsibility to make sure I don't miss a thing in that cage. I prepare pretty intensely for each event. I usually start by watching tapes and then I go to different gyms and start rolling with the grapplers there. I'll talk to other refs and observe them in action. I'm fortunate that I live here in Nevada so I have a lot of places in my backyard plus I grew up training and sparring in half of these gyms. It's hard to catch submissions they can sneak up on you outta nowhere and you gotta be sharp, right on top of it or someone's gonna get hurt. It's not just the subs either I remember Koscheck/Sanford Kos knocked him cold from the side mount. Man that's hard to do you and something you wouldn't expect. You gotta be alert and be ready for the possibility of a stoppage at all times.

Jesse Holland (MMAmania): What's your relationship with the other refs in the UFC like Big John and Herb Dean?

Steve Mazzagatti: We're friends, we have a mutual respect for each other. We also make sure we take care of each other. I'm probably more likely to go and hang out with Herb. We (the refs) like to compare notes sometimes but we never pass judgment on the officiating of another ref.

Jesse Holland (MMAmania):
Describe your relationships with the fighters. Any friends?

Steve Mazzagatti: (Sighs) Man it's tough. We got so many great guys here it's so hard to avoid friendships but you have to be careful. I have a job to do and in that job I have to be unbiased. I don't want a fighter that I'm gonna be officiating look over and see me being all chummy with his opponent so I have to empty my cup and just be neutral. I tell these guys don't think I'm a prude it's just an unfortunate part of the job.

Jesse Holland (MMAmania): Tell us about your debut at UFC 43. What was that like?

Steve Mazzagatti: I had already been officiating for close to ten years but it was definitely exciting. The cage was an adjustment for me but I was more nervous in my first MMA match: Frank Trigg against Laverne Clark at WFA 1. Man they threw me right in there with the big boys.

Jesse Holland (MMAmania):
On that note do you prefer the cage or the ring?

Steve Mazzagatti:
For an official I would say I prefer the cage. To me it's less controversy because there are no ropes. In the ring you have to do a lot of repositioning, guys who may be working towards something lose their position or even worse you get a rope tangle, I guess its just easier in that respect fighting in the cage. I think the ring would be favorable to the fans because you get a much better view of the action.

Jesse Holland (MMAmania):
Okay Steve I've been going too easy on you. Now we have to get some dirt on you. Are you ready?

Steve Mazzagatti:
(Laughs) Bring it on! C'mon!

Jesse Holland (MMAmania): I want to focus on stoppages because as an official it's where you get the most criticism. Really the only stoppage of yours that I would consider controversial, at least from a fans perspective, is the Yves Edwards/Josh Thompson match. Can you take us through that call?

Steve Mazzagatti: There is a lot to consider as a ref when making a call like that. No question Josh took a big shot but remember too Yves had poor positioning. It's different when someone gets dropped with a punch because they're right at your feet you can just mount and strike. That (positioning) plays a big part in stopping the fight. After the kick Yves was on the ground and had to first get back up and get over there to finish it. I had a responsibility to Josh to allow him at least that time to recover. Even when Yves got back and started punching his first three shots missed. I stopped it at that point when I knew for sure Josh wasn't recovering. Seeing it on TV it's hard to appreciate but so much of a ref's decision is based on body language or a fighter's eyes. I could see Josh's face - he wasn't out. These guys train so hard and for so long for just a few minutes of fighting you gotta be sure that you don't stop it too early. You gotta give these guys a chance.

Jesse Holland (MMAmania): Did you ever have a fighter get down on you for a call?

Steve Mazzagatti: No, never. I have a pretty good reputation for stopping fights. After Edwards/Thompson I'll never be accused of stopping a fight too early that's for sure.

Jesse Holland (MMAmania): (Laughs)

Steve Mazzagatti: Hey man you're only as good as your last bad call!

Jesse Holland (MMAmania): So let me ask you then if a fighter like Tito or Chuck is in all kinds of trouble would you let it go a little longer before stopping it as opposed to someone who doesn't have the experience or is it the same across the board?

Steve Mazzagatti: I definitely give more leeway to the top guys because they've proven themselves. These guys who train so hard for so long need to know and even the fans need to know that they won or lost. Take a guy like Forrest Griffin man he fights his ass off but he got caught it happens but you gotta make sure they lost. These guys know what we expect I tell them in the locker room flat out: A heaping ball of passivity is not an intelligent defense. Conscious or unconscious the brain still takes the same amount of punishment.

Jesse Holland (MMAmania): Do fighters ever test you inside the cage by grabbing the fence or shorts or maybe sneaking in illegal strikes?

Steve Mazzagatti: All the time. These guys are a lot smarter than people think they're gonna push it to see how far they can get but you can't give an inch or they'll take a mile you gotta nip it right in the bud. Grabbing the fence isn't penalized as much as fans would like because it's more of a natural instinct than a blatant foul. Usually I know when it's a foul if it's done to improve a position or to strike from. I have no problem calling a foul if it's warranted. If it's a grey area but I know a fighter is testing me I'll stand them up and he'll lose position. That might not seem so bad but if you're fighting a guy like Chuck or Cro Cop the last thing you want to do is be on your feet. Or if they are facing a tough grappler I'll put them in full guard. Anything I can do to take the advantage away and they usually get the message. Some guys really like to use the mouthpiece to get themselves out of trouble. Man I had a fight where a guy would spit out his mouthpiece every time he was in trouble. He was getting whipped and spit out his mouthpiece and then kept looking at me to stop it and I didn't. That's a rule of mine I'm not stopping a fight mid-action to wash off your mouthpiece and give you time to recover. If there's a break in the action I'll call it but the mouthpiece won't save you from a stoppage. I get the groin shot too. No way am I stopping a fight for a groin shot unless I saw it. Guys who are on the losing end will take a low-kick and then double over and grab themselves. I just let them lay there because if I didn't see it, it didn't happen. It goes back to being sharp as a ref you really gotta be on point there are so many little things that happen and you gotta catch them all. On top of all that I have to be conscious of the camera too and keep my distance. The fans paid money to see the fight, not my ass.

Jesse Holland (MMAmania): Do you make the call yourself when it's a foul? I've seen refs have a pow-wow with someone on occasion what's that for?

Steve Mazzagatti: One option is to conference with the commissioner who is always in attendance. When a foul occurs sometimes I'll call time-out and talk to Keith Kizer and see what direction we want to go. One of the things we are going to start tightening up is punches to the back of the head. Very few are unintentional. Another thing to consider is when a foul works actually against the fighter who was fouled. Look at Arlovski/Cruz. That kid (Cruz) took an illegal kick and Herb had to stop the action because of the foul. At the same time though he was working a submission and didn't want to lose position, almost like declining a penalty in football. Then look what happened. What do you do in that situation? It's hard you gotta be prepared but also evolve, new situations are gonna come up all the time as the sport grows.

Jesse Holland (MMAmania): Would you like to see the yellow card in the UFC or some variation of that system that keeps the pace moving in a slow fight?

Steve Mazzagatti: I don't know. I think the fighters need to police themselves. They have a job to do out there they need to do it. I don't like to get involved like that but I will if it's necessary. My background is striking so I love standing them up. If they want to just lay on top of each other for a while I'm putting them on their feet. I got criticized a lot in the beginning but it's expected now and I warn these guys in the locker room so they know it's coming.

Jesse Holland (MMAmania):
Earlier I asked you about PRIDE having different rules that allow stomps, knees to the head, and even soccer kicks. Are these tactics of an earlier era that will eventually be phased out or do you think it makes for more exciting fights?

Steve Mazzagatti:
Oh man I'm old school so I love to see it. It forces fighters to find new ways to defend themselves. It's easier to have a good ground game when you don't have to worry about a guy like Wanderlei Silva kicking you into the seats. Heck I say let ‘em do whatever they want they can even bring back groin shots. Every offense has a corresponding defense and it makes for an exciting fight. But in all honesty I understand there has to be a balance especially when you're talking about a mainstream audience. I don't know if we'll ever see that stuff over here but I don't have a problem with it.

Jesse Holland (MMAmania):
Has a fight ever gone to a decision and when they read the judges scorecards you think to yourself "Man, what fight were they watching?"

Steve Mazzagatti: (Laughs) No, I'm too busy watching for fouls. I get really focused in there again it's all about clearing your mind of everything except officiating. Occasionally I'll even forget who is fighting as I ref I'm that focused. (Laughs) Man I've even been known to raise the wrong guy's hand! I even have trouble watching the fights at home as just a fan because I end up in ref mode. It's hard to turn it off.

Jesse Holland (MMAmania): Dana ever slip you a $100 and say "Make it go three rounds"

Steve Mazzagatti: (Laughs) No, I don't even know who I'm reffing until I get to the arena.

Jesse Holland (MMAmania): Steve this interview would not be complete if I didn't ask you about your moustache. Are you surprised at the amount of attention it's getting?

Steve Mazzagatti:
(Laughs) Yeah man this thing has taken on a life of its own. At the firehouse we always do things as a group so one day we decided to all grow moustaches. Well we did and then the guys start showing up clean-shaven and I asked what the deal was. Turns out the wives didn't like them so I went home to shave and my wife was like "Don't shave it I like it" so now I'm kind of stuck with it. I have noticed though that the guys from other firehouses are growing them so I guess in a way I'm a trendsetter.

Jesse Holland (MMAmania): Who is the bigger UFC icon: Your moustache or Matt Hughes Country Breakfast?

Steve Mazzagatti: (Laughs) Man it's all about the fighters so I have to go with Matt on that one.

Jesse Holland (MMAmania): Ever consider a nickname in the cage?

Steve Mazzagatti:
No that's not for me, not really my deal. I've earned some nicknames at the firehouse though that I can't repeat here!

Jesse Holland (MMAmania): What do you do when you're not officiating?

Steve Mazzagatti: I'm a Type-A personality, kind of an adrenaline junkie I guess that's why I love the UFC. I like to spend time with my kids, my sons and I are into motocross and I have a Baja Bug that I like to race. I'm always doing something exciting. The UFC and MMA in general are becoming so popular I think for that reason plus it's got something for everyone. If you're out of shape and like to drink beer you have your Tank Abbotts, if you like to grapple you have your jiu-jitsu guys, it's great man. Body types don't even matter we learned that early on.

Jesse Holland (MMAmania): More adrenaline: 5-alarm fire or world-title match?

Steve Mazzagatti: Wow, both are heart-pounding. Probably dead even. There is so much energy in the arena I can't even imagine how a fighter feels.

Jesse Holland (MMAmania):
With your background as a fighter, trainer and now as an official, what is the foundation for up and coming fighters who want to be successful in MMA? A lot of people will say wrestling.

Steve Mazzagatti: They're all equal. Man in this age of MMA you gotta know it all or you'll never make it. Just think about the guys we'll be seeing in five years. I guess I would say striking because it's the hardest to learn. It really is a science. Developing angles, it's so complex, it takes years to master.

Jesse Holland (MMAmania):
The buzz on The Ultimate Fighter 5 is that it's by far the best yet. Can you give us a scoop?

Steve Mazzagatti: Yeah we just wrapped on it this week. It was awesome, just awesome. Who doesn't love lightweights? These guys are so fast and the fights are so exciting. That's all I know-I swear!

Jesse Holland (MMAmania): With all this talk about lightweights and body types I get the impression that you are the prototypical body-type for the perfect fighter?

Steve Mazzagatti: Yep. I am the mold for all fighters-to-be!

Jesse Holland (MMAmania): Steve, thank you once again for taking the time to interview with MMAmania. Any plugs or shout-outs?

Steve Mazzagatti: The fans. We have the greatest fans in the world and they made us what we are today.

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