Combat sports events in Nevada often serve as a stark reminder of the importance of having an experienced cadre of referees, and officials.
Last Saturday night (May 25, 2013) at UFC 160, which took place at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada, fans received a happy reminder of that, at least on the refereeing side. That's because there were recurring instances of good refereeing that allowed fights to go on while protecting the safety of the fighters, and the integrity of the game, to the best possible degree.
Mistakes happen, and Nevada has had theirs. But on a decision-for-decision basis, the state's crews do an outstanding job. Here's a closer look at both last night and some quirks of refereeing that are extremely bothersome and quite common in other states.
The Quick Stoppage
Nothing stirs the ire of fans more than a ref panicking when a guy gets the quick hook. It happens a lot in MMA, especially from a situation where one guy is turtled up and the other is bombing away. The assailant often doesn't have to land cleanly or consistently to elicit the stoppage, as it often seems more a case of the ref ending it because the other guy can't seem to escape a bad situation.
In Nevada, they avoid this kind of quick hook more often than not. Steve Mazzagatti, reffing the Mike Pyle vs. Rick Story bout, did an excellent job. In the first round, Story blasted Pyle to the canvas with a jarring left hand and pounced, unloading a follow-up barrage while Pyle scrambled to survive, at one point going to all fours while Story fired away.
It was the exact kind of moment that will excite an experienced MMA fan, while giving you a nervous stomach, as you wonder if the ref will intervene in some dubious way without the defensive fighter getting cleanly finished. But Mazzagatti assessed the situation properly, noting that Pyle wasn't taking any shots flush, was still defending himself intelligently and viable.
Pyle turned the tables in the second and third round to take a razor-thin split decision win. A quick hook would've scuttled all that.
The Cage Grab, or Lack Thereof
A cage crab is not the same thing as putting your hand on the cage for balance. A cage grab penetrates the invisible plane of the links, thereby converting it into a weapon for balance (which is what refs should call). It is inevitable that a guy's hand is going to touch the cage at some point, and if you watch refs in small-fry states, they often either completely ignore the pending cage grab, or over-officiate it, warning the guy to the point of terrifying him into not even putting his hands against it for fear of a deduction.
Nevada is really good about differentiating between these two uses of the cage. If a guy grabs it, he usually gets a warning (usually). But if he's merely placing his palm against it for balance (which is legal) they know the difference more often than not.
And, nothing bugs me more often than the blatant cage grab to deny an opponent a positional improvement (a la Jose Aldo's against Chad Mendes). It's kind of a mulligan. The sport needs to address this by giving the victimized fighter a restart from side control or some fitting reward.
Chris Tognoni did an outstanding job in two UFC 160 bouts, T.J. Grant's stoppage of Gray Maynard and Robert Whittaker's knockout of Colton Smith. He let Grant uncork a lengthy finishing barrage to cleanly finish Maynard, as Gray was still struggling and trying to evade during the series of blows, until he basically was clearly out. Tognoni also made the right call in waving off Whittaker from Smith in the third round of a very hard-nosed bout. It may have seemed a somewhat quick intervention except for the context -- Colton had been wobbled a few times previously, was wading forward into shots, and had fallen from a punch directly on to his head.
That's a key no-no in allowing a bout to continue, as state commissions are increasingly aware of head trauma that comes from falls (it was why Jay Nady rescued Zab Judah from Kostya Tszyu in 2001 -- despite Judah's shaky-legged protests that he was fit to continue). Tognoni is a good ref and a welcome addition to Nevada's crew (although it'd be nice if the state added legend John McCarthy to their list of active refs).
Lobbying the Refs
I don't like it when fighters, or their corners, lobby refs to influence them to call low blows or various infractions. It's going to happen, but how a ref responds is a key factor: basically, a stern reminder to fighters/corners to mind their own business is what's needed. I also don't like refs that force standups too quick, or talk unnecessarily, and last night, the ground action was allowed to flow without excess restarts, especially in Pyle-Story, where a lot was riding on the bout depending on who was in what position.
As always, Herb Dean was outstanding in officiating his bouts. Assigned to three last night, he was, as usual, in the proper position throughout and let the fighters fight while enforcing the rules accordingly. Last Saturday night was a great example of how good refereeing quite often makes for great MMA.
I'll take another serving of it any time, as will you.
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