There is no doubt that referees in MMA, and probably most sports, have the most thankless job on your planet. Do your job well and nobody says a thing. Do anything controversial, and the community lynches you.
By far the most important job of the referee is to signal the end of the fight. Unfortunately, this isn’t always so easy to determine. Recently, fights like Cain Velasquez vs Junior dos Santos and Jessica Andrade vs Rosi Sexton prompted many calls that those fights should have been stopped sooner, owing to the one sided beatings Sexton and dos Santos were taking. Personally, in these situations, I would attribute little fault to the referee, since either Sexton’s or dos Santos’ corner could have thrown in the towel at any moment.
However, not all late stoppages are nearly as prolonged. Some happen quickly, like Adlan Amagov vs TJ Waldburger, and Bellator’s Andrey Koreshkov vs Marius Zaromskis. In these cases, the referee has to make a split second decision when to end the fight, and waiting seconds too long can draw a lot of criticism. Make the wrong move though, and people will call it an early stoppage. Just ask fans of Antonio Carvalho against Darren Elkins.
Alternatively, choose not to stop the fight, pray the fighter continues, and the referee will be hailed as a genius. Travis Browne vs Alistair Overeem and Carlos Condit vs Jake Ellenberger are perfect examples of fights that could have legitimately been stopped, and yet the referee’s decision to not stop them are considered “great refereeing.”
Keeping all that in mind, I want to point out the fact that these are very difficult decisions to make. If Travis Browne never recovered, it’s very likely we would have said it was a late stoppage. Similarly, if Antonio Carvalho failed to recover, people would have called Yves Lavigne an idiot considering Carvalho crumbled while he was clearly wobbled.
In almost all of the above examples cited, I’m very hesitant to call “incompetence” on referees. These are split second decisions that are so easy to get wrong. You have to be forgiving of a referee that tries to give a fighter one last fighting chance, or thinks a fighter has seen enough.
You better believe though that there’s a situation where I’m a lot less forgiving. That’s because when it comes to submission holds – especially chokes – there’s less possibility for error. Is the fighter caught in a choke? If yes, then either watch for the fighter to tap out, or watch for the fighter to go limp. It’s really not that hard.
And yet there are too very recent high profile examples where referees clearly failed to do this. Interestingly, both involved Josh Burkman at the World Series of Fighting.
First was Josh Burkman vs Jon Fitch. Burkman hurt Fitch, then latched on to a guillotine. He proceeded to pull half guard, choked Fitch unconscious, then turned him over and released the choke. To be fair to Steve Mazagatti, there’s nothing he could have done. Fitch didn’t tap out, and Burkman released the choke as soon as Fitch went limp. The problem was that Mazagatti was casually standing off to the side, and didn’t put himself in a position to even determine if Fitch was tapping or if Fitch had gone limp. This is clear incompetence, even though the actual ‘damage’ from his actions was minimal.
Then, just this past weekend was Josh Burkman vs Steve Carl. Carl masterfully set up a triangle choke in the fourth round, and Burkman tapped out. And then the referee stood there. And then Burkman went to sleep. Watching the footage, it is not clear at all how the referee failed to see the tap, and there was no reason at all for Burkman to go unconscious.
Stop a fight late due to strikes, and you’re probably within an acceptable range of likely error. Fail to properly watch if a fighter being choked has tapped out or has gone unconscious? It’s inexcusable, and by far the worst mistake a referee can make.