Should refs be tackling fighters?

Brian McLaughlin is the owner of Precision Mixed Martial Arts in LaGrange, NY, coaches at Sussex County MMA in Augusta, NJ, and is part of the coaching staff at Miller Brothers MMA, in Sparta, NJ. He is a black belt under Rob Kahn, who is in turn the first black belt under Royce Gracie.

In this Guest Blog, McLaughlin argues that refs should not be tackling fighters to end bouts but instead rely on a horn.

Mixed martial arts is an inherently dangerous sport. Kicks, punches, chokes and knees are intended to do serious bodily harm and the rules not only condone, but encourage them.  Other combat sports have similar tactics and levels of harm, however MMA has one added element – the ability to continue attacking after a knockdown.  Contests are not halted when a combatant slumps to the floor, but rather when an official pries the attacking pugilist off their defenseless opponent.  The burden of safety therefore falls on the shoulder of the referee.  Being a referee is a thankless endeavor.  You share center stage for the most momentous events and receive no glory or adulation for a spectacular outcome, but absorb visceral hatred for any perceived folly.  There are many difficult grey areas of officiating – was the foul intentional or accidental?  Is the fighter holding the cage or pushing off it?  Is that strike the back or side of the head? One area in which being a referee is made unnecessarily difficult is signaling the end of the contest.

Currently fighters have free reign to continue to inflict damage on an opponent until they feel the ref physically pull them off their battered adversary. This practice is barrowed from boxing.  However, in boxing there are many differences.  First, most badly injured fighters fall down, which automatically results in a separation of fighters. Assuming the downed fighter beats the count, the ref gets to evaluate them and potentially stop the fight without an attacker simultaneously throwing punches.  In boxing only punches are thrown so in those rare instances where a fighter is out on their feet or being held up by the ropes a ref does not have to break a clinch or deal with a submission, the fighters are already somewhat separated. There is no 8 count in MMA and striking or submitting from a clinch is common place.  Attacks can also be launched if a fighter turns their back, aside from tapping there is no clear physical sign of surrender.  

The method of said pulling is not clearly defined anywhere in the unified rules.  In boxing a ref typically reaches an extended arm between the fighters indicating a halt. MMA does not have that tradition.  As a result, well intentioned referees attempting to act in haste have resorted to tackling fighters or jump in aggressively and end up accidentally stomping or striking fighters.  Brian Johnston famously had his nose broken by the referee during a stoppage at UFC 11. Many other have been injured as a result of this poorly instituted rule.

The reason for many of these missteps is that referees must act quickly since a single blow to an unconscious or defenseless fighter can cause serious bodily harm.  Many fighters are to blame, they know their opponent is clearly out but choose to continue battering him since they have plausible deniability since the ref has not yet physically restrained them, as was the case with Dan Henderson against Michael Bisping.   
In the case of submission finishes many fighters do not release when the ref touches them, they wait instead until the ref physically pries their hands apart, claiming afterwards they were simply “in the zone.”

In every other contact sport play stops on a whistle.  NFL refs are not attempting to separate 300 pound linemen, the whistle is blown and play stops immediately.

So what is the solution?  Is there a better way that a contest could be called to a halt?  There is another instance in a contest where fighters are forced to immediately stop fighting and release any and all holds – the end of the round.  Imagine if the end of a round was signaled solely by a referee pulling the fighters apart – late blows and ref induced injuries would be far more commonplace.  The BELL is what prevents these occurrences.  Every fighter, regardless of their experience, language or country of origin understands that once the horn sounds fighting stops. Furthermore, if they continue it will be plainly seen as malicious to all in attendance.  That is why I contend that a horn should sound that is either sounded by the ref themselves or done so at his (or her) signal.  If the ref is physically doing the sounding then there should be someone whose only job is to stare at the ref and immediately sound the horn at the ref’s indication. 

Once the bell sounded no fighter could try to outrun the ref to get in one more strike.  No fighter could hide behind the excuse of confusion as they continue cranking a heel hook.  The ref would still be prepared to separate the fighters if one continued, but that would be the exception and not the rule.

There would certainly be instances in which it would be more timely for a ref to pull a fighter off, but in those cases the ref is typically right on top of the action and that is not the place where bad outcomes typically ensue.  In the instance of a physical separation there needs to be clear protocol, not individual discretion. Otherwise we will be seeing a whole lot more of this…