Thoughts from legendary MMA referee John McCarthy about poor MMA officiating
Spencer Kyte: I wrote a piece today that’s titled The Case for Grappling; it talks about stand-ups. To me it seems like we have a growing trend towards them becoming quicker and a little more prevalent. One of the things that I said that I certainly wanted to ask you about is that they didn’t exist in the early days of the UFC. You had two options: go and learn how to get yourself off the canvas or out from underneath someone, or be stuck there.
Is it good, bad, neither the way things are trending these days? To me it feels like grappling is becoming less a part of the sport or it’s getting pushed away in favor of a greater emphasis on stand-up fighting. I understand the entertainment side of it, but the sporting side of it thinks that we don’t have that opposite correlation for guys on the ground — no striker ever gets put on their back to start a fight or a round.
What are your thoughts on it and how do we counteract that or is it just the inevitable that this is the way things will continue to go?
John McCarthy: My true opinion is this: you’re right about the fact that there are becoming more and more stand-ups. The real problem is where they’re occurring and why they’re occurring.
There’s positions within MMA when we talk about the ground that are neutral positions. It’s the same as being in the stand-up when two guys are standing up and moving; it’s a neutral position. Both have the opportunity to score and do things against their opponent, and on the ground, we have those positions.
When you look at guard – in MMA, it’s almost 50/50. The guy on top does have the ability to punch and elbow with great power, but he doesn’t have much for submissions. Most MMA fighters aren’t going to go back for a leg and try a leglock because they can lose the position and end up having someone on top of them. So they really don’t have any submissions available to them. The guy on the bottom, while he can’t punch and elbow as hard, he can still punch and elbow, but he’s got a lot of submissions available to him also, so it’s a pretty even position.
As a referee, you can sit there and judge the output of both fighters based in that position, so if you change that and end up standing the fight up because nothing is really happening there — and you’ve already given them a chance — it’s okay to take it from a pretty even position and put them back into another even position in the stand-up to try to open up the fight. That’s okay.
What we’re seeing those is one of two things:
(1) Standing the fight up as soon as the fight hits the ground
15 seconds, the guy hasn’t changed (a position) and standing it up. They’re trying to change the sport and it’s absolutely horrible. It’s going to ruin the sport. It’s going to ruin the aspects that make the sport what it is, and it should never be done.
(2) We have referees that are standing fighters up out of what are not neutral positions; out of dominant positions.
You get into side control, you get into mount positions, you get into having someone’s back, you have put yourself into a position where you have created a position — either on your own or through the mistake of your opponent — where you can hurt them and they can’t hurt you, and those are positions you should not be taken out of.
The fighter needs to get out of those positions themselves because when you take them out of those positions, it’s not breaking something that’s an even position; you’re taking an advantage away from one fighter and giving an advantage to another fighter.
I try to tell people all the time: the sport of MMA will change not by the referees — referees trying to change the sport by standing people up faster will only ruin things. The way the sport will change and change in the right fashion so that fighters are doing the correct things is through the judging. When you have judges that are giving credit to fighters when they’re doing the right things, and not giving credit when they’re not doing it.
A fighter takes somebody down, lays on top of them, and basically holds on, and then we have a judge giving them credit because it was a takedown, that’s a problem. Judge should understand that the fighter has used the takedown to protect themselves and stall the fight.
They were getting beat in one area, and they go and put the fight to another area, but by putting it into another area, they don’t advance the fight — they stall it — well I’m not going to give you credit for that. So if I’m not going to give you credit for that, it’s going to change what you’re doing in the sport because you’re going to say, `It’s not going to work for me.’
Once the judges start to actually judge the fights the way they should be judged and give credit for what should be given credit — and not giving credit for stalling and lay-and-pray tactics — then the fighters are going to adjust because they want to win. Then they’re going to go and adjust their game because they’re not going to do those things, and it’s going to change the fighting aspect the way it should be changed in the right light.
Kyte: That’s a perfect set-up for the next question. You’ve always said it whenever we’ve talked about it — education is the key to resolving this judging and officiating issues like what we were just talking about.
Do athletic commissions need to start getting proactive and start making training programs mandatory so that these officials do get that knowledge so that we’re not hearing judges names announced before a fight and thinking, `Oh crap,’ or seeing a referee and knowing `this is going to get stood up the second it hits the ground.’ So that it creates that element where it is the fighters — and strictly the fighters — that control the outcome of the fights?
McCarthy: Education is the most important part of everything when it comes to officials. If we have people that absolutely understand what they’re looking at and what is going on in the fight, and giving credit to actual offensive and attacking techniques that are effective, then we’re going to have people that are judging the fights correctly and giving the fight to the right fighter for the right things.
We’ll get fights all the time where we’ll have one fighter who is trying to fight the whole time — they’re trying to do damage to their opponent — but they’re being put down on their back and being controlled. The other fighter is actually just holding on for most of the time that they’re on top. The one guy might get up and start to attack again, and never gets damaged in the fight, but loses the fight because we had takedowns.
Takedowns are okay, but it’s what you do with the takedowns, and that comes from education. Understanding what kind of takedown it was, what position did they end up with, and what did they do with that position once they got there. That education process is what needs to be done to get it to where judges truly know what they’re doing, what they’re looking at, and what the fighters are doing.
It’s hard to put all that emphasis on commissions because they don’t have a lot of money. States don’t look and say, `Let’s put a lot of money towards the athletic commission so they can be trained.’ That’s not where the money is going to be going, so it’s difficult for an athletic commission to bring in a training course and put all their people through training, but it is something that needs to be done. It needs to be done now, and every six months to twelve months it has to be re-done so people continually educate themselves and refresh themselves on what needs to be done.
That all comes through understanding the fight. There are goods and bads in everything. There are good things about having fighters or someone that is knowledgeable in grappling or wrestling being a jugde and judging fights because they understand those techniques. Sometimes those guys, if you take a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, some times he’ll watch somebody do something, say that they guy used poor technique, and he won’t give the guy credit for it, even though the technique was working. It doesn’t matter that it was poor; you’ve got to give the guy credit for it.
To have people that have never fought or never grappled or never taken any kind of combative shot in their life, to have them judge and say that they know what’s going on, that’s tough too because they have never, ever been in that position. They’ve never felt that kind of shot. They don’t understand the pressures that are being applied, and so those people need to be educated in a way that they know what it’s like. If you’ve never been there, it’s hard to explain the feeling.
Kyte: I was actually talking about that element with a friend on Twitter recently. He was saying we need more former fighters getting into judging, and I said, `Absolutely, it makes sense if that is something they want to do, but at the same time, you don’t have to be a fighter to become an effective judge.’
Do you agree? Is it something where so long as the education is there and the understanding is there, it doesn’t make any difference where you come from and what your history with the sport is?
McCarthy: Our very good friend Shawn Tompkins was a phenomenal trainer. You look at what he did, especially with his three guys — Sam Stout, Mark Hominick, and Chris Horodecki. You look at the training those guys got, and what Shawn did to bring their skills levels up was amazing. He was a phenomenal trainer, and many, many fighters sought him out for advice on how to do certain techniques or how to game plan for a fight. But if you look at Shawn’s record as a fight, what was it?
Kyte: He’s was 0-4.
McCarthy: Okay — Shawn was not the best fighter in the world, but he was one of the best trainers as far as getting people to fight. Angelo Dundee couldn’t box a lick, basically, but he was a very good trainer for one of the best fighters every as far as boxing.
You don’t have to be the guy that can do it to be the guy that knows it. Your body might not be able to do things as well as somebody else, but your mind knows the sport as well as any body; that’s what you need to have when you’re looking at a judge or a referee. You need to have the person that is educated.
A lot of times you’ll have people saying, “Doers do and teachers teach because a teacher can’t do it.” That’s not always true. The teacher may not be able to do it at the best, but you want to have people that are educated; that’s the whole thing. They don’t have to be people that can do it the best, they just have to be people that know it really well.