Biting the Hand That Saves You

Fightland Blog

By Justin Feinstein

Few images in MMA are more iconic than that of the just-defeated fighter protesting a stoppage: palms upturned, shoulders shrugged, face contorted, every gesture a desperate plea. As fans of the sport, we have become so conditioned to this scene that we are immune to its absurdity. A fighter who only moments before was sustaining a series of unanswered blows from an opponent hell bent on pummeling him or her into unconsciousness now directs his frustration at the very person who saved him from getting pummeled. The reactions vary from indignation and disgust to desperation and despair, yet the referee remains stoic, offering a few gentle words or a paternal headshake. Such self-destructive instincts are inconceivable to those who don’t fight for a living yet commonplace for a select breed of human for whom self-preservation is trumped by pride.

Fighters and commentators often speak of mental toughness--a vague armchair psychological diagnosis that often boils down to an inability to feel or adequately respond to pain. There is a reason our bodies tell us when it is time to quit, and while a comeback from the brink of defeat certainly makes for great viewing, the refusal to listen to that instinct is not necessarily an admirable quality. This sort of unbreakable will illustrates the crucial role that a referee serves. If fighters are impervious to pain, someone needs to look out for their best interests.

But fighters, like many athletes, often have a delusional belief in their abilities; it’s what enables them to get in the cage in front of thousands of spectators, stare down intimidating opponents, and subject their bodies to years of grueling training, draining weight cuts, and frequent injury. They are so acclimated to receiving a beating that the sensation often registers not as pain but disorientation. In interviews fighters rarely speak of how much a certain kick or punch hurt but rather how dizzy it made them or how little they remember about it. Their minds tell one story, their bodies another.

A big part of what makes MMA such a fascinating spectator sport is the distance between the fighters and the fans--they are our gods, our gladiators, subject more to awe than aspiration. We know what it feels like to make a layup, catch a football, swing a golf club. But to throw a spinning back kick? Eat an elbow to the jaw? Refuse to tap out to a choke? Even for those of us who train jiu-jitsu or kickboxing, we do so in controlled environments and rarely, if ever, while coated in blood. Pain and adversity mean something much different to us than they do to professional fighters, in that we allow ourselves to experience them.

And therein lies the difficulty for a referee in calling off a fight: Granting an adrenaline-jacked fighter sufficient opportunity to defend himself while simultaneously safeguarding his or her well-being, all in a fraction of a second, is a daunting task. That next elbow or fist could cause a concussion, break a jaw, shatter an orbital bone.

Yet these sequences are subject to constant scrutiny, second-guessing, and shaming from fighters, fans, and commentators alike. For some reason, we frequently side with the fallen fighter rather than the ref, craving the drama of a decisive finish or an improbable comeback. We analyze and critique finishes for days after fights. Was it an early stoppage? Were there more than a few strikes to the back of the head? Was the downed fighter given adequate opportunity to defend himself? This is the professional reality of an MMA referee: a thankless role that’s only ever acknowledged in the negative.

Complaining about officiating is a hallmark of sports fandom, exacerbated by endless slow-motion replays and a controversy-hungry, obsessive sports culture. In that sense, MMA referees share a kinship with officials in all other sports--we bemoan the NBA refs who fall for flops and question an umpire’s liberal strike zone; we even endured a collective national meltdown during last year’s NFL replacement referee debacle. But the pressures and responsibility of these officials pale in comparison to those of Mario Yamasaki, Herb Dean, and co., who are charged not only with enforcing rules in the middle of a fist fight but, more importantly, with preventing career- or even life-threatening injury. It’s their job to save men and women with limited instincts toward self-preservation from themselves.