By Damon Martin, MMAWeekly
Much has been said recently about fight stoppages that are either too quick or not soon enough and the recipient of the majority of the blame falls directly at the feet of the referee. Refereeing as a whole, whether the sport be mixed martial arts, boxing, football or whatever, is possibly the most thankless job in all of professional athletics. Recently, many of the referees in mixed martial arts have come under heat from fans and critics for the decisions they make, and very rarely to they receive much praise for this extremely difficult job.

The sport of mixed martial arts as a whole is still very much evolving. From the early days of the UFC when fights would go on until literally one man couldn’t take anymore to now where state athletic commissions like Nevada and New Jersey have put rules in place to protect the fighters and sanction these rules that the referees governing the match have to enforce.

For a sport that is only still in it’s infancy, the referees who are in charge of the fights haven’t had the years of watching and learning their trade like referees or umpires in some of the major sports. But for all the criticism that the mixed martial arts referee receives, it is they who protect the fighters from harm and are placed with the supreme power to decide when enough is enough in any fight.

One of the most controversial referee stoppages in MMA was in 2003 in a fight between Phil Baroni and Evan Tanner. Referee Larry Landless, who hasn’t been seen in the UFC for quite some time, was on top of the action as Evan Tanner gained a very dominant position on Baroni and started to reign down elbows. Baroni kept his composure for the most part, blocking most of the shots that Tanner was throwing. Landless could be heard asking Baroni if he wanted out, and through the muffled words being spoken, apparently Landless heard “yes” and stopped the fight and declared Tanner the winner.

Baroni was enraged by the stoppage and even went as far as to swing at Landless, an act that would give the “New York Badass” a lengthy suspension. Although through numerous replays it was hard to tell if any words were said by Baroni that led the referee to believe he was giving up, he was definitely in a very tough position with Tanner on top throwing some very heavy elbow and forearm shots.

One stoppage that garnered referee Herb Dean instant criticism and then adoring praise was his decision in the UFC Heavyweight title fight between Tim Sylvia and Frank Mir. As the fight quickly went to the ground, Mir was able to kick up on his larger opponent and secure a tight armbar from his guard. Sylvia instantly recognized the danger he was in and tried to pull out, but in the fray Mir turned his hips even further causing Sylvia’s arm to snap in two places. Still, Sylvia did not give up but referee Herb Dean came rushing in calling a stop to the fight.

Sylvia was instantaneous with his protests and the commentators at cage side were quick to point out that the Miletich trained Sylvia didn’t tapout. As the instant replay was shown a closer angle displayed Mir pushing against Sylvia’s arm and two succinct breaks that clearly showed the broken arm. As the cameras moved around the octagon, Sylvia’s arm was clearly swelling up and the fight was officially stopped and Frank Mir was declared the champion.

Referee Herb Dean was attacked almost instantly for his stoppage in the fight but after numerous replays that clearly showed Sylvia’s arm being snapped, Dean was vindicated. After the fight ended and Sylvia was able to realize the extent of the injury that he has just sustained, and thanked the referee for helping to save his career because if the fight had continued, there was a definite possibility that the injury could have been so severe, Sylvia may have never fought again.

A recent fight that comes to mind when referee’s decisions come under question was in a match-up between “Ultimate Fighter” season 1 participant, Nate “The Rock” Quarry and his opponent, Pete “Drago” Sell. World renowned boxing referee and often UFC judge, Cecil Peoples was in charge of the action and only seconds into the fight, Quarry landed a very solid shot to Sell that dropped him to the ground. Quarry was quick to jump on his downed opponent and landed one more shot and Peoples was fast in stepping in to stop the fight.

At the same time as Quarry was about to fire off another shot and Peoples was stepping in to stop the fight, Pete Sell, a student of Matt Serra’s jiu-jitsu, seemed to be trying to pull guard and appeared to be protecting himself. Quarry pulled away from his downed opponent and Sell quickly jumped up and protested the stoppage. It was a very tough call to make but the referees in the octagon have to make the call the way they see it and Cecil Peoples was doing nothing more than trying to protect the fighters.

The staple to refereeing in mixed martial arts has always been “Big” John McCarthy, who has been with the UFC pretty much from the beginning. He was around when there were virtually no rules to now where the UFC is a sanctioned sporting event. McCarthy has been involved as a referee in almost every major title fight or main event in the UFC and has rarely been critiqued for his decisions.

McCarthy, who along with Nelson “Doc” Hamilton, founded MMARefs, who offer instructional seminars and teach those who want to learn the art of refereeing in full contact sports. McCarthy is definitely the measuring stick by which all professional referees are judged. No one is infallible, but McCarthy’s decisions have rarely been questioned and he continues to prove why he is the best in the business with each fight that he is in charge of the referee duties.

One aspect that hasn’t been touched on very much are the referees in Pride, who have been up and down with their decisions as well. Many people feel that the referees in Pride allow the action to go on too long and potentially endanger the safety of the fighters. Many fights in Pride have shown some very questionable judgment in regards to the referees and the amount of punishment that they will allow. But to the contrary of that are the fights that the referees allow to go on and the fighter that seems out is able to recover and comeback to win.

A recent fight between UFC and Pride veteran Ken Shamrock and Pride superstar, Kazushi Sakuraba, came under heavy fire for the stoppage that occurred. Sakuraba landed a very solid shot and Shamrock turned and fell against the ropes. As Sakuraba came in to try to finish his opponent, the referee jumped in very quickly and called a stop to the action. Shamrock did look dazed by the shot and landed with his head between the ropes and out of the ring, but did regain his composure fairly quickly as well. Again, the downed fighter was quick to protest and this time Shamrock did file a protest for the stoppage, although it is highly unlikely that anything will come of it.

Referees in mixed martial arts have a clear cut responsibility and that is to keep the action legal and within the rules and also protect the fighters at all times and keep anyone from being seriously injured. Very rarely do the referees receive accolades for their great work and it is often when they are criticized for what others may call a questionable decision. In a full contact sport that moves very quickly it is hard to truly be mistake free, but the referees of mixed martial arts definitely have one of the toughest jobs in the entire industry.