A few weeks ago, the Ultimate Fighting Championship made its first trip to Russia, holding a card at the Olympic Stadium in Moscow. It was a solidly entertaining night of prize fights with some relevant matchups in the heavier weight classes, but the most newsworthy moment took place during one of the preliminary bouts on the undercard. Veteran middleweight C.B. Dollaway, facing the debuting Khalid Murtazaliev, fell victim to one of the more inappropriately late stoppages by a referee in recent memory.
This type of thing does tend to happen — and probably less so on the big stage than it used to — but what stood out this time was just how extreme everything was around referee Herb Dean’s inaction. The unanswered pounding that Dollaway took on the floor was so excessive that the fight could have reasonably been stopped 20 to 60 seconds before it was, and even then, Dean only waved off the fight because Dollaway couldn’t get up at the end of the round. More horrifying still was that not only did the announcers start demanding a stoppage on the air, but one of them, Dan Hardy, audibly took off his headset to ask Dean what he was doing.
Nine days later, Dollaway told Shaun Al-Shatti of MMAFighting.com“[referees are] there to protect us, and I don’t know what was going on, but I don’t feel like I got protected.” Recourse for a fighter who believes he or she was done wrong by an official is limited; there’s not much that can be done beyond requesting that the regulatory body overseeing the card not assign the same person to their fights in the future. (The Moscow card was regulated by a partnership between the UFC’s in-house regulatory arm for foreign events and various local officials, including the Russian Federation of Mixed Martial Arts.)
More generally, whenever a particularly egregious beating takes place in a major promotion fight, complaints are usually raised about two parties:
- The referee — but of course. In the case of Dean, the man once widely proclaimed as the best in the business has had some of the more egregious late stoppages and non-stoppages in major league MMA in recent years. Perhaps most infamously, there was last year’s network TV fight between Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone and Jorge Masvidal. At the end of the first round, Masvidal scored a knockdown and followed up, leaving Cerrone splayed out with his arms at his sides, clearly unresponsive. Dean stepped in before the horn, seemingly ending the fight, only to tell everyone that he just ended the round. (Dean didn’t respond to an interview request sent through his website.)
- The slain fighter’s corner. Like in boxing, a fighter’s coaches can stop the fight without any input from said fighter. While not common in boxing per se, it happens enough to be a commonly accepted practice. In MMA, though, it’s rare: So rare, that you can count the notable examples in major league MMA on three fingers: 1) Georges St-Pierre vs. B.J. Penn at UFC 94 in January 2009; 2) Douglas Lima vs. Rick Hawn at Bellator 117 in April 2014; and 3) Kelvin Gastelum vs. Nate Marquardt 14 months later at UFC 188. (A fight on Fox between Nate Diaz and Josh Thomson is often cited, too, as Diaz’s brother Nick threw in the towel, but it happened simultaneously with referee Mike Beltran stopping the bout on his own.)
That there are only four corner stoppages that anyone can remember in MMA begs an obvious question: Just why is it so rare?
“Mainly that you’ve got show money and win money,” explains coach Trevor Wittman, referring to MMA’s pay structure being based mainly around win bonuses doubling fighters’ purses. “I feel like coaches fear stopping the fight when there’s the extra money on the line; in boxing, you get paid — whether you win or lose — the same amount. And so, a lot more fights in boxing get stopped [by corners] compared to MMA fights.” He also notes that, relatively speaking, there aren’t that many notable MMA head coaches from boxing backgrounds as opposed to wrestling, jiu jitsu and Muay Thai backgrounds. In other words, they’re less likely to come from a culture where the option was ingrained in their mind. Another issue he cites, less causative but still potentially a factor, is that the officials assigned to MMA fights aren’t necessarily even familiar with the procedures for the corner to be able to stop a fight.
“When I tried to stop the fight for Nate [at UFC 188], they told me I couldn’t,” Wittman recalls. The audio track for the coaches positioned at the blue corner for that card, available on the UFC’s Fight Pass streaming service, confirms Wittman’s story. After eating a flurry of body punches and two knees to the head, Marquardt slowly crumpled against the fence. With referee Dan Miragliotta letting it go, Wittman can be heard springing to action with about three minutes left to go in the second round, yelling “Stop the fight!” five times before the inspector assigned to their corner says, “I can’t.” While some commissions — UFC self-regulated events included, according to its VP of Regulatory Affairs — discourage literally throwing in the towel, involving the inspector is supposed to be one of the standard procedures a coach invokes in lieu of the grander symbolic gesture.
After Wittman disappeared from the audio for a moment — he recalls leaving his post to try to find the doctor to no avail — he returned by alternating between lamenting the situation and yelling out instructions to Marquardt. Finally, when the round ended, he demanded a stoppage when Marquardt said, “I have nothing left” in the corner, although even then, the official verdict was a doctor stoppage. At the same time that, on the broadcast, color commentator Joe Rogan — unaware of what had happened for the previous three minutes — praised Wittman, the coach apologized half a dozen times to his fighter for throwing in the towel. Marquardt, however, only just having reunited with Wittman, was thankful for the gesture, and continued the relationship for three more years before his 2017 retirement.
Not every fighter is grateful, though.
“I stopped a fight with Verno Phillips against Paul Williams, and we never talked again after that fight,” recalls Wittman, pointing to a 2008 boxing match where he cornered Phillips. “I was with Verno for 15 years and two world titles, and I stopped it in the eighth round. There’s always a chance you’re gonna lose a relationship with someone when you do that.”
When Douglas Lima won Bellator MMA’s vacant welterweight title by inducing Rick Hawn’s corner to stop their 2014 fight, a bit of dumb luck was involved. Lima, who had been brutalizing Hawn with low kicks for several minutes, backed Hawn up into his own corner before dropping him. Referee Rob Hinds, in perfect position, asked the corner if they wanted to stop the fight and told them to throw in the towel if they felt the need to stop it. Head coach Firas Zahabi, however, stepped on the edge of the cage to wave it off.
“Luckily, that’s where Rick was in the cage, and I was actually facing the corner, so it was an easy process for him to get up, kind of wave me off and that was it,” Hinds says. “It’s an interesting thing that corner people have a responsibility to the fighters and referees have a responsibility to the fighters, because, realistically, everybody plays that game differently. Some coaches will let their fighters go out on their shield, and some will be a little more cautious. Maybe they know about an injury that the fighter had coming into the fight. They know more about the fighters than anybody other than the fighters themselves. As referees, however, we’re looking for a specific thing, so it’s a little more cut-and-dry for us.”
Wittman now coaches just three fighters, all in the UFC — strawweight champion Rose Namajunas, lightweight contender Justin Gaethje and rising bantamweight Matt Lopez — when he’s not running ONX, a combat sports equipment company. Having such a one-on-one relationship isn’t a constant for many MMA fighters, as the sport favors a team model, but for Wittman, it puts him more in sync with his fighters. That means that, in a tricky situation, he may be better equipped to making a tough decision than a coach at a “superteam” might. “I decided to go back to how I was doing it in the boxing world,” he says. “When I was coaching boxers, I did everything with them. I’d run up the hills; I was able to give them my full time. I feel like that’s a benefit to the athlete by giving them the value they deserve. I know exactly what injuries they have; that was a pet peeve of mine when you involve too many coaches.”
On the refereeing side, Hinds, who teaches one of the few MMA officiating courses certified by the Association of Boxing Commissions and Combative Sports, didn’t want to address criticisms of any specific referees. He was, however, willing to answer general questions, including one that does get to the heart of many refereeing issues: What should a learned referee, one who is clearly not lacking for knowledge of the rules, do if they find themselves indecisive or wilting in certain situations during major events?
After all, Herb Dean, for all of his recent gaffes, runs an accredited program, as does the notably error-prone Jerin Valel. Any referee in any kind of demand is going to know what they’re doing. But what does a referee — again, any referee — do when they realize that knowing isn’t enough?
“Evaluate what’s happening at the time, don’t worry if it’s a certain organization or a certain fighter, assess what’s in front of you at that time and make the appropriate decision,” explains Hinds, speaking generally. “It’s easier said than done, but that’s the course of action that should be taken. Now, should you make a mistake — and this is the hard part, because there’s no body that evaluates and holds officials accountable — look at what you’ve done, stand up to it, recognize it, make adjustments and don’t do it again. Make sure that situation doesn’t happen again.
“Self-evaluation for people, even for people who say they have thick skin? It’s not true. People say they have thick skin, but then, when they have to self-evaluate, they’re not honest with themselves. Like who says, ‘You know what? I’m not at this level. I’m going to continue to do regional shows, amateurs or whatever until I get this down.’ No one, that’s who.”