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Dear Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission: your referees are not up to snuff.
Spurious commentary and irritating chatter are not in a referee’s job description, but you would not have known it on Sunday. Referee Chip Snider, bursting with all kinds of information, would not shut up during the fights to which he was assigned. Overall, the UFC Live 4 event had a level of refereeing that looked like something from 2005 instead of the evolved officiating we expect today.
A referee has a specific set of responsibilities, and these include verbal warnings to remind fighters of the rules, as well as the occasional reminder to pick up the action during an exceptionally slow fight or to warn of an impending standup. The latter two responsibilities are often where a referee shows how much he or she knows or does not know about MMA -- the ebb and flow of a fight are entirely up to a referee’s discretion in terms of whether that makes palatable action. For the most part, inexperienced refs tend to be excessively involved.
In addition to constantly badgering Tyson Griffin and Manny Gamburyan during their bout, Snider failed to open his mouth during the one opportunity he had to enforce the rules, as he let Charles “do Bronx” Oliveira get away with booming illegal knee on a clearly downed Nik Lentz. It was so blatant, the crowd booed immediately, but Snider apparently missed it, even though he was positioned to call it for the foul that it was.
Referees make mistakes, but when they make mistakes and follow that with the kind of showing Snider had in Griffin-Gamburyan, it becomes obvious the Pennsylvania commission has some work to do in telling refs why they are in the cage. It is not to badger and harass fighters every few seconds, nor offer informal commentary, both of which Snider did incessantly through the three-round bout.
Here are some examples, with my observations, where appropriate:
• In the first round, as the duo are tied up against the cage ...
Snider: Let’s throw some leather!
Me: Are takedowns OK, too?
• At the beginning of the second round ...
Snider: Come on! Let’s do it again.
Me: No kidding. They’re going to fight beyond a round? A genius observation, sir.
• With 4:35 left in the second round ...
Snider: Come on boys. Let’s get it going. Let’s get some action.
• Later in the second round, when Gamburyan lands a punch ...
Snider: There you go. That’s what I want to see. Come on.
Me: Who asked what tactics you want to see?
• With 3:10 left, Gamburyan misses a shot ...
Snider: That a way. Keep doing that. Keep fighting like that.
Me: Are you Gamburyan’s father?
Late in the second round, after the two re-engaged following a break for a marginal blow by Griffin, they walked toward one another. About three seconds after they had gotten in range, Snider snapped: “Come on. More action!” You can deal with this when you are sitting in front of a clueless fan in the rows behind you. It is another thing entirely when it is the person in charge of the rules. He or she should know better.
Useless prattle from a referee is bad on multiple levels, and in outlier MMA states -- meaning not in Nevada or California -- it is a growing problem.
First, it creates a distracting soundtrack for the viewer. Second, since the referee has huge influence on a bout, it is a subtle implication that he or she wants certain things to happen, and when that goes beyond a simple, well-deserved “let’s pick it up,” the referee is delving into territory where he or she does not belong. If two fighters want to circle each other and have a feeling-out process, that is entirely their right.
This is not a Toughman competition with one-minute rounds and a crowd comprised of clueless, hard-to-please Philistines, demanding home-run swings and egregious violence by the truckload. It is called mixed martial arts. If people are going to get their panties in a bunch because fighters actually spend a minute or more on the ground, too bad -- they can move on to another sport.
If a fighter needs 30 seconds or more to circle and adjust to dial in a strike, pass guard, set up clinch or a shot, who the hell is the referee to demand he step it up? The audience was not booing Griffin-Gamburyan, and while I applaud refs who do not respond immediately to crowd disfavor by forcing standups, it is especially discomfiting to see a referee that is fussier than the crowd. Talk about a Bizarro universe.
Snider’s commentary was bush league and bad for the sport. Fighters have enough to deal with when fans deride them for being “boring,” even though that is often what wins. Often, out-of-shape Monday-morning quarterbacks dissect game plans they themselves could not execute against a Girl Scout.
When the ref is hassling fighters, that is 10 kinds of stupid, and there is no excuse for it. The referee is not there to provide editorial content on what he wants to see, nor constantly ride guys. He is there to enforce the rules and keep the audience from seeing fights that put them to sleep.
If Snider had called the illegal knee on Lentz in the previous fight, perhaps this would not bother me so much, but he did miss the one call he needed to make and offered plenty of observations nobody needed to hear.
Further along on that note, referee Mark Matheny, usually a competent official, was overly zealous with standups in two bouts: Matt Mitrione’s knockout of Christian Morecraft and Charlie Brenneman’s decision over Rick Story. In both cases, the standup negatively affected the losing fighter’s effort.
In the second round of Mitrione-Morecraft, with Mitrione picking apart Morecraft on the feet, Morecraft secured a much-needed takedown with 1:59 left, dumping Mitrione on his back next to the cage. Ten seconds later, Matheny warned them he would restart them on their feet if he did not see action. After 40 seconds on the ground, and with Morecraft finally starting to punch -- he landed six consecutive shots while Mitrione clutched the back of his head -- Matheny stood them up. That was precisely when Morecraft was starting to work. Mitrione, back on his feet and clearly the better standup fighter, proceeded to drill Morecraft senseless moments later.
In the co-main event, Brenneman dominated the wrestling through the first two rounds, but in the third, finally tiring, he found himself turtled up, with Story trying to take his back and working on an arm. The two men hung there, locked in a classic jiu-jitsu position of one man vying to improve his position to sink in a submission and the other doggedly resisting it.
That apparently did not register with Matheny. With 3:30 left in the final round and Story in the most advantageous position he had seen, Matheny interjected: “Come on, show me something better than this.” And then, he stood them up. Well, Story might have shown Matheny something -- one is called an armbar, the other is a kimura -- but he never got the chance.
Both standups were especially galling given the context of the style matchup of the fighters involved. Morecraft needed a rough, grinding-style ground fight, and Story clearly needed a submission or knockout to win. Neither of those registered.
Pennsylvania needs additional training for its referees, and, perhaps, a Night of the Long Knives on its existing list of those cleared to work big shows. It can also go ahead and not do anything, which ensures we will be filing an updated version of this column next time a televised show is held there. You can’t fix stupid.
Jason Probst can be reached at Jason@jasonprobst.com or twitter.com/jasonprobst.