Posted 12/29/2011 by admin in Michelle in Charge

Fighter Safety

by Michelle D. Drake, special guest contributor, December 29th, 2011

Greetings and welcome to this edition of Michelle’s musings, a.k.a. “Michelle in Charge!” In this article I’m going to speak of the fighters’ safety and how we, as referees, do our best to ensure it. Now, the novice Mixed Martial Arts spectator might think of this as the world’s biggest oxymoron. “How in the heck does a sport that allows brutal punches, kicks to the head, bloody noses, not to mention, gashes on the face, claim it even has any sort of fighter safety in mind?” This is the type of question said novice might be inclined to ask.  But the educated, experienced MMA fan knows there are rules and guidelines set in place to keep each fighter as safe as possible. It is our job as referees to ensure each fighter adheres to every rule and when they don’t, we step in and make it right.

To sit here and go over each and every rule in place to keep the fighters safe, would be a waste of your time and quite frankly, I just don’t want to type it all out! But I will say this, you can find all the rules plus all you’ve ever wanted to know about the legalities and specifics of all things MMA on the ABC (Association of Boxing Commissions) website ( Let me assure you, as a MMA referee, we’ve been tested on these rules in our respective certification course(s) and know them backwards, frontward, sideways and any other direction you can imagine. We’ve also had our knowledge tested in the cage, during a fight and the lucky ones have been tested several times!  Suffice to say, when a rule has been broken by a fighter, it is up to the ref to step in, assess the situation and apply a foul when warranted or in extreme cases, ‘call’ (or stop) the fight.

Before any fight, there’s a rules meeting. The (head) referee addresses all of the fighters, their corner people and inspectors and goes over each and every rule as outlined in the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts. We also discuss many possible scenarios which might become an issue that night, such as the canvas might be slippery in that particular venue, ice buckets, seconds’* placement, etc. After we’re done going over the rules, we’ll go around and speak to each fighter that we’re assigned to that night individually and discuss any concerns they may have. I’ve been told things like, “Hey ref, if I’m caught in an arm-bar, don’t stop the fight ‘cuz I’m hyper-flexible.” The fighter will then proceed to show me his bowed arm… leaving me quite queasy! I’ve also been asked by a fighter to call the fight as soon as he gets hit because he was super sick for the week before and really didn’t want to be there that night. I’ve heard it all… well, almost!  So when that fighter steps into the cage, I already know what’s going on with him/her and when and if he’ll/she’ll tap or needs my intervention. All of this backstage information we referees receive, the fans not to mention the commentators (…another article for another time!) aren’t privileged to. So in those instances when it looks as if the ref should step in to save the fighter’s arm or conversely in those instances when it looks as if the ref stepped in too early, our decisions are based on complete information. Simply put, we do all things with the fighters’ safety in mind.

I think it’s important at this time to address ‘calling’ (or stopping) a fight. For the most part, ‘calling’ a fight due to an injury that the doctor and/or referee deems significant is not a fan-approved act. Here’s the deal; we don’t care! Despite what fans may think, we refs don’t care if you like us or approve of our calls. We’re not here for you.  (That being said, of course we appreciate the kind words and support but it’s not what we’re worried about.) We’re not here to make sure you see a good fight, that’s the fighters’ job! We’re also not here for the promoter, the state’s executive directors, the cameras or to score chicks (in my case, dudes). The main purpose for our presence in the cage, is solely to enforce the rules for the purpose of ensuring the fighters’ safety. If a fighter is in trouble and we think his/her overall safety is in jeopardy, we will step in and call the fight. This also applies to calling in the doctor to assess an injury and see if that fighter can continue. Furthermore, the point at which to stop a fight due to a Knock Out or Technical Knock Out is crucial as a referee to recognize. A KO is pretty simple and straight-forward to call, but a TKO is a little more tricky and there’s some wriggle room at times as to a pre-mature or over-due stoppage. A referee must be able recognize when the fighter can no longer intelligently defend himself and step in to stop the fight. A solid, well-timed stoppage where the fighter doesn’t sustain permanent damage is imperative to that fighter’s continued success in MMA and life in general.

One thing I wish everyone would keep in mind is this: As the third “man” in the cage, we have a vantage point that no one in the venue has. We are literally right there, up close and personal with the action. We can, and do, see things even the closest camera or spectator isn’t able to see. With our training, the ability to recognize a fighter in jeopardy and vantage point, we have a pretty good grasp as to what’s going on and when to step in and help out an injured fighter.

Believe it or not, we do know what we’re doing!

*second: Helpers who assist fighters with treatment of injuries and offer advice after each round. They are only allowed to enter the ring at the end of a round, and normally sit on the outside of the ring by their fighter’s corner. They cannot coach fighters during the contest. (