As if mixed martial arts wasn’t a tough enough sport as it is, there’s always the chance that a fighter will be on the receiving end of a monumental screwjob from either the referee or the judges. There are few sports as lax in the enforcement of rules as MMA. The rules set was ported from boxing with little attention payed to the difference between the sports, and as a result there’s all sorts of strange grey areas that effectively allow a less than scrupulous fighter to foul their opponent multiple times without being punished.
That’s because the only options a ref has is to warn a fighter or take a point from them. Since most MMA fights are three rounds worth a point each to the dominant fighter, taking a single point drastically changes the entire outcome of the fight, making it nearly impossible for a fighter who loses a point to win on the scorecards. So instead, we have referees refusing to do anything about flagrant kicks to the groin, pokes to the eye, grabbing of the fence, and a variety of other lawless behavior.
Here’s some of the worst outcomes due to this policy of inaction.
Holly Holm vs Germaine De Randamie
The most recent example we have, and a perfect example of how a seemingly obvious rule – you’re not allowed to hit your opponent after the bell – gets twisted to the point where it isn’t enforced. Following the second round of their inaugural women’s featherweight title fight, De Randamie threw a mean combo at the end of the round that knocked Holm’s mouthpiece out and left her staggering to her corner on rubber legs. The problem? Half of the shots came after the horn to end the round had sounded.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the same thing happened at the end of the third, with De Randamie once again letting fly with a combo that saw half her punches slip through following the horn. The referee warned her after this incident, but no points were taken for either infraction. This ended up being a pretty big deal not just because the first incident knocked Holly senseless. She also ended up losing the fight to Germaine on the scorecards with three 48-47 scores. If the ref had taken away a point, the fight would have been declared a draw. When Holm’s camp filed an appeal with the New York State Athletic Commission, they argued that both fouls deserved point deductions, giving Holm a 47-46 victory and the 145 pound championship belt.
Few think her appeal with the NYSAC will be successful. For one, commissions tend to resist admitting they screwed up, especially in such a way that changed the outcome of a main event title fight. But more importantly, the Unified Rules of MMA are written in such a way that it isn’t quite clear when a fighter should stop fighting. The rules list “Attacking an opponent after the bell has sounded the end of the period of unarmed combat” as a foul, but then goes on to say “Once the referee has made the call of time, any offensive actions initiated by the fighter shall be considered after the bell and illegal.”
So by some interpretations of the rule, it is only a foul if the referee steps in to stop the fight and the fighter continues to attack after then. But since the ref in this case didn’t get inbetween Holm and De Randamie fast enough, De Randamie’s attacks were legal. Pretty ridiculous, huh?
Anthony Johnson vs Kevin Burns
Another area of MMA rules that need improvement is the eye poke department. As we mentioned earlier, MMA rules were poorly ported over from boxing, where they wear giant padded mitts that don’t allow for fingers in the eye. Meanwhile, MMA gloves aren’t just designed with the fingers exposed, the UFC gloves actually pull the hand open and lead to more fighters having their fingers outstretched … the perfect position for eye pokes. What’s worse, there’s no time cooked into the rules so a fighter can recover following a poke. If you get kicked in the junk, you get up to five minutes to catch your breath. Seeing double from a guy going two joints deep into your eye? You better be ready to fight again in 30 seconds, or they’ll stop the fight.
Back in 2008, the now light heavyweight contender Anthony Johnson was a rising welterweight prospect facing Kevin Burns. Burns ended up putting his open hand in Johnson’s eyes four times. Each instance was clearly caught on instant replay, with Kevin’s fingers going deep into Johnson’s eyes. It was so bad that afterwards, Anthony had to have surgery to fix a laceration that went from one end of his eye to the other.
As if that wasn’t awful enough, the fourth eye poke left Johnson writhing on the canvas in pain, and the ref went ahead and ruled the fight a TKO win for Burns! A decision that was upheld by the Nevada State Athletic Commission despite clear evidence of all the eye pokes. But Johnson ended up getting his revenge. The UFC set up a rematch five months later, and Rumble flattened Burns with a head kick knockout in the third round.
Jon Jones vs Matt Hamill
Sometimes it isn’t the calls a referee refuses to make but the ones they do that cause controversy. In 2009, Jon Jones was quickly rising to the top of the light heavyweight division and held a 9-0 unbeaten record … an unbeaten record he would still have today if his fight against Matt Hamill hadn’t been ruled a DQ loss. The fight only lasted four minutes, with Jones hitting Hamill with everything but the kitchen sink.
After knocking Hamill to the ground, Jones followed up with an endless stream of ground and pound to his opponent’s head. But for some reason, the referee refused to stop the fight despite Hamill covering up and being unresponsive. And then Jones threw a 12-6 elbow to Hamill’s head, and suddenly the fight was over. The referee hit Jones with a foul for the illegal strike, and because Hamill could not continue the fight was ruled a DQ loss for Jones.
The 12-6 elbow (named after the position of the elbow coming down in relation to a clock) is another one of those strange rules that has existed since the earliest days of MMA. Commissions saw tae kwon do and karate fighters breaking stacks of bricks and boards with downward elbows and had nightmares imagining one being dropped during a fight and exploding someone’s skull, so it was banned. Of course, it’s no more deadly than any other elbow, and just getting a bit of an angle so your elbow is 11-5 or 1-7 makes it legal.
It’s a dumb rule, and it cost Jon Jones his perfect record. At worst, the fight should have been ruled a no contest. At no point in the fight was Hamill winning, so to award him a win as if he was robbed of victory by this foul is absurd.
Johny Hendricks vs Georges St. Pierre
Even judges can get starstruck, and most fighters know if they’re facing a champion or legend in the sport, they’re really going to have to beat the brakes off their opponent to earn a win via the scorecards. Most recently, we saw this happen in the UFC 208 fight between Anderson Silva and Derek Brunson. Despite outstriking Silva almost 2-1, Brunson still lost a decision to “The Spider” that many consider outrageous. But at least that fight wasn’t for a title like Johny “Big Rig” Hendricks vs Georges St. Pierre back in 2013.
St. Pierre had been on an especially dominant run, having won nearly every round of every fight he’d been in since a fluke loss to Matt Serra back in 2007. So maybe the judges were just so used to giving him 10-9 rounds that Johny Hendrick’s surprise domination of the welterweight champion left them too confused to enter in the right scores. Hendricks battered GSP with hard elbows and even managed to take the typically unrelenting St. Pierre down where he inflicted even more damage from on top. Georges left the cage black and blue while Hendricks was unscathed. Regardless, the judges awarded Georges the split decision win, with two judges giving him 48-47 scores over the one judge who gave the fight to Hendricks 48-47.
The fight is even more controversial because Georges declared his intention to leave the sport immediately following the fight, denying Hendricks the chance for a rematch. Hendricks still believes he has GSP’s number, and is currently angling for another fight now that the Canadian legend is returning to the Octagon.
Demetrious Johnson vs. Ian McCall
When the UFC decided to create a flyweight division, they did so by holding a tournament with all the best 125 pounders in the company. At the end of the brackets, Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson and Ian McCall faced off for the inaugural flyweight title fight. The two went to war in a close match that was considered one of the best of the year, and at the end of three rounds Johnson was declared the winner via majority decision.
But it turned out that there was a screw up when counting the scores, and the fight should have actually been determined a draw. Normally draws are somewhat disappointing but due to special tournament rules, a draw in this fight would have led to a sudden victory round between Johnson and McCall. But by the time the error was realized, the fight had already been called and the screw up cost fans and the sport an exciting fourth round in a fight that was already considered legendary.