Mixed martial arts has grown in scale in every single aspect. With more eyes on the sport, comes more exposure and more criticism. One area in particular that has been directly affected by this is the role of referees. With the nature of the role of an official in any sport, there is always conflicting opinions to their actions. With there not being many referees at the top level in MMA, the ones that are getting put in the spotlight are criticised for their decisions publicly. Add to that the increased stakes and emotions that come with refereeing a fight compared to a football game and it’s easy to see how referees can be put into a “damned if they do, damned if they don’t” place which referee Marc Goddard has spoken about. To find out more on what it’s like to be in the shoes of the third man in the cage, I spoke to one of the top referees in the sport, Leon Roberts.
Like many of the referees who have reached the level and longevity that he has, Leon never intended to be a referee. Instead, in 2002 when he was part of a team centring around former UFC fighter and UK MMA pioneer, Mark “The Wizard” Weir, Roberts was asked to referee a show due to his knowledge of the sport. In his words: “It was only meant to be a one-time thing and 17 years later I am still reffing.” Since then, along with Marc Goddard, he has become one of the most well-known referees in MMA, especially in the UK. Roberts is rarely, if at all, in the firing line when it comes to criticism and as an official that means you’re doing your job right. Not to mention being a referee isn’t even his full-time job, he also works as a Programme Officer with the Youth Support Team and has done so for almost 20 years.
“It was only meant to be a one-time thing”
As I said previously, referees are more directly criticised now more than ever and Leon agreed with me. He relayed back to me that as the sport grows, there is more of a focus put on officiating especially with MMA being put shoulder to shoulder with the biggest sports in the world. “Everyone who watches any sport has the right to have an opinion, sadly though a lot of people who tend not to move from the comfort of their armchairs and have never taken part in any form of combat sports all of sudden think they are experts and like to critique, criticise, comment and scrutinise officials.” Despite this, Leon tells me that this new spotlight does not add any pressure onto the shoulders of an official, their only concern is with the fighters.
The part that interests me the most is that if officials are to be met with more open criticism surely, they should also have the platform to explain themselves. Leon and I spoke about the few examples of this that there are, such as Big John McCarthy becoming a commentator for Bellator or Marc Goddard and Dan Hardy’s “Listen!” podcast. Leon praised Big John for taking this step calling his voice “essential” in getting the officials point across. He said the same thing about Marc Goddard having a podcast platform and how through Marc’s experience and expertise he gives officials a voice. “His new podcast with Dan Hardy provides a great platform for him to explain the intricacies of how a referee in MMA operates.”
One of the reasons these referees having a platform is so important is otherwise we don’t hear their take on it and often they’re the only ones who know exactly what happened. When watching a live event, it is the commentators who have the role of explaining what they see to the viewers. This can create confusion where the official sees and calls one thing and the commentators do not see eye to eye. “Unfortunately, even at the highest levels we have commentators who are quick to comment on our performance but do not fully understand what we have done and why and they never come to us for an explanation, they just assume, and their comments can cause us a lot of grief and unwanted attention. People like Joe Rogan are hugely influential in this sport and when he says something the majority of fans will simply agree just because it’s him, which again can and does cause us grief.” Leon added that though the commentators can cause grief and unwanted attention, they can also positively praise the officials and expand on their decisions. In particular, he praised Dan Hardy for his approach to commentary regarding officials. “He has been a fighter, he is a coach and therefore comments on both these areas when he is commentating as he clearly has a great depth of knowledge and experience. He hasn’t ever refereed so isn’t quick to critique or scrutinise a ref’s actions as he has faith that we know best as we are in there doing the role, it’s a type of respectful professional courtesy. Imagine if several refs took to social media criticising the commentary team, it would be not acceptable, but by the nature of their role they feel they have the right to scrutinise and critique us.”
“It’s a type of respectful professional courtesy”
The one thing our exchanges always came back to was the need for the official’s voice to be heard. This would give their actions more clarity and understanding when looking back at a fight. However, as Leon pointed out to me, this voice needs to come from the right person at the right time otherwise the clarity is lost once again. “Many athletic commissions in the US will stipulate that their officials cannot address the media or social media platforms in relation to a fight or promotion that they have been involved in which leads to one voice and one statement being issued in a professional manner.” As MMA takes stride after stride towards becoming one of the biggest sports around, the professionalism of all aspects also improves. If this is the case, shouldn’t referees and even judges, be given a platform to explain their decisions and shed potentially new light on the fights themselves, especially when they are met with such public scrutiny.
When asking Leon if there’s a moment in his career that stands out he mentions a number of firsts. His first fight he refereed, the first televised fight, the first UFC fight, the first UFC main event etc. but instead referred to this: “What I will say is sharing the cage with 2 professional well trained athletes and see up close and personal their skill levels, ability and above all heart is a very humbling and personal experience.”