MMA referee screw ups happen from time to time. After all, referees are human. Even the most seasoned and trusted refs make bad decisions. But stupid MMA ref calls can be costly, and while there aren't any genuinely stupid MMA refs at the top level of the sport, everyone makes mistakes. A bad call can mean the difference between a champion and a loser. An early stoppage might give an undeserving fighter a win. Missing an illegal blow can cause injury. A late stoppage can leave a fighter unconscious for too long, which can lead to brain damage or worse (death, duh).
MMA referees do more than just raise the winner’s hand at the end of a fight; they're responsible for the safety of the fighters. Some mistakes are worse than others, but even the slightest oversight can have a huge impact on a fighter’s health and on career. The worst decisions by MMA referees have had serious consequences. Buckle in for the worst MMA ref calls.
Anthony Johnson Vs. Kevin Burns: Referee Steve Mazzagatti
When: July 19, 2008
Where: Las Vegas, NV
The Call: The fight between Anthony Johnson and Kevin Burns at UFC Fight Night 14 ended in pain, controversy, and a lot of boos from the crowd. Burns threw several left palm strikes, poking Johnson’s eyes. Referee Steve Mazzagatti warned Burns about unintentional eye pokes, but they kept coming. In the third round, Burns landed a finger poke in Johnson’s right eye so hard the fight was stopped.
Plot twist: instead of disqualifying Burns, Mazzagatti gave Burns the TKO win. Johnson later told MMA Weekly “My retina was damaged, possibly detached, and the laceration was pretty long. It was basically from one end of my eye to the other. They did laser surgery that took about two hours, put some stitches on it basically."
Pat Curran Vs. Joe Warren: Referee Jeff Malott
When: March 9, 2012
Where: Hammond, IN
The Call: Pat Curran fought Joe Warren for the featherweight belt at Bellator 60. In the third round, Curran swarmed Warren with a barrage of punches and knees. Warren was clearly out on his feet, but ref Jeff Malott didn’t stop the fight. He allowed Warren to endure the beating for another 30 seconds. After a huge right uppercut, Warren crumpled to the mat, and only then did Malott wave off the fight. Warren was suspended for 90 days so he could recover, given the severity of the beating.
Sheila Bird Vs. Kim Couture: Referee Len Koivisto
When: June 8, 2011
Where: Calgary, Alberta, Canada
The Call: Sheila Bird and Kim Couture were slated for the co-main event at AX Combat 1 in Calgary in 2011. In the first round, Bird locked Couture in a tight leg scissor choke. Referee Len Koivisto watched as Couture went limp, calling the fight a full 10 seconds after she lost consciousness. The Calgary Combative Sports Commission investigated the decision and found no fault in Koivisto's actions. It was later uncovered Koivisto had taken, and failed, a course offered by John McCarthy, a well-respected veteran MMA ref.
Chris Weidman Vs. Mark Munoz: Referee Josh Rosenthal
When: June 11, 2012
Where: San Jose, CA
The Call: Middleweights Mark Munoz and Chris Weidman headlined UFC on Fuel TV 4. In the second round of the fight, Munoz walked right into a big elbow, which knocked him to the mat. Weidman got his back. Unable to defend himself, Munoz absorbed 17 hard right hands to the head and was bleeding all over the mat before ref Josh Rosenthal finally waved off the fight.