It’s not easy being an MMA referee.
When the cage door closes it must be a lonely place knowing that they are the only person standing between two fired-up fighters ready to go to war.
The two fighters safety is always a referee’s primary concern during a fight, but as you’ll see in this article, all it takes is for one angry, adrenaline-fueled combatant to disagree with a call they make in the cage and suddenly it’s their own safety that’s in jeopardy.
That’s led to some nasty incidents over the years, though don’t be fooled – just because referees aren’t wearing gloves and a mouthpiece doesn’t mean they can’t fight, and you might be surprised to see how many of them can more than hold their own when it’s time to restore order in the Octagon!
Atilla Kubilay became an instant villain in the sport after his appaling behavior both before and during his fight with Richard Bowkett at Cage Rage 11 in 2005.
As UK referee Grant Waterman brought the two fighters together in the center of the cage to receive their final instructions prior to the fight, Kubilay suddenly punched his opponent square in the face.
That should have been an instant disqualification, but he was extremely fortunate that Bowkett was still able to continue, and that officials decided that the fight could go ahead.
Despite being warned about his behavior, Kubilay hadn’t learned his lesson, and early in the first round he began landing illegal knees to the head of his downed opponent.
Waterman’s initial attempts to pull Kubilay off Bowkett failed, and so he had to apply a standing rear-naked choke to end the assault, bringing the thug to his knees as other officials rushed in to help him out.
Kubilay only fought one more time before his career came to an abrupt halt.
Quite possibly the craziest fighter ever to compete in MMA, Russia’s own Viacheslav Datsik has had numerous run-ins with referees over the years.
For example, during a Pankration event in Moscow back in 2001, Datsik appeared to grab his opponent, Romazi Korkelia’s testicles during a scramble on the ground, leaving the fighter writhing in pain.
Datsik ignored the referee’s attempts to stop him and continued punching his opponent until the official dragged him off and threw him to the mat.
For some reason the fight was allowed to continue after a stoppage, and justice was served when Korkelia TKO’d him on the mat soon afterwards.
Datsik then claimed he’d been eyepoked and in a rage tried to charge at Korkelia, but the referee managed to stop him by throwing the irate fighter to the mat and restraining him with a forearm choke.
However, Datsik’s most notorious incident occurred at an amateur ‘Fight Club Moscow’ event in which he spent most of the bout showboating with his hands down by his sides, sticking his chin out for his considerably younger, smaller opponent to aim for.
When he was hit Datsik would stagger around the ring in an exaggerated manner as if he was rocked while sporting a big grin on his face, but that play-acting would cost him the fight as the referee eventually got fed up with his antics and declared his opponent the winner.
Datsik reacted furiously, punching the referee in the face. His opponent attempted to defend the official by attacking Datsik, but the official pushed him away and waded in with a punch of his own.
Needless to say Datsik didn’t take too kindly to that and he got the referee in a bodylock, hoisted him off his feet, ran him across the length of the ring before launched him over the ropes.
With all that in mind it’s not surprising that later in life Datsik would spent time in a mental hospital and also served time in prison!
At UFC 45 in November of 2003, ‘The New York Badass’, Phil Baroni reacted violently to what he believed to be an early referee stoppage during his fight with Evan Tanner.
Tanner had come off second best in the early striking exchanges that night, but the tables turned when he managed to take Baroni to the mat and began blasting him with ground and pound punches and elbows late in the round.
At that stage referee Larry Landless asked Baroni if he wanted to quit, but the fighter misheard and though he was asking if wanted to continue, replying ‘Yes’, which led to Landless calling an end to the fight.
Furious at the stoppage, the hot-headed Baroni began yelling at Landless and punched him twice, though the impact was lessened by the fact he was still lying down at the time and so the official wasn’t badly hurt.
Baroni was handed a four-month suspension for hitting the ref, but due to the controversy surrounding the end of the fight a rematch was booked upon his return, with Tanner winning on that occasion by unanimous decision.
Razi ‘The Iranian’ Jabbari already had a bad reputation heading into his fight with Honorio Banario at URCC 3 in the Philippines in 2011, having being involved in a confrontation with an official in the past.
Giving him a second chance would prove to be a big mistake as he caused more trouble after being tapped out due to strikes just 1.35mins into the fight with Banario.
The referee appeared to have made the right call, and indeed it took Jabbari some time to get back to his feet, but after the result was officially announced, the loser lost the plot, squaring up the referee, Joey Lapiten, then pushing him and finally landing a punch that thankfuly only grazed his face.
The referee retaliated, pushing Jabbari into the ropes, which knocked him off his feet.
Then URCC promoter Alvin Aguilar, a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt, jumped into the ring and put Jabbari to sleep with a rear-naked choke!
The incident led to Jabbari having his fighting license revoked and brought an end to his career.
A spur of the moment altercation with referee Kevin Mulhall at UFC Fight Night 42 in 2014 cost Jason High his place on the roster.
High fought future lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos at the event in New Mexico, and was floored him with a left hook in the second round before being finished by ground and pound.
High was frustrated by what he believed to be an early stoppage, not to mention the fact that several of RDA’s hammerfists during the finish appeared to land illegally to the back of his head, and so when he got back to his feet ‘The Kansas City Bandit’ shoved Mulhall away from him.
It wasn’t the most violent incident we’ve ever seen, but despite High issuing a public apology and also privately to Mulhall, Dana White quickly declared that High’s UFC career was over.
”You don’t ever, ever f——- touch a referee, ever,” White told UFC.com. “You’re done here. He’s been apologizing on Twitter, but he’s done.”
Some felt that was overly harsh given the circumstances, but to add to his woes, the New Mexico State Athletic Commission, also hammered High with a one-year suspension from the sport.
UK referee Leon Roberts was unexpectedly given the opportunity to showcase his MMA skills in 2014 when an amateur fight he was officiating between Nathias Frederick and Ahmad Aswad at ‘Fight UK MMA’ spiralled out of control.
With forty seconds of the first round remaining, Frederick hurt his opponent with a right hook, then followed with a left hand bang on the chin that appeared to knock Aswad out cold.
Roberts rushed in to stop the contest, but Frederick ignored his attempts to intervene and continued ruthlessly blasting his unconscious opponent with punches on the mat.
It was an ugly scene and Roberts had no option but to tackle Frederick himself, dragging the fighter off Aswad, taking his back and hooking his legs while sinking in a rear-naked choke, which quickly took the steam out of the fighters sails.
It’s not clear if Frederick was ever punished for his antics that night, but he has since turned professional, posting an 0-2 record, with both losses coming in the first round.
Gilbert Yvel was responsible for one of the most disgraceful assaults on a referee ever seen in the sport during a fight with Atte Backmann at ‘Fight Festival 12’ in 2004.
Yvel was no stranger to trouble by that stage in his career, having been disqualified for biting an opponent in 1998 and again in 2001 when he clung on the ropes and eyepoked Don Frye to avoid being taken down.
Having not learned his lesson from the previous two DQ’s, trouble flared almost instantly in Yvel’s fight with Atte Backmann in Helskini as he repeatedly refused to comply with the referee’s attempts to reset the fighters in the clinch away from the ropes.
Initially Yvel just shrugged the referee aside, but then in a moment of madness he suddenly dropped the official with a brutally swift left hook to the head, then kicked him as he groggily tried to stand back up.
The referee then staggered across the ring on unsteady legs and had to cling onto the ropes to keep himself upright.
Needless to say Yvel was disqualified and he’d go on to have repeated issues getting licensed in some U.S states for several years afterwards due to his deplorable record of bad behaviour.
Veteran referee ‘Big’ John McCarthy is one of the most respected officials in the sport, but it’s safe to say that Roy Nelson is not a fan.
In the week prior to his fight with Antonio Silva at UFC Fight Night 95 in September of this year, Nelson was already making it known that he didn’t appreciate McCarthy’s interference in his previous fight with Derrick Lewis, and said he’d had words with the official backstage on that occasion.
Despite the bad blood between them, McCarthy oversaw his next heavyweight fight with Silva, and on the surface things seemed to be going Nelson’s way as he dropped his opponent with an uppercut and then proceeded to knock him out with a half-dozen more strikes on the ground.
However, rather than celebrating afterwards, Nelson reacted angrily to the fact that McCarthy hadn’t stopped the fight earlier, claiming later that Silva was his friend and so he didn’t want to give him any unnecessary punishment.
As such, while the referee was tending to Silva on the mat, ‘Big Country’ aimed a push kick at his rear-end and then stuck his finger up at him.
Nelson was widely condemned for his actions afterwards, but remained reluctant to admit he was at fault, saying, “I apologize to Big John, but I wouldn’t take it back.”
UFC President Dana White has since branded Nelson’s actions “despicable” and claimed that he “needs to be buried” for getting physical with the referee.
The matter is now in the hands of Brazil’s own Superior Justice Court of MMA, with Nelson currently temporarily suspended for 90 days, while a lengthier ban and fine could potentially follow.
James Thompson’s scrap with Kimbo Slice at Elite XC: Primetime 2008 is mostly remembered for the fact that the UK fighter’s ear exploded early in the third round courtesy of a right hook from Kimbo.
However, that injury didn’t end the fight. It was only after several more blows battered the dazed Thompson against the cage that referee Dan Mirgliotta decided that he couldn’t continue.
Thompson looked on in disbelief at Miragliotta in the aftermath of the fight and proceeded to shove him in the face in frustration at what he believed to have been a premature stoppage.
That could have landed ‘The Colossus’ in big trouble, but both Mirgliotta and the New Jersey State Athletic Commission took pity on the fighter, believing that he hadn’t been in his right mind at the time and didn’t realize he was assaulting an official.
In an unexpected turn of events, the still disgruntled Thompson then let it be known that he had in fact meant to do it.
”In disgust, I kind of shoved him,” Thompson admitted to the FiveOuncesOfPain website. “…For [Miragliotta] to say that he thought I thought he was Kimbo is absolutely ridiculous. I’d rather just get fined if that’s the case. For him to say I thought he was a black man with a beard… it’s insulting, basically.”
’Big’ John McCarthy
Not all clashes between fighters and referees are intentional – such as the time referee ‘Big’ John McCarthy drew blood from Brian Johnson at UFC 11.
Johnson was fighting Reza Nasri in the quarter-finals of a one-night tournament that evening, and made short work of his opponent as he badly broke his nose with a series of brutal headbutts (legal at the time) on the mat less than 30 seconds into the fight.
Seeing how badly hurt Nasri was, McCarthy rushed in to end the fight, but in doing so the 6ft 4”, 270lb ref managed to slam his forearm straight into Johnson’s face, bursting his nose open in the process.
Nursing his bleeding nose, Johnson seemed annoyed at the clumsy intervention, but he was still able to fight against Mark Coleman in the semi-finals of the competition later that night, losing out by submission.