For their Saturday night theatrics, Benson Henderson and Donald Cerrone may well take "Fight of the Year" honors when Sherdog staffers convene in January to talk about awards hardware for 2009. It will likely get my vote. But it's not the lightweight fight from the night I want to talk about.
Lost in the post-event excitement that a truly great fight breeds -- never mind the upset special delivered by Mackens Semerzier -- is the horrific job that referee Jon Schorle did in officiating the Dave Jansen-Rich Crunkilton fight. Completely missing a blatant (albeit inadvertent) knee to Crunkilton's groin -- to which he reacted visually and audibly -- was bad enough on its own. However, with the fight on the line in the third round, Schorle saw fit to repeatedly stand Jansen up from top control instantaneously, as the unbeaten lightweight prospect was trying to steal the round and the fight. For the last half of the final stanza, the eventually victorious Jansen fought both Crunkilton and the inane whims of Schorle.
But this is not an op-ed about an isolated incident in which Referee X did his unwitting best to ruin a fight. It's not even just about the act of refereeing itself. People reacted to Schorle's mishandling as if he were a local misfit referee who just cropped up that evening. Media reports used the name "Jon Schorle" without a sense of context. The commentary booth, including an increasingly agitated Frank Mir, referred to him only by the disparaging title of "this referee."
If you're a boxing fan, you'll be dismayed to find out that Schorle, a Californian-based official now splitting time in Texas, was the referee who stood by while Vic Darchinyan beat Victor Burgos until he had a blood clot in his brain, resulting in emergency surgery and an induced coma following the bout. He was the third man in the ring for Vitali Klitschko beating hapless Corrie Sanders to a pulp. He oversaw the Erik Morales-Zahir Raheem bout -- which he allowed to devolve into a clinch-filled slip-and-slide on a soaked canvas -- as well as Joel Casamayor-Michael Katsidis, in which a thrilling bout was compromised by Schorle's all-around inattentiveness. Schorle's reputation is such that before the rubber match in his epic trilogy with Rafael Marquez, Israel Vazquez's camp fought viciously and successfully to have Schorle removed as the bout's referee and replaced with Pat Russell. These are just a few recent examples.
Despite allowing complete free-for-alls in the boxing ring, Schorle's M.O. in MMA is usually far more conservative. Typically, he's keen to stop any fight on the floor in which the fighter in top position lands two or three lukewarm punches, such as Frank Edgar-Mark Bocek or Tyson Griffin-Duane Ludwig. Often times it won't even take that much, as in his blown stoppage of the first Jared Hamman-Poai Suganuma bout. No less dangerous with a scorecard in hand, he was one of the unfortunate judges -- the other being the legendarily egregious Dalby Shirley -- who scored the Patrick Cote-Chris Leben bout for "The Crippler."
However, Schorle's most infamous MMA moment came in the March 2006 quasi-snuff film that was Rob McCullough-Olaf Alfonso. Just moments into the second round, McCullough landed a crushing right cross that sent Alfonso's mouthguard airborne. As the supine Olaf lay on the mat with a predatory foe above him, Schorle took a cursory glance at Alfonso's eyes -- which are glassy and googly even at his most lucid -- and then walked across the cage to retrieve the mouthguard. McCullough took the chance to land three absolute killshots on the defenseless Alfonso, as the miserably out-of-position Schorle made a mad dash to stop McCullough from pureeing Olaf's face.
Don't think that I intend this article as a hit piece on Schorle, and don't confuse my critique of the referee with an attack on the person. I bring up his prior bad acts to emphasize the question of how an official can get away with such consistently awful officiating in well-publicized debacles and not only be rewarded with plum assignments, but also remain unscathed and unnoticed by fans and media. Schorle is not just a liability as an official that I wanted to single out, but his position is symptomatic of larger problems with the discourse surrounding officiating in MMA -- problems we're all accessories to.
The nature of criticism regarding officiating in MMA is curious. I don't think there's very many if any in the MMA world that would say they're content with the sport's officiating. However, the criticisms tend to be non-pointed and non-specific. Many of MMA's prime offenders, refs and judges alike, simply slip through the cracks of consciousness. Horrible stoppages are often not associated with the referees, and even less are atrocious scorecards linked to their judges, unless they involve one of the scant few officials who work three dozen UFC bouts a year. Even then, memories tend to be fairly short, and as soon as the next talking point comes along, the slate tends to get wiped clean for most officials.
I emphasize the "for most" part. Unfortunately, rather than assessing the individual performance of officials over time, the MMA world relies on convenient whipping boys. Cecil Peoples is the go-to example for any MMA fan complaining about refereeing or judging. Yet how many people can name specific bouts he's screwed up? While examples certainly exist, he's become the touchstone of incompetence mostly because he's a laughable figure -- an easy target due to his doddering persona, complete with dorky karate chop. While I don't think Peoples is a great (or even good) MMA judge or referee, he has contemporaries just as bad and in some cases worse than himself who are routinely refereeing and judging important bouts.
It behooves us as concerned parties in MMA to do more than sit by frustrated and idle. However, it is not an easy process. Earlier this year, I encouraged many fans to contact their local athletic commissions and inquire into the licensing process. Dozens did, but unfortunately, most of them were rebuffed, as commissions told them they would need prior officiating experience to be licensed while providing no outlet for gaining said experience -- a textbook bureaucratic paradox. Some states, such as New Jersey, offer a comprehensive amateur program to "break in" new refs and judges, which has been a major asset to the state thus far. However, many commission heads are content to construct impregnable fortresses, ensuring that those officials ranging from mediocre to horrible have little chance to be usurped by those with real talent.
In fact, it has been reported that Schorle himself started getting professional gigs with the help of inside connections. He had fruitlessly worked the California amateur boxing circuit for six years before mentor and Hall of Fame referee Richard Steele, as well as noted ref and judge Marty Denkin, vouched for him to get professional assignments from the California State Athletic Commission in the early 90s. At this point, if you want to be an MMA official, you're best off infiltrating through friendship. I nonetheless encourage fans to be unrelenting in hounding their local commissions to get trained and licensed as officials. However, even if we reach a point where double-dutying boxing officials aren't getting choice MMA assignments, there will still be poor officiating, and so it's time we be sober and critical rather than relying on easy symbols of ineptitude.
This is not a call for some hokey guerilla uprising but instead for diligence. In the wake of the Mike Easton-Chase Beebe debacle last week, it was shown that thoughtful and pointed criticism can force the sport's regulators to accept responsibility. Instead of letting that fight go down as a random regional main event in which a rightful victor was robbed, BloodyElbow.com’s Luke Thomas -- who I'm now even prouder to call a contemporary -- was able to take the Virginia Professional Boxing and Wrestling Program to task for its inadequacy, and other concerned parties followed his lead. Resultantly, an investigation into the bout's outcome has been launched, and justice may reign yet.
It is a testament to the adage that "sunshine disinfects," and proof of why it's time we let the light flood in and let no malfeasance go unpunished.