The Bottom Line: A Thankless Job

By: Todd Martin
Nov 14, 2017


Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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MMA referee is an altogether difficult job. It offers limited rewards and plenty of downside, and the opportunities to fall flat on your face are constant for pretty much every second you’re doing it. That’s not to say referees don’t deserve the criticism they receive when they make mistakes. Certainly, there will never be a parade thrown for a particularly strong job of refereeing. However, the referees that have established themselves as quality officials do deserve to be treated with respect for their efforts in an unrewarding enterprise. Marc Goddard deserved better than his treatment by Conor McGregor at Bellator 187 on Friday in Dublin.

Unlike in most other major sports, MMA referees have the power to declare the winner of the competition at any moment. After the decision has been made, it can’t be changed. Given that power, the stakes for their decisions are extremely high. Moreover, their decisions are frequently of the split-second variety. One fighter lands a big punch out of nowhere and the referee has to judge in real time just how badly the other fighter is hurt, all while the lander of the blow is looking to cause severe physical damage.

The job MMA officials are provided is thus like an NBA referee having to decide whether to make a close-call foul on one seemingly random play, only that decision will decide the game and it can’t be reviewed afterwards. It’s actually even worse than that, as there’s the element of physical danger added onto everything else.

Of course, referees don’t receive a lot of sympathy for their efforts. If they stop a fight too early, they are labeled incompetent and the fighter is livid. If they stop a fight too late, they are labeled careless about the fighter’s health and fans are livid. If they stop a fight at just the right time, well, that’s to be expected and they get no credit. If a referee is noticed and commented on, it’s almost always for the wrong reasons.

MMA officials also have to deal with keeping testosterone-filled professional fighters under control. This is a challenge in itself, and when fighters get out of control, the referees generally haven’t received protection. Phil Baroni punched Larry Landless because he was agitated that Landless stopped his fight with Evan Tanner at UFC 45. Baroni received a rematch with Tanner for his next fight a few months later while Landless ended up being phased out as an official. Roy Nelson shoved John McCarthy out of frustration and got a slap on the wrist for it because he issued a public apology. Referees have to know they’re not going to be looked out for when it comes to any issues that arise with star fighters.

Fighters, too, have to know referees aren’t protected figures. That brings us to the Bellator card in Ireland. McGregor went after Goddard and shoved him, apparently over a misunderstanding as to whether the fight featuring McGregor’s teammate, Charlie Ward, had been stopped. McGregor’s actions in and of themselves weren’t that egregious. He didn’t appear to have any real desire to cause physical harm, nor did the wild scene seem to result in any real consequences. Rather, what McGregor did was a show of power. That was the problem with what he did.

Just a few weeks ago, Goddard admonished McGregor to stay out of teammate Artem Lobov’s corner at UFC Fight Night 118. This was the right call. McGregor was circling around the cage yelling out advice, which no one is allowed to do. Goddard treated McGregor respectfully but firmly, like any other fighter. That clearly rankled McGregor, whose actions clearly indicated he thought he was above the rules.

In Ireland, McGregor made it clear again that he views himself as above the rules. By showing such disrespect to Goddard and another official, he was more sending a message than anything else: I’m the star fighter and you’re just an official. Goddard, of course, had no recourse. He just had to accept McGregor’s demonstrative exhibitions toward him and the boos from the crowd that accompanied them.

That sort of disrespect is uncalled for, in general, but it’s particularly problematic in this specific instance. For one thing, Goddard did nothing wrong. He was simply trying to keep order, both in Poland and in Ireland. He hadn’t done anything to affect either fight. In addition, Goddard is one of the most professional referees MMA has. When Sherdog put out its list of MMA’s best referees last year, Goddard was ranked No. 3, behind only longtime staples John McCarthy and Herb Dean. Goddard surely would much prefer to be thought of as a quality official or even not noticed at all to being an unlikely adversary for MMA’s biggest superstar.

McGregor is unlikely to face any real punishment for his actions at Bellator 187. The Ultimate Fighting Championship has claimed he won’t fight at UFC 219 as a result, but there’s no indication the promotion was going to be able to come to terms with the lightweight champion in time for that card; and McGregor isn’t exactly desperate for a December payday. If he was yanked from the card, it would be a punishment for the UFC more than McGregor. There’s thus not a lot of incentive for McGregor to make things right with Goddard. That would make it all the more magnanimous if he did.

There’s no reason for McGregor to be insecure about the way he is treated. Everyone knows the level of success he has achieved. He shouldn’t need to have to flaunt the status he has relative to an MMA referee, particularly a very good one who was simply trying to do his job. If McGregor were to apologize for getting caught up in the moment, it would reflect positively on the level of humility he has at this stage of his career. More importantly, it would make one thankless job just a little bit better in a world full of thankless jobs. Hopefully, McGregor will do the right thing, but Goddard shouldn’t hold his breath. This is, after all, the job he chose.

Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.

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