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In some ways, UFC on ESPN 13 was a perfect microcosm of the difficulties of putting on cage fights in the year of COVID-19, as well as a case study in overcoming those difficulties to deliver an entertaining product. Just four days after the blockbuster UFC 251 and its title tripleheader kicked things off for the UFC’s month-long stand in Abu Dhabi, the second “Fight Island” card limped into the arena with 11 fights, riddled by more last-minute lineup changes than I could recap in a concise manner here. It featured four debuting fighters, two unplanned catchweights, a planned catchweight, a desk analyst cornering a fighter whose team had been laid low by the coronavirus and a co-main event between two fighters with sub-.500 records in the UFC.
Of course, it only makes sense that such a beleaguered card would proceed to entertain the pants off us for six hours. Events that look miserable on paper delivering big in the cage is such a well-known phenomenon that we almost expect it, and from the fast, furious prelims to the more stately back-and-forth battles of the main card, UFC on ESPN 13 brought it. That doesn’t mean there weren’t problems, though, and as is the case far too often, the problems stemmed from the third person in the cage. They were severe enough on Wednesday that I’m bending a personal rule to discuss them. I’ll explain.
A year or two ago, I was talking with an older (speaking professionally, not chronologically), wiser, veteran combat sports writer. It was immediately after an Ultimate Fighting Championship event and he was brainstorming five lessons that could be learned from the night of fights, for the column by that name. I suggested that there had been some awful scorecards turned in that night. He quickly agreed but added, “I can’t list ‘officiating sucks’ or ‘judging sucks’ as a lesson learned, because then I might as well list it every single weekend. It feels like too much of a copout.”
I took that to heart and ever since then, I’ve generally avoided making judging and officiating the main story when reflecting on an event—as the man with the hair pointed out, it’s just too easy to go there. I’m making an exception in the wake of Wednesday’s card because: 1) the officiating in question was so egregious that it boggles the mind; and 2) it isn’t the weekend yet.
Referee Dan Movahedi, who was on duty for three fights Wednesday night, made a number of atrocious calls. In particular, in the main card matchup between Abdul Razak Alhassan and Mounir Lazzez, he stood the fight up on two separate occasions when Lazzez had been in side control. Regardless of the specific ruleset in use, that is unheard of in modern MMA. The last time I can remember it happening in a top-tier organization is Roy Nelson-Andrei Arlovski in EliteXC almost 12 years ago, and it was roundly lambasted as a horrible call even then.
Worse yet, on one of those occasions Lazzez had been in full mount when Movahedi instructed him to “improve [his] position.” What an absurd request: When one fighter is sitting on another fighter’s chest and hitting him in the face, there isn’t much the one on top can do to improve his position, short of pulling a knife or a set of brass knuckles out of his trunks. Nonetheless, Lazzez—who surely must have been puzzled—attempted to comply by hopping to side control, only to have the fight stood up seconds later anyway.
The calls were ridiculous, but moreover they were potentially fight-altering; while Lazzez fortunately had no problems completing his impressive UFC debut by thoroughly outclassing Alhassan for three rounds, imagine if Alhassan had knocked him out cold right after one of those standups. It would be an instant frontrunner for “Robbery of the Year.” (Recall that Arlovski did knock out Nelson in the next round, altering both of their career trajectories.) That Lazzez managed to win despite multiple terrible calls that went against him is not reassuring and does not make everything right; after all, it’s supposed to be the referee that saves us from the fighters’ screw-ups, not the other way around.
He wasn’t done, either. In the first round of the Jimmie Rivera-Cody Stamann fight, Movahedi forced a reset when Stamann had Rivera in a rear waistlock against the fence, with his hands fully locked. While that intervention was less off-the-charts terrible than standing a fighter up from side control, it is a position that often looks inert right up to the moment that everything explodes; a few adjustments to grip and gravity and suddenly, the defending fighter is getting suplexed onto his noggin—or perhaps, whirling and taking the other man’s head off with an elbow strike. It is a position that needs time for the fighters to work and, unlike some full-guard sequences on the ground, usually resolves itself.
Saturday's UFC 251 was plagued by questionable judging and officiating as well, from Lukasz Bosacki’s 30-27 scorecard for Muslim Salikhov, to the normally reliable Marc Goddard overseeing one of the dirtiest rounds I’ve ever seen in the UFC, to Leon Roberts talking Jose Aldo through two minutes of completely unanswered, completely unnecessary punches to the head—ironically, a case where quick action after telling a fighter to improve his position would have been warranted. It was bad enough on that front that UFC President Dana White felt compelled to assure us that the promotion was not taking steps to replace officials. Four days and another travesty-ridden fight card later, perhaps it’s time to reconsider.