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The Toughest Job in MMA: An Exclusive Interview with referee Kevin Mulhall
Lately in professional MMA, the referees have been taking a lot of heat over their decisions in the ring. I had the chance to sit down with MMA referee Kevin Mulhall to discuss what it’s like to be the “other man” in the ring.
Nichole Lesniak: There’s a lot of controversy surrounding the refereeing at the Elite XC event, especially the Kimbo and James Thompson fight. Did you agree with the stoppage?
Kevin Mulhall: I absolutely agree with the stoppage. I’ve talked to a lot of people this. I got tons of emails and different things about it and I’ve done interviews about it. It was 100% the right call in my opinion. Thompson didn’t need to get hit one more time, he was out on his feet. And what I think a lot of people don’t understand is that you can be unconscious and you don’t have to be laying down. You can be unconscious and still be on your feet. Your motor skills take over. Thompson didn’t know what was going on at that point. So he didn’t know whether it was Big Dan [Miragliotta] in front of him or if it was Kimbo. And in the press conference I think he didn’t even know he pushed Big Dan after the fight, so that goes to show you his state of mind during that time. So I agree with the whole thing 100%.
NL: Would you have done anything differently in that fight? Would you have stopped it at the end of the second round?
KM: No, you know what, at the end of the second round, there was no power in those strikes. The thing is, granted, a fighter has to defend himself, but if there’s nothing, no damage is being done, there’s really not anything to defend. And honestly, it might have been a smart move on Kimbo’s part because it gave him a second wind. He was able to recoup, he wasn’t being hurt, Thompson was using all his energy trying to get off the little things he was but he wasn’t doing damage. So it was kind of a smart move on Kimbo’s part to say ‘you know, I’ll just wait it out. He didn’t hurt me.’ He was giving the thumbs up, saying I’m okay. And there wasn’t even a mark on his face. So, in my opinion, I would’ve let it go too.
NL: What about the decisions made in the other fights? Did you agree with all of them? For instance, Carano and Young?
KM: Yeah, at that point, I was actually coming in the 2nd round, I came in to take a closer look at her eye because it was looking pretty bad; she was getting hit. At one point, I thought I was going to stop it, but that’s when they got into a grappling situation. So I said, alright I’m gonna let it go if she doesn’t get another big shot in. I’ll let her finish the round, there’s only about 10 seconds left. And she ended up getting caught in a choke and I think that the pressure from the choke in her face caused her to really swell up. It really caused her eye to swell more with the pressure when she was getting choked, and then, so I called the doctor in, which I would’ve done anyway. And the doctor advised me to stop it right there. She was afraid of, the two doctors, one was afraid of neurological damage, the other doctor said that there was a possible orbital fracture. Once I bring the doctor in, I’m turning the authority over to them. And they’re the ones that told me that she could not continue — both doctors.
NL: How about the Smith/Lawler fight?
KM: The Smith and Lawler fight, same thing. Honestly, it was Smith’s fault. If Smith wanted to continue, he could have. The thing was I honestly don’t believe he wanted to. I think part of him did and part of him didn’t. Any fighter when they’re in danger of having a fight stopped, you know exactly what they’re gonna say ‘I’m fine, I’m fine. No, I’m okay, I’m okay. I can fight.’ Smith wasn’t saying that at all. He just kept saying ‘I can’t see, I can’t see, I can’t see.’ He said it to about 4 different people, ‘I can’t see.’ They tried to give him options, they tried to let him out of it, by saying ‘well, is it getting better?’ And he just kept saying, ‘I can’t see.’ Every fighter knows if you want to continue, you’re like ‘No, no, I’m okay, I’m okay. I’ve just gotta clear my eyes.’ Every fighter knows that. He wanted to, I think he wanted the fight to be stopped. Because he knew he couldn’t see. And I think, I’m not saying he doesn’t have heart, I think it was a great fight, and I think he showed a ton of heart. I just think he kinda knew that, ya know what, I can’t see too good but I don’t wanna be the one to quit. And so it’s easier just to say I can’t see. The refs or doctors stop it and he says, ‘Oh, but I wanna continue.’ And as far as the five minutes, you don’t get a mandatory five minutes. You can get up to five minutes. But if you keep repeating, ‘I can’t see’ they’re not going to allow you to continue.
NL: What’s going through your mind, number one, when you’re refereeing any fight, and number two, when you’re refereeing the first female fighter ever to be broadcast on national TV?
KM: Um, honestly, my focus is on the fight itself. When I’m refereeing, I try to keep my, it’s almost like I’m right in between the two fighters. I try not to look at one fighter or the other. Gina Carano was the big star coming into this, but I try not to focus on either fighter. I try to focus on what’s going on in between, like who’s getting hit, and that kind of stuff, and they’re eyes and things like that. I’m just seeing punches and kicks. I don’t really see either person on the side. Like I said, I try not to take opinions to either fighter so I’m just trying to keep a visual on who’s getting hurt and who’s not.
NL: Big Dan has taken a lot of heat lately over his decisions both in Elite XC and last week at UFC 85, especially the fight between Werdum and Vera. What are your thoughts on the criticisms that you guys, all in general, get?
KM: I think, ya know, the referee’s got a tough job. Half the people are gonna like you and half the people are gonna hate you. Ya know what I mean? So, the losing side’s never gonna be happy with you. It’s just the way it goes. And you take that when you become a referee, and you have to accept that. As far as the stoppages, I agree with them. Big Dan, in my opinion, is the best referee in the country. If you look at 2 fights, and especially after coming off one controversy, anything he did was gonna be criticized. Look at Dan’s career. Dan has well over a thousand fights, easy. And if you look at his track record, it’s impeccable. He’s always made good calls. Ya know what I mean? We’re making split second decisions, there’s gonna be mistakes made. But did Dan make them in these situations, I don’t think so. And that’s only my opinion. But none of us can see what’s going in there as well as the referee in the middle. He’s the closest person there, so I agree with Dan 100%. And honestly, in my opinion, he’s the best in the country.
NL: How did you get into refereeing anyway?
KM: I started refereeing probably close to 12 years ago, before the sport was popular and when it was still considered underground. I ref’d fights here in South Plainfield [New Jersey]. I remember they were the very first fights in New Jersey. A lot of the top fighters came out of there. Matt Serra, Nick Serra, Mike Ciesnolevicz from IFL, Jay Hieron. We had a lot of good guys coming out of those tournaments. And that’s how I got my start. I was just fortunate enough to get asked if I’d be willing to ref because I used to train and stuff. I tried to do it, I enjoyed it. Things had gone well. I’d probably refereed close to 2 to 300 hundred fights before the Athletic Commission got involved in the sport. Then Big Dan and I became the natural [choices]. Dan was refereeing and running fights, so when they formalized it, when the Athletic Commission got involved, we were just the natural picks so they actually just offered it to us. We went to get our license, went to meetings and through rules and all that stuff. And then I gave it a shot and I continued ever since.
NL: Do you feel like the training that you do here [at his gym, Jersey Fight Club] helps you in making decisions?
KM: Absolutely. I think being involved in the sport is huge. This sport is changing so quickly. People are learning new moves and different things. And if you’re not up to date with the fighters, you’re not going to understand what they’re doing. And if you don’t know where to be, where to stand, where to look, when to check on a fighter, then you’re not going to do a very good job. You need to know where that fight’s going. You need to know what guys are working for. Sometimes guys are setting up submissions and if you don’t know what they’re doing, then you’re saying ‘oh, well they’re not doing anything’. But you can see that they’re setting it up. SO there is work going on that the untrained person is not going to understand. I think as a referee you should be involved in all aspects of fighting — the submission grappling, the stand up, the wrestling. You should understand it all.
NL: Has your life changed at all since the explosion of MMA into mainstream sports?
KM: I get recognized more, but has my life changed? Nah. I’m still a regular guy, ya know what I mean? Every now and then somebody will say, ‘Hey, I saw you on TV’, which is always nice. But it doesn’t really change me. I still do my thing. I love this sport. Being involved in it. I really don’t make much money at it, but I do it because I love it.
NL: So then do you consider yourself a fan, or this just a job?
KM: Nah, I’m a huge fan. I’ve been training 20 something years. So I’m a huge fan of the sport and I have been for a long time. I think it’s the sport of the future, without a doubt.
NL: There’s been talk on the internet about John McCarthy proposing to legalize knees to the head of grounded opponents. Do you agree with that proposal?
KM: I disagree. I’m not a fan of knees to the head. I think it can inflict too much damage. We have a great safety record with MMA, and I would like to see it continue that way. I think for the future of our sport, it’s better to do without the knees. It’s just one technique, but I think it can prevent a lot of unneeded injuries. Just so much force can be generated into it. I think elbows are clearly enough. And a truly skilled fighter should be able to finish a fight without having to use a knee.
NL: Is there any one organization that you prefer to officiate over another?
KM: I can’t say that I prefer one over another. I definitely have some that I enjoy. Elite XC was an excellent event. They ran it great. Gary Shaw did a great job. I really enjoyed it. Ring of Combat’s another great show. Lou Neglia. He’s a great promoter, a great guy for the sport. You’ve got Dave Mastriovanni. He’s doing a great job. He’s more on the local level, but he’s doing an excellent job for the sport. I enjoy them all. I think New Jersey has some very good promotions and I think they’re run very well. I give a lot of credit for that to Nick Lembo of the Athletic Commission. I think that he organizes things and keeps everything going well. He makes it easier for me to do my job. And I think he helps guide promoters and other people to advance the sport. He’s not just in this to do what’s set by the rules. He’s actually looking to help build the sport. I think he’s instrumental in mixed martial arts today and he’s gonna go down in history.
NL: They say that refereeing is the hardest job in all of MMA. How do you feel when people say that?
KM: I think it’s a tough job. I think fighting is harder [laughs], but it’s a tough job, like you said. You have to kind of roll with the punches. One side’s never gonna be happy with you if you get involved. Our job as a referee, what you hope is that you don’t have to get involved. The less I have to do, the better it is for me. And hopefully for the fighters. But you have to be able to overlook it. You have to know that people aren’t going to like what you have to say or what you do. They’re going to criticize. But the biggest thing I’ve found is that most of the criticism comes from the uneducated viewer. So, I think people, before they voice their opinion in a public forum, they should understand what they’re dealing with. I’ve had guys screaming ‘elbows, elbows, throw elbows!’ when there’s no elbows allowed. Understand the rules before you wanna be so vocal. I respect their opinions on the sport, and I hope they’re getting interested. But I would like to see more education. I think some of these shows like TUF and even Elite XC. They’re doing a good job of educating people to what the sport is all about.
NL: Do you ever get nervous when you’re going out there?
KM: Um, yeah. I get nervous. I think it’s not so much being on TV or anything, it’s more the excitement, ya know. When I’m in there with two good fighters, I’m excited because I know it’s going to be a good fight. The television part doesn’t bother me, it’s just making sure that I do a good job. I put a lot of pressure on myself to hopefully do a good job. I’m probably my own worst critic. I do put a lot of pressure on myself, but it’s worth it. It’s a lot of fun.
NL: Do you have anything coming up? What’s next?
KM: Wee have Ring of Combat on June 27th and it’s forming to be a real good show, so I’m looking forward to that one. It’s gonna be a very good show, Lou Neglia always puts on good shows. Then we have Dave Mastriovanni I believe is in Battle Cage Xtreme which I think is in July. Then there’s a few more, I got a list in the back. New Jersey’s doing great. We have a lot more shows that we’re doing well with. People are interested here which is great.
NL: Anything else you wanna say? Let fans know?
KM: I think the biggest thing is, learn the sport. Understand the rules. Train in the sport. If you enjoy watching, start learning about it. The more you start to learn about it, the more you’re going to enjoy it because you’re going to see things you didn’t understand before. You’re gonna be like ‘oh, he’s doing this and this’ and that creates more excitement because when you know what they’re doing it’s exciting for you. I’ve found that all my students, as they’re training, when they come back after watching a fight, they’re like ‘oh, yeah, did you see that move we worked on?’ and it just makes them enjoy it that much more.
NL: And it probably makes you proud too.
KM: Oh, yeah, definitely. There’s nothing better than seeing your students understand and everything’s coming alive. And like I said, the more education they have, the more people are involved in the sport, the more it’s gonna grow. I think they’re doing great things. I think we have some of the best athletes in the world, without a doubt.
In the 15 minutes I spent with Kevin, I have to admit that I gained a lot more respect for referees in general. They take a lot of bull and criticism from all sides — fighters, fans, promoters. And they probably deserve the least. They really do have one of the toughest jobs in MMA. And they deserve a lot more respect than they get.
All I know is that the next time I disagree with a call…I’m keeping my mouth shut.