I'm not saying that being an MMA referee is an easy job. Like a lot of gigs that look pretty cushy from a distance, it's probably a lot harder once you try and do it yourself. Sure, you usually work in no more than fifteen-minute shifts, which doesn't sound bad. But then again, if you're always working on Saturday nights, when do you go to the movies? These are the things we don't consider from outside the cage.
What I will say about the referee's job, however, is that there are a few sure ways to be bad at it. I was reminded of this fact last weekend when I watched referee/judge/sensei Cecil Peoples work the King of the Cage heavyweight title fight between Daniel Cormier and Tony Johnson.
If Peoples' name sounds familiar to you, that's because it's the one that usually accompanies a baffling decision in prominent MMA fights. For MMA fighters everywhere, the phrase, 'Judge Cecil Peoples scores the bout..." is the stuff heart attacks are made of. The man has been on the wrong side of judges' decisions so often, his viewpoint has become reliable in its own way. He's like a compass that always points southeast: as long as you know how to interpret the information, it's still sort of useful.
But perhaps just to prove that his anti-expertise isn't limited solely to judging fights, Peoples put on his referee hat (not an actual hat, unfortunately) this weekend to show us exactly how not to be the third man in the cage. Seriously, they should show this video to all prospective referees the way they show those gruesome car accident clips to teen drivers. Just by avoiding the Peoples pitfalls, you're already halfway to a successful stint as a referee.
For instance, here are three things Peoples taught us never to do as a referee, and – perhaps most amazingly – he did them all before the fight even started:
For the few minutes that you are reffing a fight, you should have no opinions whatsoever. Not on Coke vs. Pepsi, not on the practical implications of privatizing Social Security, and certainly not on the fighters themselves or the stakes of the bout. You should be like an impartial robot, there only to make sure that rules are observed and nothing unavoidably terrible happens.
That's what makes Peoples' statement about this King of the Cage heavyweight title bout being for "the most prestigious belt in the world" so bizarre. Obviously, the KOTC promoters might have appreciated it, though even they must have had a hard time keeping a straight face when they first heard it. But even if that statement weren't so hilariously untrue, the ref's job is not to communicate the importance of any one title or bout over another. His job is to work the fight and keep the participants safe, which has nothing to do with the prestige (imagined or otherwise) attached to any one belt. That's why one sure sign of a good referee is that we never know for sure what he thinks about any fighter or organization.
2. Attempt to Coin a Catchphrase
I know, "Big" John McCarthy made it seem so genius and so simple with his 'Let's get it on!' tagline. It was fun, easy to understand, and it effectively repurposed the title of a Marvin Gaye song without running up against any copyright issues. In short, it did everything a good catchphrase should do. But does that mean every ref needs one?
Peoples' attempt – 'Let's dance' – feels like something he spent all of fifteen seconds thinking about. One can only assume it was his second choice after the accurate, but much too specific, 'Okay, now you guys start fighting while I stand over here and watch.' Seriously, enough with the catchphrases already. Unless you're a character on a sitcom, it's not worth the trouble.
3. Draw Attention to Yourself
A good referee is like good drapes: functionally sound, but not noticeable. Much like a judge, if a referee gets himself noticed it's usually a bad sign. That so many MMA fans know Cecil Peoples' name to begin with, well, that should tell you how he's doing when it comes to remaining inconspicuous at the judge's table.
But Peoples' last act to kick off the Cormier-Johnson fight was to do what I can most generously describe as: some ridiculous karate crap. In Peoples' mind, this probably accomplishes the goal of starting the fight with style. In reality, it accomplishes the goal of making everyone in the arena look at the referee and wonder to themselves whether he's suffering some sort of seizure.
People didn't buy tickets to King of the Cage to see Cecil Peoples perform a kata, just like they didn't buy tickets because they were under the impression that the KOTC title was the most prestigious belt in the world. They came to see a fight, which is, thankfully, the part of the evening's activities that Peoples didn't exercise undue influence over.
It just goes to show that in some jobs, success mostly demands on getting out of the way without doing or saying anything too weird. You'd think that wouldn't be so difficult.