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On Official Island: The lonely life of Steve Mazzagatti

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Steve Mazzagatti is a hero by popular definition. For 17 years he’s worked for the Las Vegas County Fire, risking life and limb charging into burning buildings to douse infernos and save lives. He responds to trauma situations, when people have been shot, or mangled in a car accident, or who just got beaten down along the boozy Las Vegas Strip. He never winces at the sight of blood. He is a stoic - a calm voice in the ear of disaster. For that, we love Mazzagatti unconsciously.

He is an American hero.

Except in his moonlighting gig as a fight game referee, where - as far as popular opinion goes - he’s a classless villain who is singlehandedly destroying mixed martial arts.

Mazzagatti the referee has become the man we love to hate. Whenever he stands in the cage as an arbiter between two big principals - the bigger the fight, the more total the outrage - Twitter revs up with commentary ranging from dark humor to absolute disgust. People talk as if he’s personally and deliberately trying to mess with their lives. And in some cases, that might be true.

The UFC’s president Dana White shifts in his seat and mumbles under his breath whenever "Mazz" gets the call. He has ranted epically on numerous occasions about Mazzagatti’s incompetence in the cage. One time, after Josh Burkman voluntarily walked away from Jon Fitch’s limp body without any prompting from Mazzagatti in a World Series of Fighting match, White ranted for nine straight minutes. "Mazzagatti is a clueless idiot who will hurt someone and continue to ruin guy’s legacies," he tweeted that night. That was just the tip of the iceberg as far as White’s discontentment goes with "Mazz." He has many variations of this same sentiment.

And White’s word, of course, echoes down the corridors.

As a collective, we have united as Mazzagatti haters. The perception of him goes something like this: What an oblivious, uncaring, clueless, particularly blind and lackadaisical excuse for a referee the Nevada State Athletic Commission insists on keeping around. It’s all one big act of defiance. That’s why a common acronym ascribed to Mazzagatti is: WTF?

"Yeah, it bums me out," Mazzagatti says while taking a break from blowing the fiberglass off his dune buggy at his home in Vegas. "I’m not out to make [Dana White] happy or anything, but I truly care about the sport. I’ve been in the fight game my whole life, and I truly care about the sport. I’ve always prided myself on enforcing these rules, and I have enforced the rules on big fights."

Mazzagatti has a thick skin, as anybody in a thankless profession must. He answers to Keith Kizer of the NSAC, whom he says, "is the last person to hold back any feelings - he’s just like Dana. If something’s on his mind he will come to you, and get right in your face and say what the hell happened right there."

The first thing you notice when talking to him is that he’s not fishing for sentimental understanding - even as criticism stacks up in leaning towers around him. He’s actually very rational about it all. He quietly believes he is right in most cases, and he calmly explains himself when pressed on any particular "transgression." He is an island of righteousness - which should be expected from any good gatekeeper for integrity.

"You got to understand that a promoter has one thing in mind, and that’s to promote the fighters to the next level. And if a referee gets in the way of that, I can understand [White] being pissed - I’m pissed when I have to take a point in a big huge fight like that. But rules are rules, and if we’re not going to have rules, then what are we there for?

"I mean, if you’re going to let somebody pound somebody else in the back of the head and call it good because you want that guy to win because there’s a big promotion for him next - you can see the huge amounts of money involved. And I’ve had to enforce the rules on some huge fights. I’ve taken, for back of the head strikes for instance, over my career, 10-12 instances in huge fights. Times where I’ve had to stop the fight, take a point for back of the head strikes."

The classic example of a controversial Mazzagatti point deduction for back of the head strikes was in the first Brock Lesnar/Frank Mir fight, when Mazzagatti stopped Lesnar’s early onslaught (and complete momentum) to dock him a point. We all remember the fallout. Mir got Lesnar in an ankle lock shortly thereafter and that was that.

"I’ve asked our neurosurgeon, what to the back of the head are we looking for - what’s the danger spot?" Mazzagatti says. "And it literally is that cell phone area right where your spine connects to your skull. If you get hit there dude - even just reaching around and tapping that area - you get a little bit dizzy. And it’s unfair for any fighter to take a blow there.

"I tell the fighters in the back [before coming out to fight], if he shoots a double leg on you and you’re in the middle of a punch and you hit him there because he turned his head into it, that’s his fault. But if you’re looking at it, and you hit it again and again, that’s your fault. You’ve got to find a different target."

What is it about Mazzagatti and controversy? At one time he wore a mustache, which was somehow apropos of this perceived dubiousness. At all times he’s wearing his black gloves a little tighter than, say, Yves Lavigne, to lend him added prowler essence. His fight-starter is so familiar by now that you barely notice—"You ready? You ready? Alright, now bring it on." Nothing wrong with that.

Yet he is accused of daydreaming while mortar shells are exploding and rockets are whizzing by overhead. He is accused of being a day late to stoppages (like with Fitch/Burkman), or ridiculously early (Ronda Rousey/Sarah D’Alelio). Then there was bit of unpleasantness when Kevin Burns poked Anthony Johnson in the eye. That particular time, Mazzagatti admits he got it wrong.

"What the hell am I going to do?" he says. "I had no idea the [Burns]’ hand had been injured, although his fingers were causing a huge problem, and I’d warned him about his fingers. And then Anthony got poked in the eye, after I - I saw a combination, I saw an uppercut, and all of a sudden Anthony turns around flies on the ground and starts tapping. Well, he was in pain, and he was like, I’m done. He wasn’t necessarily tapping because he’s done, he was poked in the eye.

"Well, I had already stopped the fight. And I got to stick by that call. I’ve admitted that that loss…that was basically a bad call. That was definitely a bad call. Because of that though…we implemented in the state of Nevada and several other states now, instant replay. At the time, I didn’t have it. I could have went back and looked at the instant replay and said wow, that was an eye poke. Because this s--- goes down so fast. Then I could have said, you know what? This is a disqualification."

Speaking of instant replay, that’s another topic in which Mazzagatti found himself in hot water. It’s also a huge source for White’s consternation - the not-very-veiled meaning in the Tweet when he says Mazzagatti’s continuing to "ruin people’s legacies." Remember the time that Matt Hamill won via disqualification over Jon Jones for those infamous 12-to-6 elbows?

"I hated that crap," Mazzagatti says. "He hip throws Hamill to the ground, starts unloading with elbows. I wasn’t concerned. Hamill was blocking those, he had a four-wall defense. We’ve seen it before, these guys will unload everything they got because they think they’ve got the other guy hurt, and the guy all of a sudden comes up and beats the crap out of the guy because he’s gassed or he hurt his hands trying to punch him out.

"Then all of a sudden those downward elbows came. I said, oh my god, there’s definitely a rule infringement right there - downward elbows straight through Hamill’s guard, which he’s not used to blocking 12-to-6 elbows. He got hit with three of them straight to the bridge of his nose, and when I went back and looked at the instant replay, in the first round his nose is cut open. So he’s supposed to go out and fight two more rounds with the bridge of his nose cut open, bleeding into both eyes in the first round and be able to compete?

"Unfortunately, what did I have to do? As bad as it sucked….I mean, it sucks."

Sucks is part of the job. That’s the only loss on Jones’ record to date, and the call made Mazzagatti a perpetual target for derision. White to this day still says there shouldn’t be a loss on Jones’ otherwise flawless record. He looks upon the call as a UFC travesty, and to this day he hasn’t gotten over it.

"But I don’t regret that, no," Mazzagatti says. "Absolutely, that was the right thing to do. Of course, I had no idea [ at the time] Hamill hurt his shoulder. I don’t know these things. Only thing I know is that 12-to-6 elbows came flying down, and then I went and looked at the instant replay, and that’s how I determined it was a disqualification."

The only excuse Mazzagatti makes is that he’s doing his job. "It’s easy to sit back in your rocking chair sipping a beer and then watch the replay and then come back and make call, but I think MMA is one of the hardest sports to referee of any sport. We’ve got five different disciplines - different ground games, striking games, submission games, the whole thing."

And it could be that bizarre circumstances just find Mazzagatti a little more regularly than, say, Herb Dean. "I do always get caught up in the craziest s---!" he says. "There was the Gray Maynard double knockout, too." That was the fight with Rob Emerson. These things just don’t happen on everybody’s watch.

Maybe that’s why there’s a little bit of comedy in Mazzagatti’s voice when he thinks about his decision to get into refereeing in the first place. At one time, he ran a Muay Thai gym in Vegas - the first of its kind in Clark County. He trained fighters from the earliest UFCs in kickboxing. He also worked at the Golden Gloves Gym with Roger Mayweather, Freddie Roach, Greg Hogan, Jimmy Montoya and many others.

"At the time Vegas was the boxing capital of the world," he says. "I chose to become an official, and Stitch [Jacob Duran], who worked there too, chose to become a cutman. And god he’s got it made. I mean, he gets to work on the cuts, everybody loves him, he gets to hang out with the fighters, gets to talk to the trainers."

The loneliest man in MMA is readying his long travel buggy - complete with 14-inch coil-overs in the back - for a fast desert ride. Mazzagatti is one with the desert. He is as isolated as the terrain. He’s at home there. It’s an exile he signed on for.

"As an official, I can’t do that," he says. "I can’t go shake hands with Dana, or go have a cup of coffee. How would that look if I’m hanging out with some team and the other team sees me buddying up with them? It’s a lonely job."

It’s a friendless second profession that Mazzagatti’s in. Fair or not, he is the man we love to hate, and nobody looks better dressed in blame. Nobody in the industry starts as many fires. And nobody puts as many out.