The first and foremost job of any referee is to ensure participant safety. It does not take a deep thinker to appreciate that carelessness in this vital role can lead to unneeded participant harm in the realm of combat sports. This brings me to today’s topic, is there a useful legal avenue to challenge a duly licensed referee from overseeing a sanctioned bout?
Last week Jon Fitch made his much anticipated WSOF Debut. The bout ended with a first round choke by Josh Burkman. Despite the impressive win, the surviving topic of conversation is not Josh Burkman but instead referee Steve Mazzagatti.
Burkman choked Fitch unconscious. He rolled him over, stood up and raised his hand in celebration. All this before Referee Steve Mazzagatti came in for a closer look. (You can find the fight here and judge for yourself whether referee criticism is warranted)
Dana White was highly critical of this conduct unleashing a tirade against Mazzagatti at the UFC 161 post fight media scrum. The Mazzagatti related criticism starts 13 minutes into the interview which includes the below commentary:
“does anybody here disagree with me that Mazzagatti is a (expletive) toolbox? I mean he literally did nothing, Fitch is out cold…and literally when he goes limp he goes limp and he’s out then he rolls him (expletive) over, lets his head (expletive) flop to the thing, and then stands up over him he’s literally like this standing up over him before Mazzagatti even (expletive) gets in the picture. The Nevada State Athletic Commission is gonna keep this (expletive) guy around until her seriously hurts somebody. That guy is dangerous. He’s dangerous.”
18 minutes into the scrum White was asked whether he ever considered a legal challenge to the NSAC’s decision to licence Mazzagatti to which White replied:
“That’s a great question. Believe me when I tell you we sent the Nevada State Athletic Commission DVD’s, its like Steve Mazzagatti’s greatest moments, we continuously complain about this guy….”
These complaints have apparently fallen on deaf ears. So why not look beyond the Commission and turn to the Courts to address such a complaint? If there is a genuine issue of persistent poor refereeing is this an avenue that can be pursued?
Nevada, like all common law jurisdictions, allows for judicial review of government agency decisions. Under the Nevada Administrative Procedure Act Judicial Review is permitted to challenge Government decisions including those which are “clearly erroneous in view of the reliable, probative and substantial evidence on the whole record; or Arbitrary or capricious or characterized by abuse of discretion.”
A specific function of the NSAC which is open to judicial scrutiny is the ability to licence referees. Section 467.062 of the Regulation requires that the commission “consider the applicant’s past performance and abilities in evaluating the application for renewal.” Given the right context, the Commission’s exercise of this power can be challenged to decide if they properly considered past performance before licencing (or re-licencing) a referee.
If Dana’s DVD’s containing Steve Mazzagatti’s ‘greatest moments’ show a troubling pattern, coupled with proper expert witness evidence putting these actions (or inactions) into context could create the foundation to attack the decision to licence a particular referee. If the review is successful the UFC will get the remedy they are looking for. If, on the other hand, such a Petition is dismissed, it will at the very least serve as a public and media friendly platform to launch a discussion on the state of officiating in Combat Sports.