Being a referee in MMA is a tough and often thankless job.
Referees have to make tough calls where there’s little margin for error in either direction. If they stop fights too soon or act overly authoritative with their rulings, they can end up cheating competitors out of a possible win and the paydays that go with them.
But if they stop fights too late or remain too lenient in their decisions, they risk putting fighters at risk for unnecessary harm that could have long-term effects. When they do a good job, it’s considered expected and often goes unnoticed – but their mistakes can often follow them for their entire careers.
This is the case with Mario Yamasaki. He’s faced criticism for a number of controversial calls over the years, and even the most unbiased reviewer would have to admit some of his decisions were baffling.
He disqualified Erick Silva for alleged strikes to the back of the head at UFC 142, though replays afterward appeared to show the shots were legal. He let Donald Cerrone crank a submission on Alex Oliveira despite the latter clearly tapping early on. He made the opposite mistake when Michael Chiesa took on Kevin Lee, stopping the fight even when Chiesa didn’t appear to tap from a chokehold.
But perhaps his most disturbing and well-known mistake came during a clash between Valentina Shevchenko and Priscilla Cachoeira at UFC Fight Night 125. The fight was a one-sided beatdown both in looks and statistics, with Shevchenko battering her opponent and fending off little offense in return. Yamasaki was admonished for his failure to stop the fight sooner, with his excuse making things worse.
At the time, Yamasaki claimed he was giving Cachoeira the chance to “be a warrior.” But UFC president Dana White was among those who said Yamasaki’s lack of initiative and responsiveness could’ve led to a competitor being seriously injured.
To Yamasaki’s credit, he’s taking steps to restore his credibility and get back in the good graces of the UFC and MMA organizations around the world. He’ll be enrolling in a referee seminar held by “Big” John McCarthy, widely considered to be one of the best in the business.
In his defense, Yamasaki isn’t the only MMA referee who has been called out for questionable decisions. It doesn’t excuse his mistakes, but it does show he’s not the only one who has fallen short of a perfect run at his job. Steve Mazzagatti, among others, has also faced flack for controversial calls – he even awarded Kevin Burns a TKO victory over Anthony Johnson due to eye pokes.
Referees don’t always have access to instant replay, and they’re tasked with making calls in the heat of the moment when milliseconds matter. Changes to rules have also led to some confusion, which just goes to show refereeing MMA fights is an evolving craft and requires constant education.
Just because a referee has had plenty of experience (such as Yamasaki’s nearly two decades’ worth) doesn’t mean there’s no room for improvement.