Imagine being in the center of some of the biggest fights in the world. With your decisions, you can influence if a man can feed his family for a year or if he may have to fight again next month just to make rent. You have one of the most important jobs in MMA.
Yet, it is also one of the most under-appreciated. One decision could piss off a whole team. One late stoppage and you could cost someone their life. This is serious business, this referee stuff. And it takes a serious man (or woman) to do the job.
PRO MMA (promma.info) spoke in-depth with Steve Mazzagatti on Monday. After reading our conversation with Steve, our hope is that the next time you hear these four words, “Let’s hook em’ up,” you will look at this man just a little differently, maybe with just a bit more respect, a bit more appreciation. If you do, then we have done our job.
PRO MMA: Thanks for talking to us Steve. How did you first get involved with MMA and how long have you been refereeing fights?
STEVE MAZZAGATTI: I started reffin 16 years ago; K-1, Muay Thai and boxing. When MMA got its go ahead in Nevada I was in the right place at the right time. Being in the Arts all my life I had watched the early UFC’s. And like most, I loved it. This is a dream come true.
PRO MMA: What other kinds of jobs have you done besides being a referee?
STEVE MAZZAGATTI: I am a fire fighter here in Vegas. I drive fire trucks. And that’s what pays the bills. I also trained fighters for 10 years before I started reffin. Now that’s some hard work.
PRO MMA: Where did you come up with the phrase “Let’s hook em’ up?”
STEVE MAZZAGATTI: The guy’s at the fire house are always coming up with some crazy stuff to say. Some we can’t talk about. But that was a good one. And I’ve been using it since 1998.
PRO MMA: You have refereed some of the biggest fights in history. What are some of the fights that stick out in your mind as most memorable and why?
STEVE MAZZAGATTI: It’s all good. But I think when I reffed Butter Bean. That stands out. Ha it’s the Bean.
PRO MMA: Are you a big fan of the sport also? Do you watch many events that you are not working?
STEVE MAZZAGATTI: I am A big fan. It’s a family sport for us. My wife is a time keeper. My oldest son Troy, 20, is a match maker and keeps the Amateur program here in Nevada on the up and up. And my son David, 17, is a grappler and helps get fighters that are fighting on my son Troy’s cards ready. I don’t have a garage. It’s all mats and bags. It’s never dull around my house. Watching fights is part of my homework. If I am the ref I watch it over and over. Always trying to learn and improve, working on movement, see if I missed anything. If I could have done something better. And other shows that I don’t work I look for anything that goes down like a foul or something crazy. How should I deal with it. It’s easy to do nothing. And most people won’t even notice. But that’s not what you’re there for. When you need to stop a fight, and take a point or address a foul, or call a time out, you want to do it right. Will it piss people off? Yes, but that’s what a referee is there for, to enforce the rules.
PRO MMA: Are there any fighters out there, when you find out you will be working their fight, you just genuinely do not look forward to? If so, who and why?
STEVE MAZZAGATTI: No they have a job to do and so do I. They’re all just like you and me. Just normal people trying to pay there bills and fighting is what they do. It’s all good.
PRO MMA: In the past, UFC President Dana White has had some not so nice things to say about you. Does that bother you and why do you think he seems to dislike you?
STEVE MAZZAGATTI: Dana is a nice guy in person, and has made this sport what it it today. And I thank him for that. But he has a show to promote, fighters he wants to win, and outcomes he wants to see. That’s why we don’t work for the UFC, WEC, Strikeforce, or any other promotion. We work for the State Athletic Commission that we are working in, Nevada, California, Texas, we’re there to enforce the rules set forth by the state, not the outcome the promoter wants. And like I said, referees in any sport piss fans off. And i guess I piss off Dana. Sorry.
PRO MMA: Have you ever had any run-ins with Dana personally? Has he ever approached you to voice his displeasure over maybe a call you made in a fight or anything? If so, what happened?
STEVE MAZZAGATTI: He has always been vary respectful to me. Never said anything personally to me in a bad way. I am sure he’s way too busy to waste time on me.
PRO MMA: Dana has stated that they don’t choose the referees, that the commission does that. So who chooses the referees when they go to the U.K. or another country and they are still using referees from the U.S.? How does that work?
STEVE MAZZAGATTI: In the early days some states or countries did not have MMA referees. So they used the same 4 guys. As our sport grows there are more and more referees and judges stepping up. That’s why you are seeing new faces in there doing the job. And that’s the way it should be. There are many fine referees and judges paying their dues on the smaller shows all around the world. And they’re wanting to work the big shows also. This sport is much bigger than the mainstream media wants to admit. But they’re always behind .
PRO MMA: What advice would you give a person who is interested in becoming an MMA referee?
STEVE MAZZAGATTI: Read the rules over and over. You don’t have time to think about what your going to do. It all goes down in 1 or 2 seconds. Go to the gym and get in there and ref. Warn them when they grab the fence. Call time when they have a low blow. Take a point for a foul and so on. You need the balls to make the calls. Go to you local commission and ask them what you need to do. Who runs the amateur MMA program? That’s your next step. But let me tell you. It’s a thankless job. You can’t hang with the fighters, trainers, or promoters. We don’t go to the after fight parties. It just wouldn’t look good. You have to draw the line.
PRO MMA: Have you seen the online referee certification courses? What is your opinion about those?
STEVE MAZZAGATTI: Any training a referee can get is good. The more you do it the better you get. It’s like riding a bike. You never stop learning and trying to improve. Like I tell my kids; school never ends. You always need to be ready to learn.
PRO MMA: What would you say is the toughest part about your job?
STEVE MAZZAGATTI: Not getting to hang out with everybody in the sport…fighters, trainers, and so on. Like I said, it just wouldn’t look good.
PRO MMA: What is your opinion on Instant Replay? If you are in favor of it, how would you use it and when?
STEVE MAZZAGATTI: It would need to be very limited on where it could be used. Like when I missed the eye poke in the Anthony Johnson fight. That was a foul and not a punch like I called it. The replay could have overruled my call. I felt bad about that one. But I can’t call stuff I don’t see. It looked like a punch to me. And this stuff goes down in 1 or 2 seconds. You don’t have time to scratch your head and think about what to do.
PRO MMA: If all you referees had a one night tournament where you fought each other, who would be the grand champion?
STEVE MAZZAGATTI: Show us da money. And we will “Hook Em Up!!!”
PRO MMA: In all your time of working as a referee, have you ever been approached by someone who offered you a bribe or tried to influence the way you would work a fight in any way whatsoever? If so, could you explain what happened?
STEVE MAZZAGATTI: The good thing is we don’t know who we are reffin until we get to the show. So there’s not a lot of time. But no I have never been asked to throw a fight in any way.
PRO MMA: What is your opinion of the old PRIDE yellow card system? Do you ever wish they had something like that here in the states?
STEVE MAZZAGATTI: Fighters are good at policing their selves. And if not, we just break them or stand them up. I don’t feel good about taking somebody’s money. I have refereed for PRIDE and they gave me a Yellow card to use. It stayed in my pocket the whole show.
PRO MMA: Have you ever been in a fight where the guys just would not engage? How frustrating is that and what do you do in a situation like that?
STEVE MAZZAGATTI: It’s a chess game out there. It take time to set your move up. If one guy keeps avoiding the fight it’s a foul and after a warning we will take a point. You can’t run.
PRO MMA: Thank you so much Steve for taking the time to speak with us at PRO MMA (promma.info). Do you have any shout-outs or final thoughts?
STEVE MAZZAGATTI: Support your local fighters. Both fighters have worked their ass off to put on a show for you. Show some love.
By: Jack Bratcher