Quite possibly the hardest thing to demonstrate, and convey in writing, is the unwritten rule governing a referee’s intervention to stop a fight and call a technical knockout (TKO). It’s when the decision of control is taken from the fighters and placed firmly in the hands of the third man.
I say it’s unwritten because nowhere in the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts will you find such a ruling. That’s because we simply can’t define such a specific ending. All fights and fighters are different and the events leading up to a stoppage cannot be replicated or scripted.
The ruling of a TKO must take in whether a fighter under fire, who maybe hurt and rocked from concussive blows, knows and understands exactly where they are and is showing the referee as much. It’s usually interpreted as intelligent defense. The key to consider here is whether they’re showing the referee they’re intelligently defending themselves. They have to be moving to evade oncoming shots or attempting to improve their current position.
The line between consideration and action is so finite in this instance that it will remain among the most hotly-debated decisions a referee must make. Fighters will mostly contest their coherence once they’re stopped by an official because they are, of course, competitors. To the best of their ability, they will always try to demonstrate they were OK to continue.
A decent measure of immediately debunking this would be if they’re looking over the referee’s shoulder into space while they plead. Another common sign is when a fighter continues to fight with a single-leg attack against the referee in the belief that it’s their opponent’s limb they have control of.
In all instances the action and decision-making process of the referee is paramount and it calls upon all of the experience they’ve built up over many bouts and years in the cage. They need to recognize the beginning of the end and when the fighter – albeit subliminally – wants out of there.
The signs can be different every time. It could be an accumulation of sustained blows slowly ebbing away at their resilience and conditioning. Or it could be a quick and sudden blow, even to an athlete who’s well ahead in a contest. Either way, the referee’s thought process and decisive action should remain the same. After all, an official is making the decision on behalf of a fighter who may need saving from themselves.
A fighter’s safety remains the highest priority for a referee. Sometimes a fighter is momentarily stunned or suffers a flash knockdown, but suddenly appears to spring back into life after they’ve been hit by their opponent’s follow-up blows. They may appear to be back in the fight, but the referee’s decision has already been made based on what they’ve already witnessed – regardless of what may or may not have happened after the stoppage.
On the flip side of this, something that’s rarely seen by any other person in the arena, rarely witnessed, rarely discussed, talked, written or reported on is the deeply intense and personal moment when I’ve stepped in to stop and ‘save’ a fighter from further punishment.
While his opponent reels o for an adrenaline-fueled celebration, the crowd goes wild and the commentator’s excitement overloads, the referee is alone with the fighter – often bloodied and prone. And that momentary glance from fighter to official tells you all you need to know. A thousand words in a split second replaced with nothing but accepted relief.
This column was first published in the March ’16 edition of Fighters Only magazine.