I recently had an experience at a tournament that made me sit back for a second and think. I (a blue belt) entered an expert division, and my second opponent was a fellow blue belt.
Fairly early on in the match, my opponent wound up in what, from my perspective and the perspectives of various bystanders appeared to be a nasty arm bar but we went out of bounds. The ref then reset us in a fairly standard arm bar from guard with my opponent retaining a grip of his choice. The ref says “Go”, I pull the arm, my opponent goes belly down, I roll him back over and start to crank the arm, and I hear “TAP.” I let go of the arm bar. Turns out, the ref verbally tapped on behalf of my opponent. My opponent was indignant, saying that he didn’t feel in danger, berating the referee for making that call in an expert division.
How strange! A referee choosing to end a match based on perceived danger to one of the competitors, an expert match at that. This was a small, local tournament, The Crackdown Classic (about which I’ll write more in a later article.) Its rule set was a bit unorthodox, being a double elimination tournament, with sub only rounds followed by point’s rounds, and all submissions allowed in expert and intermediate divisions. Oh, and the only division that had prize money was the absolute division (of which this match was not a part.) Was the ref right to tap for my opponent? Or should my opponent be allowed to gauge his own risk? We were, after all, not competing for money just yet…
For starters, I’ll say this: my opponent’s reaction to the ref’s call was a vitriolic rant in which he insulted the referee, the competition, the rule set etc. I’ve been the victim of and sometimes benefitted from bad calls, and the best way to handle a bad call is to quietly and respectfully talk to the promoter, and if possible your opponent. I’d have gladly restarted if it came down to it, simply because when I win I don’t want there to be any “what ifs.” However if you freak out on the spot, chances are that’s not going to happen, and worse yet you’ll look like a sore loser.
The rule set of the tournament clearly said this: “If a competitor is caught in a submission, and serious physical harm is imminent, the referee can stop the match and declare a winner.” And I know that for ME it felt like his arm was in a precarious situation. But what if this fellow’s elbow was double jointed? What if the angle was such that regardless of how it felt to ME, or how it looked to the ref, he was fine?
Should a referee exercise their right to call the match? These sorts of rules exist in most tournaments including prestigious IBJJF tournaments, but you don’t see refs stopping black belt matches, and sometimes those end in injury. Given that we entered the expert division, it may have been smarter for the ref to allow me to destroy my opponent’s arm than for him to intervene, as his intervention effectively made a statement that the experts at the tournament were not fit to determine their own safety.
This is a tricky situation that many tournaments, especially small local outfits, face. They don’t want to be associated with injury, and the reality is that there’s a good chance the ref saved my opponent from serious injury. But there’s also a possibility that in spite of getting into a really bad spot, my opponent in fact knew what he was doing and made a decision to continue working from that situation, a decision that perhaps shouldn’t have been overridden by the referee.
What do you think? Should a referee at a small local promotion, or better yet an IBJJF event decide what’s best for the competitors, like an MMA ref might? Think about the fight between Tim Sylvia and Frank Mir in which Frank Mir broke Sylvia’s arm, but Sylvia wanted to continue. Should that have been allowed? What about unconsciousness? Once one competitor is unconscious can the ref step in? Can the competitor that went unconscious then regain consciousness and say “I never tapped, I’m an expert, let me continue”? What are your thoughts?