Ronda Rousey and Sara McMann came out swinging, and for a little while it looked like we were going to have an excellent and entertaining fight. But soon Rousey had McMann against the fence – and while McMann defended herself well against a take-down, Rousey kneed McMann’s body – hard. On taking a shot to her liver, McMann dropped to her hands and knees. Before much else could happen, the referee stopped the fight. Did he stop the fight too soon? It certainly felt preliminary to the crowd and to a lot of fans who, of course, tweeted their frustration.
Controversial decisions happen – the same referee had just stopped another fight late, allowing TJ Waldburger to take an astonishing beating from Mike Pyle: there was a moment when Waldburger appeared to flicker out of consciousness. And maybe that experience pushed Herb Dean to take a pre-emptive step which he might not otherwise have done.
Given the importance of the fight (it was long anticipated, it was a championship fight and the main event), and given the quality of that opening minute – it is natural for us to cry foul when the drama is cut short. Surely McMann should have been given more of a chance to stand up?
Given that it was a women’s fight, Dean’s decision brings out into the public something many women athletes and fans of women’s sports know well. Gender difference impacts how referees see women athletes. And gender difference also impacts how spectators see refereeing decisions. It can be hard to distinguish between these two things in reading a referee’s decision.
Did Dean allow himself to give in to the social conditioning which tells us that women are to be protected? On the football pitch, especially at the lower levels, referees will stop play over the smallest thing – assuming that any time a woman falls over she must be hurt; or, one encounters the opposite problem – referees will let women foul each other viciously on the assumption that anger between two teams over cynical play won’t erupt into dangerous play, or a fight. (My arm was broken in just such a match.) Of course, sometimes poor refereeing is just that – someone times one wants to see such things as about gender when, in fact, decisions will have been shaped by lots of other things. Gender might be the story, it might be a part of the story, it might also be how we see the story – sexism is not necessarily to blame for a crap decision made by a male referee working a women’s fight. The question is: how do we know where gender fits into our reading, our assessment of how women athletes are treated?
In general, we do not get to directly contrast refereeing in men’s and women’s sports. Until the UFC absorbed women into its professional world, we didn’t see – on the same night, on television and in the same hour - the same referee making decisions about men and women.
Immediately after the fight, McMann very graciously reminded people that the referee is there to protect the fighters; that this responsibility is paramount. Of course, this is why people – including the television announcers – were concerned about how long it took Dean to stop Pyle vs Waldburger. Why would Dean wait so long to stop one fight, and then stop the other so quickly, so reflexively? The contrast between the two refereeing decisions is stark.
The placement of women within a relatively desegregated context allows us to think the decisions together. And also to think about our investments in a fight, as a gendered story. For example: perhaps we ought to ask ourselves why, in general, we are more ready to accept the expression of brutality towards a man’s body than towards a woman’s? Or, why, as fans, we need McMann to have the chance to handle that brutality. I’m using the word brutality here (rather than violence) to mean that moment when a fighter is down – perhaps out – and when the opponent swarms, with the aim of “finishing” them. When the fighter losing the fight can barely buster any resistance – and begins to seem helpless. Dean kept the women’s fight – the main event, the last fight of the night – from going there.
And we are wondering: Was it just a conservative decision? If it were men fighting, would he have made that call? Would Dana White be championing it? Is it fair for us read the call as, perhaps, sexist? Or was it just a bad call, overcompensating for another bad call?