MMAJUNKIE.COM: Before we jump into UFC 81, can you explain your background in the sport and how you became a referee for the Nevada State Athletic Commission?
STEVE MAZZAGATTI: I’ve actually been into the sport since it was regulated by the state athletic commissions. I’ve been with the Nevada State Athletic Commission for 14 years first doing kickboxing and K-1 competitions and Muay Thai. I’ve always been an MMA fan, and when they came stateside, they told me to talk to Big John (McCarthy). He mentored me. Back then, he was the only teacher around… Like any martial artist, I’ve been watching the UFC since the first inception. I was totally amazed. As the skill level has improved, it’s even more exciting. And today, it’s more exciting than it’s ever been. I’m really into the technical aspect of the sport and the science of it.
MMAJUNKIE.COM: You’re now a veteran official, especially with the UFC. With a fight like Lesnar vs. Mir, can you tell me how and when you end up learning that you’re reffing the fight?
STEVE MAZZAGATTI: We don’t usually find out until we actually show up at the event. Every once in a while, I’ll catch which fights I’m doing on the Internet because you guys go to the commission meetings, but usually, I don’t find out until I get to the show.
MMAJUNKIE.COM: So you’re aware of sites like MMAjunkie.com?
STEVE MAZZAGATTI. Absolutely. I read it often. It’s our job to do homework, and it’s how I get the latest news and know what’s going on.
MMAJUNKIE.COM: What were your initial thoughts when you realized you got the Lesnar-Mir fight? Do the big-magnitude fights bring a little extra pressure?
STEVE MAZZAGATTI: Absolutely. When Big John left, he had been doing all the big fights, and I usually got a co-main event and the undercard fights. We’d divvy them up. When you’re reffing those big fights, the ones that headline the events that people came to see, (the fans) are going to watch every little thing and analyze everything, just like the SuperBowl. A high-profile fight is going to have a lot more scrutiny and be more analyzed. That’s for sure.
MMAJUNKIE.COM: Going into the fight, were there any special considerations you had or anything you knew you were going to have pay special attention to? In other words, were there things about each fighter that might make a referee’s job difficult?
STEVE MAZZAGATTI: Not really. I don’t really analyze the fighters. I have a job. I look for fouls. That’s pretty much it. That’s my primary duty, whether it’s a huge bout or a weekend-warrior card. The only thing that might change is the level of fighters and how much punishment they can take. The guys who are early in their careers and weekend warriors aren’t training as professionals and aren’t used to taking the punishment and the punches to the face. You have A class, and B class, and C class. The UFC is A class. The C-class guys might work eight hours a day, do a little training, and then take a fight. They’re not used to it all, so you have to be aware of that, and I’m not going to let them take the punishment an A-class guy might. Otherwise, I look at all fighters equally. I don’t look at strikers or grapplers or anyone differently.
MMAJUNKIE.COM: So, you’re willing to give established guys — someone like Mir or even Lesnar — more leeway?
STEVE MAZZAGATTI: I wouldn’t say leeway. I would just say punishment. You just can’t let the lower guys get beat up like you would an A-class guy. Look, these guys do this to make a living. My decisions affect their ability to make an income and get sponsorships and everything. I have as much responsibility in a fight as the fighters toward them winning.
MMAJUNKIE.COM: OK, onto the fight. When we spoke earlier, you mentioned that the decision to deduct Lesnar one point for strikes to the back of Mir’s head was pretty clear. Can you explain?
STEVE MAZZAGATTI: These fighters are extremely skilled fighters, and a grappler like Frank, that’s what they’re trained to do: when you have a guy in half guard on top of you, you don’t want to give the guy room to punch. So that was Mir’s defense. You suck up close to (your opponent’s) chest, tuck yourself up under them, and that covers you from getting hit. At first, Brock started to do the right thing by winding up with the hook from behind and pushing Mir’s head away from his stomach. Then you can blast him in the face… but to have to worry about getting struck in the back in the head in a situation like that isn’t something Frank should have had to worry about. But that was a target that presented itself to Brock.
MMAJUNKIE.COM: Just to be clear, did you think the strikes were intentional?
STEVE MAZZAGATTI: I don’t think it was through any fault of his own. It was just there for him, so he started coming down with that hammerfist. But the back of the head is not a target you can take. And honestly, we see it all the time. A lot of people are comparing it to that the Tibau Gleison-Tyson Griffin fight earlier in the night. They were doing the exact same thing. Gleison took down Tyson, Tyson scooted up toward Gleison, and he had the opportunity to hit him (in the back of the head) but didn’t take it. Instead, he moved his head out so he could get in some punches, which is what you’re supposed to do.
MMAJUNKIE.COM: Did you issue Lesnar a warning? That’s a big part of this whole thing, you know? Some fans think you didn’t issue a warning.
STEVE MAZZAGATTI: Yeah, I did. Brock’s excited. It’s a big, big opportunity for him, and — in my opinion — he looked down and saw the head there, and he took three shots at him and caught him. I jump in and say, “Don’t hit at the back of the head.” A few more seconds go by, Mir tucks up under there again, and Brock comes down with the second couple hits to the back of the head. That’s when I jumped in and had to do my job. That’s what I saw.
MMAJUNKIE.COM: So, just to be perfectly clear, you did issue Lesner a warning before you stopped the fight and deducted a point?
STEVE MAZZAGATTI: Oh yeah, I did. But can you imagine the decibels in there? That was one of the fights everyone came to see. Of course, I came home and did my homework, watched the tape, and I can’t hear myself give the warning. I couldn’t hear myself say, “Bring it on!” on that beginning (either). [laughs] That’s my thing. I always shout that. If you watch the tape, you can barely even hear that.
MMAJUNKIE.COM: Do you think Lesnar heard you?
STEVE MAZZAGATTI: I don’t know. I can’t say that he heard it. I yelled it loud enough for them to hear. It was awfully loud. I yelled it, though. I’ve got kids, so I know how to yell. [laughs] I used to be in a rock band, so I’ve got some lungs.
MMAJUNKIE.COM: I think that’s where the controversy is — if there is, indeed, any controversy — that some people think you never issued a warning. But you’re saying it’s just a matter of people not hearing it, correct?
STEVE MAZZAGATTI: Absolutely, yeah. Let me also say that striking to the back of the head is one of my pet peeves — that and grabbing the cage. The back of the head is a very dangerous spot of the body in this sport. If you were to put a RAZR cellphone right above your C-spine where it connects to your skull, that’s the most dangerous part of the skull. A good, strong hit there can really hurt a fighter. That’s the part of the head that is considered illegal. Right behind the ears is not illegal. Sometimes we caution people not to hit there. That’s not necessarily a warning… we just know the possibility is there. Like I said, I’m just there to look for illegal techniques. And if you go back through my history, you’ll see that I’ve deducted a lot of points for strikes to the back of the head.
MMAJUNKIE.COM: Obviously, it can be easy to accidentally hit someone in the back of the head unintentionally if an opponent if flailing around. Where do you draw the line?
STEVE MAZZAGATTI: Accidental strikes happen. But when you look at the back of the guy’s head and connect, it’s, “OK, that might be cool. He didn’t mean it.” Then you hit twice, and it’s time to start considering if you’re doing it intentionally. Then the third one comes down, and that’s when I jump in and say, “No strikes to the back of the head!” as loudly as I possibly can. Brock knows what he did. He has nothing to say about it being controversial. I don’t think his corner protested at all about it. It’s all left to interpretation. But was a foul committed? Yes, it was… If you look at the fight several times, unfortunately, the majority of the powerful shots were to the back of the head.
MMAJUNKIE.COM: Previously, you told me that Mir did what he was supposed to do and that it’s your job to make sure he’s not penalized for that. Can you explain?
STEVE MAZZAGATTI: He did what he was supposed to do under the rules he’s training under — that’s to jump up under there. He was using a lot of skill in doing what he does. He shouldn’t have had to worry about his head being hammerfisted. Unfortunately, that’s what happened to him, and that forced Mir to do something he shouldn’t have to, which is come out of the pocket. When he comes back out of the pocket, that allows Brock to use legal techniques… but he got there by illegal means.
MMAJUNKIE.COM: So, he loses his position? That’s why you restarted them standing?
STEVE MAZZAGATTI: Whenever a foul is committed — whether it’s considered intentional or unintentional — we take the position away, especially if it’s a dominant position. That’s just the way it is and the way it’s always been.
MMAJUNKIE.COM: At any point in the initial exchange, did you consider stopping the fight to award Lesnar the TKO victory? Mir was taking a lot of punishment even without the shots to the back of the head.
STEVE MAZZAGATTI: No, not all. To me, Frank was doing everything right. He was doing what he needed to. He was doing what he needed to for that position. If you watch a thousand Jiu-Jitsu guys in that position, a thousand guys would do what Frank did in that position. He could have kept the position if it weren’t for the strikes to the back of the head. He knew what he was doing.
MMAJUNKIE.COM: So, it was a matter of Mir intelligently defending himself?
STEVE MAZZAGATTI: Absolutely.
MMAJUNKIE.COM: After a tough call or controversial fight like that, do you immediately meet with the commission and Keith Kizer (the NSAC’s executive director)?
STEVE MAZZAGATTI: Absolutely. Keith is really good. We go over the scores and everything we saw and heard. I spoke about that whole fight. I explained to the judges and the commission and everyone else around there the whole fight. We’re constantly learning. We have a little discussion after the fight, and I’m telling them everything I saw and heard.
MMAJUNKIE.COM: Is this right after the fight — or after the event?
STEVE MAZZAGATTI: After the event. Well, we have a quick meeting before the event too. Look, we’re constantly learning and evolving and discussing different ways to make sure that the fighters get a fair shake. After that event, no matter how minor a point might be, we talk about it. That’s how how we’re going to improve.