In the 27 years since it was first used as an officiating tool by the doomed United States Football League during its 1985 season, instant replay has become so commonplace in professional sports as to barely be noticeable anymore.
Replay has long since outlived its originators in the USFL, and today the notion of watching a pro football game without it seems as old-fashioned as leather helmets or (gasp!) real grass. Even baseball, that curmudgeonly old warden of tradition and sentimentality, now allows umpires to check the video evidence in certain situations.
When you consider how routine and relatively iconic replay has become in athletics, the fact it’s still almost unheard of in mixed martial arts -- a sport that certainly likes to fancy itself the wave of the future -- seems pretty bizarre.
To hear Dana White tell it, he’d like to see that change.
“Every other sport has instant replay [and] fighting needs it too,” White said during an appearance on Inside MMA this week, "especially with how bad the officiating has been. ... These athletic commissions have this thing where it’s like once a guy makes a decision, it can’t be overturned. It’s insane. It’s insane.”
White’s off-the-cuff remarks have given some modest momentum to the idea that the time has come for instant replay in MMA. Indeed, judging solely from the UFC president’s sales pitch, you have to admit, it sounds good. On paper, the use of replay is something most fans can get behind without much reservation.
Except for one thing: In fighting, we’ve all learned the hard way never to trust how things look on paper.
The sport’s short history is already littered with the wreckage of ideas that sounded great in theory, only to flounder in real life. TUF: Live, the Yamma pit, even San Do; they all probably seemed like winners the first time a promoter or television executive drew them up on the back of an In-N-Out Burger napkin.
In practice? Yeah, not so much, and the possibility exists that the same would be true for instant replay.
Indeed, the reason replay isn’t more prevalent in combat sports such as MMA and boxing isn’t because the people in charge haven’t thought of it before. On the contrary, it’s because they have thought of it and they’re not sure it’s such a hot idea.
For example, the Nevada State Athletic Commission adopted instant replay back in 2009, but has been careful to make sure it only applies in very limited situations. As it stands, referees can refer to the video only in instances when they believe a stoppage may have been the result of a foul. By design, that allowance is extremely narrow and NSAC executive director Keith Kizer told ESPN.com this week expanding the rule any further could infringe on the fast-paced and relatively free-form nature of a sport such as MMA. Nobody wants that.
“You never want the cure to be worse than the disease, as the old saying goes,” Kizer said.
While the idea of giving referees and ringside judges access to instant replay is easy to endorse from our living rooms, actually implementing it is another matter entirely. Fact is, MMA just may not lend itself to replay the way other more mainstream, stop-and-start games such as football and baseball do.
Even if a referee had wider use of replay at his disposal during a fight, when and how could he use it? Could he call a halt to the bout in the middle of a round, thereby unduly pausing the action in order to check the video screen? Not sure fighters or fans would like that very much. Could he take a peek between rounds and then report back to the fighters that, “Hey guys, remember that eye poke (or low blow or fence grab) from the first round? We’re reversing the decision on that”?
You don’t have to think about either of the above scenarios too long before you realize how either could negatively affect the sport. That goes double once you consider the hard-core fan base’s well-established penchant for kvetching about referee decisions.
Give credit to White for taking a genuine interest in the various ways we might make MMA better. The fact that he’s passionate enough about the sport to suggest solutions for its many problems has always been one of his biggest strengths as the industry’s most powerful executive. However, before fight fans climb aboard the instant replay bandwagon, we’re going to need to see a clear and polished proposal of how it would work -- in practice, not on paper -- as well as how it would affect the action inside the cage.
If anyone has an idea, we should be all ears. But just remember: Once upon a time, someone, somewhere thought San Do seemed like a good idea, too.