Legendary fighter Frank Trigg hated UFC officials. Then he became one

Frank Trigg, who fought for nearly 15 years, wants to fix what he believes is UFC's biggest and most enduring problem: consistently poor officiating. He became a referee at age 42 -- and he's on the card for UFC 241. Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

MATT HUGHES HAS Frank Trigg in a rear-naked choke. It's April 16, 2005 -- UFC 52 -- and with just over a minute remaining in the first round, Hughes stretches Trigg's body to its limit. Trigg's ribs push against his skin as he tries to breathe. Hughes' legs are wrapped around Trigg's waist, pulling his hips to the floor as Hughes curls his elbow underneath Trigg's chin -- and pulls.

Trigg doesn't think he should be here, though he isn't thinking very much at the moment, other than how to escape from the hold Hughes has on him. Just three minutes earlier, Trigg thought he had won the fight. And now he's feeling the welterweight championship slip away with each second that Hughes squeezes his forearm against his throat.

How did he get here? Just 52 seconds into the fight, with Hughes backing away from him, Trigg landed his left fist to the side of Hughes' face. Hughes' limp body dropped to the floor of the cage. As Hughes fell, Trigg pounced, raining punches: left jab, right cross, left hand, left hand, left hand. Hughes was pinned underneath him as Trigg threw his left over and over again.

But the referee never stepped in, and as the seconds ticked on, Trigg tried another approach. A minute after dropping Hughes to the ground, Trigg managed to leverage his dominant position into an attempted chokehold of his own. It would avenge his first loss to Hughes, which was by rear-naked choke.

Still, Hughes hadn't tapped, and that's when Trigg's situation changed. Hughes applied just enough pressure for Trigg's elbow to slip, and in the blink of an eye, Hughes picked up Trigg. Just two minutes after Trigg looked to be finishing Hughes and claiming a championship, he was being carried like a rag doll across the Octagon. When Trigg tried to escape the ensuing ground-and-pound from Hughes, it was Hughes who latched onto his back.

And now, as Hughes squeezes on his neck, Trigg struggles to find the leverage that will release him from the hold. But he can't escape. And so with 55 seconds remaining in the first round of the night's welterweight championship, he taps out.

Trigg knows this will be the last opportunity against Hughes. He has lost twice to the welterweight champion. As long as Hughes holds the belt, Trigg won't get another shot at it.

Trigg also becomes convinced of one other thing: UFC referee Mario Yamasaki -- the third man in the cage -- just robbed him of $1 million.

THE UFC IS no stranger to controversy involving referees. Complaining about referees is as much a part of the UFC as the cage itself.

Light heavyweight champion Jon Jones was disqualified from his 2009 fight against Matt Hamill for illegal elbows; it's the only loss on Jones' record, and 10 years later, UFC president Dana White still wants the loss overturned. In 2014, Urijah Faber lost to Renan Barao in a title fight via TKO; he was taking damage on the ground from Barao but gave referee Herb Dean a thumbs-up to let him know he was good. Dean didn't see the signal and stepped in to stop the fight.

There was Ben Askren's controversial submission victory over Robbie Lawler in March 2019. And Claudio Silva's "verbal submission" win over Danny Roberts in the same month. And Germaine de Randamie's 16-second TKO finish over Aspen Ladd in July of this year, even though many thought the fight was called too soon.

Yamasaki -- the same guy in the Octagon with Trigg and Hughes -- was criticized for letting a February 2018 fight between Valentina Shevchenko and Priscila Cachoeira go on for far too long. Shevchenko landed 230 strikes to Cachoeria's three. After the fight, White said Yamasaki should never be in the Octagon again. He hasn't been since.

"When I fought, you had two opponents: the guy you're fighting and the referee," Trigg said.

Refereeing in MMA is both highly visible and subjective. Before each bout, the refs are announced. Their names flash across the screen so the patrons watching in a bar or at home know who they are -- and exactly where to send their anger.

"There are rules, but there is a lot of referee interpretation," Dean said. "There are mechanics that we stick to, but there are different ways of looking at things."

In light of this, it was more than surprising that in December 2017, Frank Trigg entered the Octagon for the first time -- as the enemy.

TRIGG SITS ON his couch in his apartment in Marina del Rey, California. It's a bright, modest, one-bedroom with a balcony overlooking the marina. His 81-inch television hangs on the wall. Underneath it is an old Chevy grill with light bulbs as stand-ins for headlights.

It's a breezy, clear night in late July, and Trigg is relaxed in a red, striped polo and dark pants. He still sports his trademark shaved head but has let a beard come in over the years. At 5-foot-8 and 47 years old, Trigg still boasts an athletic physique honed by years in the Octagon, through hours on sets as a stuntman and from pulling ropes on the sailboats he races in his spare time. His wife, Jill, whom Trigg met at a fight, is sitting across the room, the bulb from one of the headlights glowing against her face.

Trigg grew up in Rochester, New York, in a blended family of eight sons -- Trigg right in the middle. His mother was a secretary who stayed home to raise the boys. His father worked in corporate sales for most of his life but began to captain a tugboat in his 60s. Trigg, a walk-on for the Oklahoma State wrestling team, eventually transferred to the University of Oklahoma, where he stayed on as an assistant coach after graduation.

It was during that time that Trigg jumped into MMA. He was too low on the totem pole for USA Wrestling to pay for international trips, and his OU coaching salary covered only his bills, so he started fighting.

It was 1998, and MMA was still banned in many states. "A lot of my fights aren't even on my record because they were underground and illegal," Trigg said. "Once, I made $500 for three fights. If I didn't win the tournament, I got nothing. There were two weight classes: over 200 and under 200."

Although he never held the belt, Trigg finished his fighting career with a 22-9 record. He fought in two UFC championship bouts, both times against Hughes. That second fight with Hughes was the first one inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame Fight Wing in 2015 -- and is the one that haunts him to this very day.

Throughout his career, Trigg was known for his mouth -- and his antics. Case in point: Before the second fight with Hughes, Trigg turned his back and stared at the cage. Instead of touching gloves, Trigg got in Hughes' face and blew him a kiss. "I was always the heel because I had to be the heel," Trigg said. "They wanted some controversy, so I always played the heel because that was what would sell better. Back then, the UFC had eight fights a year, not four fights a month."

He also spent much of his career known for something else: a complete and utter disdain for UFC referees. Lots of fighters complain about refs. Trigg did it ... a lot.

"Before he was an official he was always very aware of officials," Dean said. "He always paid attention as an athlete and as a coach to what he could expect from officials. He was one of the ones who would try and track officials more than others."

Trigg's professional career spanned 14 years, and later in his career, he began commentating. On air, as he had during his fighting career, he heavily criticized what he saw as poor reffing. Finally, in 2011, legendary official "Big John" McCarthy had had enough of Trigg's complaints. McCarthy said to him, "If you think reffing is so easy, come take my COMMAND course."

Trigg accepted. He thought it would be a breeze.

McCarthy has had 35 or 40 former fighters come through his course in hopes of becoming officials. Like almost everyone else, Trigg failed. "I was bottom 5%," he said. "I knew nothing at all about the sport."

He took the course again. He failed again. Then he asked McCarthy for help. McCarthy took Trigg under his wing and worked with him on the things he needed to improve: judging and scoring, mechanics of starting a fight, confidence in stopping a fight. Every week for six weeks, Trigg drove from Las Vegas to McCarthy's gym in Valencia, California, to refine his craft. After completing that one-on-one instruction, Trigg finally passed. He was free to become a referee.

The next step was reffing 100 bouts in events sanctioned by the California Amateur Mixed Martial Arts Organization (CAMO). "It takes most people three years," Trigg said. "I did it in 10 months."

Trigg racked up bouts by committing whole days to officiating, a luxury made possible by his day job as a stuntman. Near the end of his fighting career, Trigg had been in Hawaii and was invited to the set of "Hawaii Five-0" to watch one of his friends perform a stunt. He was asked if he wanted to come back the next day and do some work. He learned quickly that stunt work could pay his bills far better than fighting ever could.

In his spare time, Trigg would fly back to California to ref, crashing on a friend's couch and flying home to Hawaii to go back to work. It was hardly cost-effective. He says he lost $10,000 in a year. Even reffing professional events, there isn't good money. Trigg says refs get $1,900 for title fights on pay-per-view. If you do the undercard, you get $1,000, maybe $1,200.

"There's no money in reffing," he said. "It's a hobby I pay into."

BEFORE MCCARTHY PASSED Trigg in his class in 2014, he sat Trigg down to watch a fight. "I want you to watch what the referee does," McCarthy told him. "Watch what is occurring to the fighters."

Trigg agreed and waited for the tape to start. What he didn't expect was to see himself in the cage. He looked at McCarthy. "What are you doing?" Trigg asked.

"Watch the god damn fight," McCarthy said.

Trigg watched himself lose, but he also watched himself get hit too many times. It was clear on repeated viewing: He took three extra shots. When Trigg admitted to McCarthy that he would have stopped the fight sooner, McCarthy knew he was ready.

"You've got to get past this mentality they all bring in," McCarthy said. "You can't have that as a referee. Your job is to protect someone when they can't protect themselves. You have to be able to read those moments."

"When I fought, you had two opponents: the guy you're fighting and the referee." Frank Trigg

Today, back in his apartment, Trigg speaks about fighter safety with reverence. He knows which team he's on. But even though he's more referee than fighter these days, his history as a high-level fighter helps him earn the respect of the athletes and their coaches.

"While he may not have the experience of a John McCarthy or Herb Dean," said Andy Foster, executive officer of the California State Athletic Commission, "a lot of the fighters feel comfortable with Frank."

These days, before every fight, Trigg walks the fighters through what he's going to call, when and why. He talks about what he calls a flash knockout -- getting hit so hard that your body goes limp on the way down, like what happened to Hughes.

In one of the earlier bouts he officiated, Trigg saw a kid "get starched," he says. He ran over to wave the fight off and leaned down next to the fighter, putting one hand behind his head and the other on his chest.

"When you truly get knocked out, you don't feel anything," he said. "You go to sleep. You wake up, and you're on the ground. I don't want him getting up, but he's trying to fight. So I've got my hand on his chest so he can't sit up."

On that night, he told the fighter that the doctor was going to come look at him. He didn't want him to scratch his head on the cage. "At that moment, I was like, 'Wow, I can really make a difference,'" Trigg said. "I can really save guys' careers."

Trigg, for his part, says he has seen the sport evolve since he fought for scraps to pay USA Wrestling for his plane tickets to Poland and Iran. There's big money on the line now for these fighters. The most Trigg was ever paid by the UFC to fight was $18,000. Now, people make double that on undercards. And the last thing those fighters need is the feeling that a referee blew the call in a fight.

"You know, I've been a part of this sport since '96," Trigg said. "So I kind of know what's going on. I have seen all the different sides of it, so now that's why I'm kind of like, 'OK, I can't make that mistake. I've got to be in there making sure that's not a problem, that I'm not doing something weird.' You know?"

He pauses.

"In theory."

THERE'S A FUNNY thing about that Trigg-Hughes fight, the one that Trigg claims cost him $1 million. To watch the fight repeatedly is to realize that Trigg himself benefited from a dubious referee call.

Watch it once, and you just might miss it. But rewind to the 4:07 mark of the first round, and there you'll see it, an altogether different take: As Trigg connects his knee with Hughes, Hughes suddenly backs away from Trigg, falling to the mat, covering his groin with his left hand. In that moment, Hughes looks to Yamasaki, thinking the ref might stop the fight. And then he's on the ground, with Trigg punching him from above.

Ask Trigg today what precipitated Hughes' fall, and he remains steadfast: "I kneed him in the bladder."

Ask Hughes, though, and he'll say it was his groin. The commentators thought it was his groin. Today, Yamasaki even acknowledges that it was a groin shot.

"It was a groin shot that I didn't see," Yamasaki said. "So I didn't stop the fight. I just let it go."

If Yamasaki had seen it, he clearly would have stopped the fight to allow Hughes a moment to reset. Trigg would have gotten a warning. If Yamasaki, instead, had determined that the shot was intentional, he would have taken a point from Trigg. Regardless, the circumstances that allowed Trigg to knock Hughes down in the first place would have evaporated with that call.

"There were a lot of mistakes in that fight that ended up creating what it was," McCarthy said. "I can see why Frank talks about it that way, but Frank got one from Mario, and Matt got one from Mario."

In other words, the fight that most pushed Trigg into reffing might not prove what Trigg thinks it does. It might not prove that he was uniquely a victim of a bungling ref. What it might prove is just how hard it is not to be one.