It is not being melodramatic to say that a referee in combat sports has the fighters’ lives in his hands when he works a bout. On Saturday, during the preliminary card of UFC 267 at Etihad Arena in Abu Dhabi, referee Vyacheslav Kiselev should be thankful that a tragedy did not occur.
Kiselev handled a bout between Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos and Benoit Saint-Denis about as poorly as a referee at the highest levels of mixed martial arts has ever handled a bout.
Zaleski was pummeling Saint-Denis in the second round, landing clean, hard strikes with his hands and knees with little in return from Saint-Denis. Saint-Denis’ face was a mess, covered with welts, cuts and blood, but Kiselev failed to stop the fight.
In the third round, Zaleski inadvertently poked Saint-Denis in the eye. Saint-Denis said he couldn’t see but without even calling for the cageside physician to examine him, Kiselev let the fight continue.
Later, he took a point from Zaleski for a borderline low blow that was meaningless in the outcome. He allowed Saint-Denis to take a terrible battering and did not act, but felt it appropriate to take a point for a knee that was far from the worst ever landed.
Kiselev was supposed to work the fight on the main card between Volkan Oezdemir and Magomed Ankalaev, but Marc Ratner, the UFC’s executive overseeing the regulation of the event, pulled him. Ratner said that veteran Marc Goddard would replace Kiselev.
Ratner said the UFC self-regulated the event in association with a UAE MMA federation. He noted that Kiselev had worked bouts on Fight Island before without incident.
UFC president Dana White, who is in Abu Dhabi but was in a dressing room in the back at Etihad Arena and not at cageside, called Kiselev’s work “disgusting” in a text to Yahoo Sports.
Legendary referee John McCarthy, who helped write the unified rules that govern MMA, tweeted that Kiselev delivered “the worst job of officiating at a UFC event ever.”
The risk to the safety of the fighters is too high for Kiselev to ever be allowed to officiate again. And it’s not just at the highest-level. Fighters at lower levels, who aspire to make the UFC, also deserve to be protected and Kiselev showed Saturday he’s incapable of using proper judgment to do so.