Veteran mixed martial arts referee Larry Landless talks about his most memorable officiating moments and the growth of MMA.
Tony Reid – Many referees in MMA have their own unique way of getting the action started in the cage. Big John McCarthy made “Lets Get it on!” a piece of MMA history. You generally use “Lets Rock and Roll!” Talk about how that came to be your catch phrase.
Larry Landless – “It was fun when it first got started, that was about 10 years ago when I came up with that. It was something I did on The Underground. There was a contest and that was one of the phrases that came up in the discussion. I stopped using catch phrases because it started to get a little ridiculous. The other referees started getting overly creative and I noticed that we (the referees) started acting in a way that we weren’t supposed to act. It’s OK to be a part of the show but not to be a main focus of the show. Now I just say ‘Go’ (laughs).”
Tony Reid – You are bringing yourself into the action and bringing attention to yourself when in reality you are doing your best work as a referee when you go unnoticed.
Larry Landless – “Yeah, I’m trying to lay low now. Things have changed so much since then. This is something I have been doing since 1995. I started refereeing underground bouts back then.”
Tony Reid – In your opinion what are the biggest changes and alterations to the sport from those early days until what we see now?
Larry Landless – “In California there were several sets of rules, depending on who the promoter was at a particular event. It was my job to understand what the rules are but if someone from one camp got a hold of the promoter before I talked to them live, he may compromise and alter the rules and then I would have to enforce that new set of rules. Now that we have the standard rules, unified rules that you see in the UFC, I have no problem with any of the rules.”
Tony Reid – How different is it to be referring a fight with 200 people in the crowd to being the man in charge of a title fight in front of 50,000 screaming fans and millions of people watching on Pay per View?
Larry Landless – “No, it’s not and Ill tell you why. Some of the craziest things happen in those smaller shows. Sometimes you have people who have never fought before. In the big show you have two experts it’s an easy fight to ref. If you are in a smaller show where two guys are just bringing it, doing crazy, movie type of moves you have to be on your toes. You have to realize the cornermen are guy’s fathers or some random guys off the street that have no idea what they are doing, so the craziest things happen in those smaller shows.”
Tony Reid – Most MMA fans know you as a referee but you have stepped into the cage not as a referee but as a fighter on a few occasions, going 3-0 in a few earlier KOTC events. Talk about how or why you chose officiating over fighting.
Larry Landless – “I fought a few times in the mid 90’s and then I met this girl, it’s always a girl; you know where this story is going. We ended up getting married, we were married for five years, during that time I wasn’t exactly allowed to do the combat side of the sport but I was allowed to officiate, which kept me busy. I had my school and team which also kept me busy, as well. After the marriage fell apart, which most of them do, I was in a really bad place physically and mentally. I put on weight; I was in a bad place. But I decided that it was now or never so I decided to do it (fight). I did three fights, I was pretty happy. I had to lay my license down as an official in Nevada because they wouldn’t let me be a fighter and a referee at the same time. Wouldn’t you know it, the UFC exploded at that time. I tried to get my license back but Marc Ratner had gone into the UFC office and left it to Keith Kizer who froze all positions and wasn’t hiring anybody out of state. Big John McCarthy and I were both involved in that. Neither one of us were licensed in Nevada.”
Tony Reid – At UFC 45 you were had an altercation with Phil Baroni after stopping his fight with Evan Tanner when you thought we was verbally submitting when in actuality he was verbalizing that he could continue. Can you talk about that in cage miscommunication and the aftermath?
Larry Landless – “I wish I could take that one back. There were two things that went wrong in that fight. One was the cut that I stopped the fight to have the doctor check. I couldn’t see exactly where the cut was, I was trying to look, and when there was a lull in the action I stopped the fight to have the doctor check it. One of the inspectors allowed Dan Henderson into the cage to check on Evan Tanner. That’s not allowed, only the doctor can check on a guy, not the corner. I didn’t jump on that, I didn’t let him in the cage but it is my cage and I didn’t stop it. That’s my mistake. Mistake number two was the miscommunication between Phil (Baroni) and I. He got in a bad spot after he took those knees and was up against the fence, got taken down and all I said was ‘Defend yourself.’ Whatever he was telling me at the time, when a person has a mouthpiece in and he’s taking shots, its very difficult. I tell fighters now and I wish I would have told Phil then, unless I’m moving toward you to stop the fight, you have no reason to communicate with me. My intention wasn’t to stop the fight until the communication started. That was my fault. I only said ‘Are you OK?’ because he started a conversation with ‘I’m OK.’ He continued with the conversation and I got closer and he said “Yeah, yeah.” It was one of those things that I wish I could take back. It happened, did I learn from it? Hell yes. Did it make my game better? Hell yes. I tell fighters now that when you are taking blows and have a mouthpiece in don’t start a conversation. You might be telling me how great your life is and how beautiful your wife is but all I’m going to hear is ‘Get me the hell out of here.’ (Laughs).”
Tony Reid – A common misconception by the general public or the casual fan is that referees in MMA are employed by the UFC or the promotion they are refereeing in at the time. You are employed by the state athletic commissions of the state you are working in. Aside from that particular question, what are some of the other misconceptions fans have about referees in MMA that you could clear up for us?
Larry Landless – “People seem to be pretty upset with referees and judges now. I get it, too. I think I am a pretty seasoned referee. People get so emotionally wrapped up in what’s going on because there is so much involved financially and other things at stake as well. They see things a certain way and its hard to explain to them at that moment. There are a few people that I’m friends with that just bust my balls over the silliest things. They convince themselves that they are right. I try to explain the scoring system. If you understand the scoring system, if you take time to go through one of John or Herb’s classes, then you get the opportunity to learn the rules and how we see the matches it would make a lot more sense to everyone. The people I know that have gone through a class come back to me and are amazed how much better they see and understand things. There is this perception that we don’t know what we are doing out there. I know what I’m doing, I know John knows what he’s doing, and I know Herb knows what he’s doing. We work with the young guys in the classes and if they can take things away from the class and improve their games and skill sets than we are doing what we can to make the sport better. People will still have their own way of thinking, you will always think your daughter is prettier than the next guy’s daughter but it is what it is.”
Tony Reid – We all know how much preparation fighters put in before a fight but you, the official, must be prepared going into a fight as well. Can you talk about what you do to prepare leading up to an event?
Larry Landless – “I like to relax. I’m there to work of course but I don’t want to get too emotionally involved or too intense. I have a job to do and I try to remind myself as I’m walking into the cage, I remind my self why I’m there.”
Tony Reid – How fine of a line to you have to walk as to not create too close of a friendship with fighters that you will have to referee and oversee in an unbiased manner?
Larry Landless – “This is a contest, a sport, you all signed contracts, you are all big boys, good luck to you. If my son or nephew were fighting and I had to ref the fight, I would do it. And they would know. Take the decisions out of the hands of the people around you. Take the decision out of the judge’s hands, take the decision out of the ref’s hands and put it in your hands. If I have to do my job and stop a friend from getting hurt then I will do that. If I have to penalize him I will penalize him. I would do my job.”
Tony Reid – The MMA community is a tight knit circle. How close are you with other referees in the business? Do you travel together; hang out, share notes, etc.?
Larry Landless – “In my humble opinion John McCarthy is at the top of the heap. He has seen it all, done it all, he has helped write, rewrite and establish all of the rules in the sport as we know them today. He is a great speaker, we have our referees meetings twice a year here in California and he always brings such insight and clarity to what we are doing. As a referee John is the best and I would consider Herb Dean number two on the list. Herb actually started with me, he was a part of my school. He was training with me, he started his grappling career with me and I stated to bring him along as a ref, so we are really good friends to this day. Every few weeks we will call each other to just compare notes. It’s a good relationship. I think Mario Yamasaki is great, too.”
Tony Reid – With over 1,000 fights under your belt in major MMA promotions all over the world, what is your fondest memory of your time spent in the cage? What has been the most amazing aspect of the growth of mixed martial arts that you have witnessed in your time in the sport?
Larry Landless – “My second fight in the UFC. It was my first show, at UFC 34. The fight Frank Mir and Roberto Traven was my first fight where Mir broke Traven’s arm. But my second fight was the first fight on Pay per View, BJ Penn vs. Caol Uno. That fight just started off BJ had him on the fence and started pounding on him so I threw my body in between them. I’m looking back at that fight and it happens right in front of Frank Fertitta. His reaction is almost like ‘Why did you stop the fight? What happened?’ When you see the angle looking into Caol Uno’s eyes you can see. While Frank is looking at the cage wondering what was going on. We are seeing what really happened. I feel like I jumped onto the scene with that one. I was proud of that one. It was a quick decision on my part, and I realized I made the right call and I realized I knew I could do this.”
Tony Reid – As the sport grows and more and more eyes are focused on it referees and judges continue to receive a lot of heat for, seemingly, every single decision they make. How do you personally handle that criticism when it comes your way, whether it is from fighters, fans or the organization?
Larry Landless – “Usually when one person really hates you the other person really loves you. One family will hate you for a decision and the other family will love you for the decision you made. We are pros, we have to handle that. No one will ever be completely happy. If someone is involved in a very close round or decision what they need to do is take some time away from the sport, come back, watch the tape with the sound off, don’t drink any beer and just watch it. They will see a different fight. The worst thing you can do is watch a fight on TV and then say ‘I wouldn’t have stopped that fight.’ You are not in there; you are not seeing what we are seeing. You can sit back and call balls and strikes from anywhere in the stadium but unless you are behind home plate it doesn’t matter.
“For example, when Herb was refereeing the Tito Ortiz and Ken Shamrock fight, Herb stopped the fight after Ken took numerous elbows and his eyes rolled back in his head. He was not intelligently defending himself as he was taking those elbows from Tito. Herb stopped the fight and Ken quickly recovered. His ability to recover from damage taken is not Herb’s concern. You don’t know exactly where people’s limits are. When you get evidence that a guy is going out and arms are flailing and legs are flailing and the fact that Herb put his body between the two fighters and that barrage was not consistent, well had Herb not done that Tito would have put him out cold. You don’t wait until the guy is out cold to stop it. You stop it when he isn’t intelligently defending himself. That’s the time to stop it. Some people don’t want to fight stopped unless the guy is unconscious or dead.”
Tony Reid – What is the one thing you would want the world to know about the third man in the cage?
Larry Landless – “Its OK to not like my decision but don’t take it personal. It’s never personal. I make decisions based on performances of fighters in the cage at that time under those circumstances. You don’t have to agree with it but it is what it is. I do this year round all around the world and I enjoy it very much. If anybody needs me give me a call!”