In the replays, you can see the black armbands. If only those things were acknowledging a dead promotion, instead of a dead fighter.
On Thursday, EFC Africa chose to honor Booto Guylain by having its fighters wear those armbands. Guylain passed away March 5 because of injuries he suffered in the cage at EFC Africa 27, the event that directly preceded Thursday's EFC 28.
The armbands were a nice gesture to Guylain's memory. You know what would have been an even nicer gesture? Making some kind of commitment to fighter safety, or at least working to ensure they have some competent referees.
But EFC Africa did neither. If anything, they looked hellbent on staging a sequel.
When your voice of reason is a guy who has no qualms about striking the back of his opponent's head 12 times in a row (by my count), you might just have things a little backwards. But there we were, with heavyweight Christophe Walravens looming over dazed and defenseless opponent Bernardo Mikixi and frozen by a sudden attack of the WTFs. The big man just stood there, arms spread wide, head cocked to the side, while Mikixi gazed upward like a capsized beetle.
"He's done, ref," screamed Walravens' body language. "What more do I have to do?"
That little break in the action was an imploration to referee Wiekus Swart. Swart not only failed to warn or penalize Walravens about the blows to the back of the head, but then stood motionless as Walravens threw bomb after illegal bomb on Mikixi's skull.
Only after eight seconds (again, by my count) of Walravens' self-imposed inaction did Swart finally shuffle in and wave off the bout. It went down as a TKO win for Walravens.
On its official Twitter page after the fight, EFC did not acknowledge the late stoppage. But there was some good news: Walravens and Mikixi had each received performance bonuses.
A subsequent tweet thanked "all involved for an exceptional event":
During the post-fight news conference, there were no questions or comments uttered about the stoppage or the refereeing performance. Not a one.
Elsewhere on Twitter, the story was a little different. A user with the handle "Snide Guy," who describes himself as an independent voice on South African MMA, was quite outspoken about the outcome:
@mmaencyclopedia the exact ref has been found negligent before. Amateur refs are a huge problem here, South African MMA is in shambles.— That Snide Guy (@SnideMMAsa) March 27, 2014
Twitter user "MMA Blog South Africa" had a similar take:
Fighter safety must be the number one priority. These consistently bad refs put our fighters in unnecessary danger. This is unacceptable!— MMA Blog SouthAfrica (@MMABlogSA) March 27, 2014
In the wake of the event, EFC Africa President Cairo Howarth issued a statement that defended the stoppage (adding that Mikixi had verbally submitted) and pointed a finger at "the internet" for the ensuing controversy.
“The Walravens vs. Mikixi fight was awesome. Sitting Hexagon side, I had no feeling that the stoppage was handled improperly," Howarth wrote in the statement. "...Bernardo rolled onto his back, a standard defensive position, and then verbally submitted, at which point Wiekus stopped the fight. In terms of the rules of MMA, I don’t see anything wrong with the stoppage. In fact, the first inkling anyone in the arena had that there may be something wrong was after sensationalism hit the internet – which says a lot about how difficult it is to judge reality on a single camera angle."
Defenses and deflections aside, to have a refereeing performance as risky as Swart's less than one month after a fighter died from cage-related injuries—and on the very night that fighter was being remembered—simply boggles the mind.
Is EFC Africa the first promotion to suffer from referee incompetence? Nope. But even when promotions do not select referees, they can exert some leverage over the situation. Three weeks after the death of a fighter, they can circle the wagons and re-emphasize safety and, you know, baseline competencies with fighters, referees and everyone else. Maybe this isn't the best time to play rule book semantics.
I mean, one of their fighters just died. Less than a month ago. If that's not a sign that you need to re-examine yourself, your practices, your affiliations and your behaviors, what, exactly, will that sign look like? Here's hoping someone wakes up at this switch before those black armbands become a regular fashion fixture, and MMA in that part of the world becomes a further embarrassment to the sport and those associated with it.
Scott Harris writes about MMA and other topics for Bleacher Report. For more, follow Scott on Twitter.
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