Catching up with prominent UFC referee Yves Lavigne
Yves Lavigne knows what it means to be a fighter. A lifelong martial artist, he studied judo while growing up in Quebec, wrestled in school and found his way to karate, "where I had a natural ability," he says, "and took it up very seriously." So seriously, in fact, that he was part of a full-contact Canadian national team that in the early '90s won a world championship.
A proud accomplishment, to be sure, but Lavigne keeps it quiet.
"I don't like to talk about the old days, because if people hear me talk about being a competitor they might think I'm comparing myself to the gentlemen I'm now in the cage with," said the 51-year-old, who over the past six years has become one of the most prominent referees for UFC fights. "I am in no way, shape or form near the caliber of athlete that I am refereeing for today."
Prior to making his UFC debut in 2006, Lavigne spent many years refereeing kickboxing and boxing bouts in and around Montreal. He also was a fan of MMA, having been hooked by the very first UFC event in 1993, and he ended up on the Quebec sports commission panel that legalized the sport. In 1997, he served as a ref for an International Fighting Championships card that was the first commission-sanctioned MMA event not just in the province but in all of North America.
Lavigne moved beyond the local circuit after a conversation with longtime MMA journalist Loretta Hunt, now a correspondent for SI.com, resulted in her mentioning him to Nick Lembo of the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board. That led to an invitation for Lavigne to work a show in Atlantic City in 2004. And after many more long drives from Quebec to Jersey to work small fight cards, he got the call from the UFC to referee a fight at UFC 58, an event in Las Vegas that was billed as "USA vs. Canada."
The fight card, with eight bouts pitting an American against a Canadian, was headlined by Rich Franklin defending his middleweight belt against David Loiseau and also included Georges St-Pierre vs. B.J. Penn and several other bouts featuring recognizable UFC fighters. However, Lavigne's night work was just to handle the evening's first prelim, between Tom Murphy and Icho Larenas, a couple of guys in what would be their only UFC fight. But Lavigne has gone on, of course, to make many more appearances in the promotion since then, becoming one of the sport's go-to referees.
Lavigne recently sat down with SI.com for a wide-ranging interview in which he opened up about the good calls and bad calls he's made, the criticism of refs by fans and by Dana White, and why athletic commissions might want to take a closer look at the UFC president. He also talked about a job he might soon transition to outside the cage (but nearby) and the second job he holds now ... as well as a job that he doesn't have but he's been confused for having.
SI.com: It's often said, not just of MMA referees in but of baseball umpires and football refs as well, that you know an official is doing a good job is when you don't even notice him. Do you think that's true?
Yves Lavigne: Every time a referee intervenes in a fight, whether verbally or physically, you alter the outcome of that fight. So in a sense, yes, I do believe that it is best for a referee to intervene less. But you have to be there when needed.
SI.com: So is that the most challenging part of being a ref -- knowing when to step in and when to hold back?
Lavigne: Yeah, definitely. That's the toughest part, especially in MMA, because there's so much grey area. There are so many things you have to think about, all at the same time.
SI.com: Is there one call that's harder to make than all others? Is it the decision to either end a fight, maybe prematurely, or instead allow a fighter who just might be defenseless to continue being assaulted?
Lavigne: Yeah, that's the one. It's either that or when something happens so fast and you have to make a call. Let me give you an example: Anderson Silva vs. Chael Sonnen, the knee to the body. I ruled it a legal blow, and everybody was kind of yelling at me. [Laughs.] But I was, while maybe not 100 percent sure, pretty damn sure that blow was legal. So sometimes you go with partial information.
It is tough. When you hear everybody yelling at you, you're like, "Oops, did I just make a mistake, or what?" At the end of the day, that time I made a good call.
Another time I received a lot of criticism was in Frankie Edgar against Gray Maynard, the first fight. In that first round, at no point did Mr. Maynard pin Mr. Edgar on the ground and ... how can I say it? He dominated for about two minutes and a half, and yes, he did inflict damage. But Mr. Edgar kept moving, kept trying to defend himself, so that's why I let it go. I was really criticized, but I think I did good, because Edgar had fight left and we ended up with a draw.
SI.com: Do you get a sense of vindication when you make a call that's criticized but in the end you're proven right, such as with the Anderson Silva knee?
Lavigne: To be honest, I didn't see a replay until later that night, so I didn't know what to think. I'd heard the criticism and then I heard people later say "Good call." It was reassuring when Mr. [Marc] Ratner [the UFC's vice president for regulatory affairs] came to me and said, "You did a good job." I said, "Thank you, sir," and that was it.
SI.com: The last major UFC fight you refereed was Georges St-Pierre vs. Carlos Condit last month in Montreal. There was no controversy, but you had a bunch of important calls to make throughout. In the first round, for example, Condit suffered a bad cut over his eye. What are you looking for in that situation in order to determine whether you have a fighter OK to continue?
Lavigne: I went to the doctor after the first round and asked if he was bothered by the cut, and he said no. After the second round, he was concerned about the loss of blood but said it was my call. I decided to let the fight go on. The only time I will stop a fight for blood is if the doctor tells me, "Hey, look, he's lost too much blood." I know that it looks bad on TV and I know that this one was not pretty, but he was in no danger of losing too much blood. And his vision was not impaired.
SI.com: St-Pierre controlled the fight for the most part on the ground, inflicting some damage but spending a lot of time in Condit's full guard. Some refs are quick to stand up fighters in that situation. You let them keep fighting. Was it because both guys continually tried to create offense from that position?
Lavigne: Yup. When St-Pierre was in the open guard of Condit, Mr. Condit was working angles, trying to submit him. So you let them work. If both of them were passive, then you bring them back up to their feet. If he had closed guard and was just trying to wrap up Mr. St-Pierre's arms, yes, I would have put them back up.
SI.com: OK, last thing about that fight: When Condit landed the big head kick, GSP went down and Condit pounced on him with punches, did the thought cross your mind that you might be jumping in to stop the fight?
Lavigne: [Deep sigh.] Ah ... yes and no. When it happens, you know that one of the fighters is in danger, basically. I ran to get in the best position to see if he was OK, and I saw him working his way, slowly, for half-guard and then guard. So I knew he was still with us, he was defending himself intelligently. So that's why I let it go.
SI.com: How does crowd reaction factor in to your judgment calls? I mean, if that fight had been in Condit's hometown instead of St-Pierre's, the fans would have seen that head kick land and their local guy swarming, and they would have been in a frenzy. Do you ever have to fight to maintain your levelheadedness, your composure, when a building full of 20,000 fans is going crazy?
Lavigne: It happened the first time that St-Pierre fought here in Montreal, against Mr. Matt Serra, when he regained his title. I was the referee, and before the fight, when St-Pierre was entering the building, it was so loud. Bruce Buffer was trying to speak to me, and I couldn't hear him. And he was around three inches from my face.
Then I started looking out at the people standing up and cheering for St-Pierre, and I went, like, "Oh, my God." Then I said to myself, "OK, Yves, go back in your bubble. Concentrate. Concentrate." Then I went back into my bubble.
You have to concentrate on what you have to do and not have a preconceived idea of the fight. Forget about the rest. And to be honest, during the fight you can hear cornermen, you can hear fighters breathing, you can hear the punches. But a lot of times you can't hear the crowd. You're concentrating on those two gentlemen, to try to make it safe for them, and you just make an abstraction of all the rest.
SI.com: So when two fighters are grappling and the fans, who just want to see rock 'em sock 'em robots, are yelling at you to separate them, you don't hear a thing?
Lavigne: [Laughs.] Well, sometimes we do hear "Stand them up, ref!" But you go back into your concentration mode and you concentrate on what the fighters are doing, not get dragged away by the people who are yelling because they've had a couple of beers or whatever. You just concentrate on what you have to do to not screw it up, basically.
SI.com: Of course, it's not just fans who like to tell you how to do your job. Dana White is pretty vocal and pretty blunt with his opinions about referees and cageside judges. Does it ever bother you to hear the UFC president say, essentially, you're not doing your job?
Lavigne: Everyone is entitled to his opinion, but in the case of Mr. Dana White, his opinion is more heard than most of ours. [Laughs.] It is strange, though, that MMA is the only sport where the president of the company can do this. In Major League Baseball, if one of the owners of a club was hammering an umpire, he would get fined. Same with basketball, with football, with all professional sports. It's kind of strange that we're not doing that with combat sports.
Maybe it's because of the structure of MMA. Maybe it's because no athletic commission wants to fine him. I don't know what goes on behind closed doors with him and the athletic commissions.
SI.com: Do you think athletic commissions should be more assertive in dealing with White and others who try to subvert the authority of referees and judges?
Lavigne: It's a good question. Maybe they should. Because at the end of the day, who's protecting the referee? Who's taking our side? If a promoter decides to say something bad about a referee, we're not supposed to go public because we work for the athletic commission, and the commission will not go public to defend us. We're kind of stuck in the middle.
And let me add this: Maybe those who criticize should learn the rules. We go to different states, and each has its own set of rules that we have to follow. So there are people giving us crap because they don't know the rules. For example, you hear on TV that the back of the head is the area of a Mohawk. Well, no, it is not that way in every state. In some states it is and in some states it is defined as something different. We have to follow different rules depending on where we are. Sometimes people don't know that.
SI.com: It seems to me, though, that the rules aren't usually what are in question when Dana White criticizes a referee. He often complains because he wants you to stand up grapplers, break up clinches, do whatever it takes to make the fight exciting for the fans, his customers.
Lavigne: True. He's a promoter and he has to sell a product. That's fine. That's his job. But it is not our job as a referee to make a fight interesting. We're not there to sell a product. We're there to make sure that both fighters are safe, have an equal chance to win and are competing within the rules.
SI.com: Now, everyone makes mistakes and --
Lavigne: [Laughs.] I've made my share.
SI.com: Well, I'm wondering if you notice your own mistakes only while watching video afterward or if you're sometimes in the middle of a fight thinking about a questionable call you just made.
Lavigne: Oh, yeah. Definitely. The most famous one -- and I did admit that I screwed up -- was a fight between Mr. [Mike] Brown and Mr. [Pete] Sell. For some reason, I was not concentrating properly on the fight and Mr. Brown hit Mr. Sell, Mr. Sell fell down and I jumped in to stop the fight but Mr. Sell came back to us and I decided to restart the fight. And I shouldn't have. I let it go too far, and Mr. Sell ended up receiving a beating for absolutely no reason. I did not do my job properly. I regret it till this day.
The other one I regret was in Vancouver, Mr. [Matt] Wiman against Mr. [Mac] Danzig, when I stopped the fight because I thought Mr. Danzig was choked out by a guillotine. It was an error in communication. We talk to the fighters before and tell them what we expect from them. And when Mr. Danzig was in the guillotine and I took hold of his wrist, I was waiting for the thumbs up to tell me he was OK. I didn't get it, so I stopped the fight. But he was OK. He told me, "Hey, I was chilling." And I said, "But you were supposed to give me the thumbs up. And you didn't. So I didn't know you were OK, and my job was to stop the fight."
SI.com: Weighing these two errors, is it more disturbing to you when a call you make results in a fighter taking unnecessary punishment as opposed to one that unjustly adds an "L" to a fighter's record?
Lavigne: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. The Brown fight still haunts me till today. I didn't do my job. I was there to protect Mr. Sell, and I screwed up royally. If you stop the fight prematurely, the promoter can just arrange for a rematch. But if you stop a fight too late, you can't go back and fix things.
SI.com: Speaking of controversial calls, we see a lot of them by cageside judges, who render some puzzling decisions. Do you ever find yourself standing in the center of the cage at the end of a bout with the two fighters, one on each side, expecting to raise the hand of the guy on your left as the winner but then hearing the name of the guy on your right? Are you often surprised by the decisions in your fights?
Lavigne: Not really, because I'm not keeping score. When I'm expecting to raise one of the two hands, it's because it was a one-sided fight. Most of the time, I don't have an expectation of who'll be announced as the winner.
SI.com: There was a time, not so long ago, when the referee in big-time boxing matches would also serve as one of the judges. Would you like that to happen in MMA?
Lavigne: Nope. I think I have enough on my plate as it is. With all the rules we have and all the grey area and all the concentration it takes just to make sure the two gentlemen are safe in a dangerous sport, we would not do a good job if we also had to consider all of the criteria of the 10-point-must scoring system. No. Too much.
SI.com: Would you like to score a fight if you weren't refereeing it? Do you see yourself being a judge someday?
Lavigne: Definitely, in the near future.
SI.com: The near future? Really?
Lavigne: When I say "near," I mean in another five years. I'm 51, and I won't be able to ref 10 years from now. It's a young sport, the fighters are fast and the game is changing. So at some point I'm going to have to retire as a ref, and judging might be something to move on to.
SI.com: Is that a job you could step right into and perform well at now? Or would you require training?
Lavigne: I wouldn't have any problem with judging fights. We used to do that in the old days. At a show where you were one of two refs, if you weren't reffing a fight you were judging. It used to work that way.
SI.com: Of course, you already have a second job, one you do on weekdays. You're a certified public accountant and certified management accountant. Do people in the straight-laced business world know what you do on weekends?
Lavigne: Some do, but most don't. You have to understand: When I'm in an office, I'm wearing a suit and tie, and I wear glasses. Most people don't associate that man with the guy who referees inside a cage. I call it the Superman effect. [Laughs.] When Clark Kent puts his glasses on, no one recognizes him.
SI.com: How do your CPA and CMA skills help you in the cage? Are there any similarities in the two jobs?
Lavigne: The only one is that in both jobs you have to make a decision with partial information. When you manage a company, sometimes you don't have the luxury of waiting for all of the information to come in. Sometimes you just have to make a move -- maybe the market won't be good if you wait too long or whatever. You also have to make a decision with partial information when you're a referee.
SI.com: Does your experience as a referee help you in the business world?
Lavigne: Oh, definitely. The ability to stay calm, not panic. How many people have a job where millions of people are watching and criticizing you? No accounting job can stress me out like refereeing does.
SI.com: I understand that you approach your job as a referee in a businesslike way, that you research fighters before working with them. Why do you do that? And what information are you looking for?
Lavigne: I'm looking for anything and everything. Basically, I'm trying to figure out why we're having this fight and where it's going to lead us. I want to understand what kind of fighter I might work with -- is he a wrestler, a jiu-jitsu fighter, or what? I want to understand where the fight may go. Being prepared is the least that I can do.
I know, for instance, that I am working the year-end UFC event in Las Vegas, and since we don't know in advance which fights we will referee, I will research every fighter on the card. Now, I already know about all of the big stars, like Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos. But I am trying to figure out what types of fighters the guys on the undercard are. And once I have taken in that information, I throw it all in the garbage because, while I want to be prepared, I don't want to have a preconceived idea of the fight and react to something I thought might happen but is not really happening. I just want to be as professional as I can toward those fighters who are putting their safety into my hands.
SI.com: Is there a loosely knit brotherhood among the referees? When Dan Miragliotta or Herb Dean makes a call in the cage that incites much criticism and debate, you're one of the few people on the planet who has an idea of what he was thinking when he made his call. Do the refs compare notes or offer each other feedback?
Lavigne: Personally, if I make a call, there are two people who I might ask their opinion. One is John McCarthy, who has been helping me since Day 1 at UFC 58. He didn't have to, but he did, so thank you, John. To this day, I know I can call him and say, "What do you think?" And he might say, "Dude, you screwed up." Or he might say, "You did a good job." I know that John will always tell me the truth.
The other person I like to talk to is Dan Miragliotta. It's not that I don't like Herb or Josh [Rosenthal] or others; all of us do sometimes check with each other about a call. But I started in Jersey, working with Dan. So I'm kind of a Jersey ref.
SI.com: Another question about the relationships you build as a referee: How much do you allow yourself to become acquainted with the fighters? For example, you live in Montreal and have a karate background, so that's two things in common with Georges St-Pierre. Do you ever find yourself in social situations with him or any of the fighters or trainers at TriStar gym? Do you have specific guidelines for yourself?
Lavigne: In the old days, when I had hair, I used to train at the TriStar. I don't train at the TriStar anymore. I have stopped training there for a lot of years now, because I did not want to train with professional fighters that I will have to ref at some point in time.
I remember quite a few times walking into the restaurant in a hotel, and I would see some French-Canadian fighters, like Jonathan Goulet or Patrick Cote -- not Georges, because Georges is more secluded, recluse, we don't see him much. So the fighters will say, "Hey, Yves, come sit and eat with us." And I will say, "I can't. I may ref you tonight, and I don't want to be seen sitting at the same table as you guys." I will say hello, ask how training is going, ask about the family, but I will not sit and eat with the fighters. Ninety-nine percent of the time you're going to see me sitting alone in a restaurant, reading a book.
SI.com: Speaking of books, I have to ask you about your other non-MMA job: as author of a series of investigative books about the Hell's Angels. What's that all about?
Lavigne: [Laughs.] That's not me.
SI.com: That's a different Yves Lavigne, also based in Montreal?
Lavigne: Correct. I know who the guy is, I talked to him once. He used to live in Montreal but now, I believe, he's in Toronto.
SI.com: Oh, sorry for the mixup.
Lavigne: No problem. You're not the first to think it was me. In fact, here's a story: The UFC made a huge mistake over this when they did Topps cards, like baseball cards. There was one of me, and on the back it describes me as "the famous author." I was a little bit pissed about this. I called Mr. Ratner and told him, and they took it off the market. But you might find one on eBay for a dollar. [Laughs.]
SI.com: They never let you proofread or fact-check the card before it went to press? That would seem important, especially since the Yves Lavigne who wrote those books can't be very popular with the Angels.
Lavigne: You know how I found out about the card? I was in New Jersey a couple of years ago for the fight card headlined by Georges St-Pierre vs. Dan Hardy. I was having a beer with [UFC matchmaker] Sean Shelby and a fan came over and asked me to sign my trading card. I said, "I don't have a card." And Sean said, "Yeah, you do." Then the fan showed me the card, and when I looked on the back and saw the thing about the "famous author," I said, "I'm not the famous author." And Sean said, "Yes, you are!" [Laughs.]
SI.com: And you probably don't even ride a motorcycle.
Lavigne: Actually, I do. I ride a Harley.
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