IMCF Retrospective Part 3: Melee Marshalling and Miscelaenous Musings

Please read last week’s article on Marshalling to get caught up. This week will build off of that a bit. Instead of talking about singles and the need for more marshalls and greater crossover of fighter and ref, I’ll be going over Melee’s and some thoughts of the purpose of the Marshalate, Interactions between refs and teams, and the problem of how to improve. Let’s get to it.

Loud clangs drowning out voices; dust swirls that swallowed men from sight; completely empty regions of list suddenly swarmed by a half dozen fighters all looking to destroy each other. This is the chaos the marshalls are presented with. Musclebound men and women running around at between 200-400 pounds in gear, swinging steel weapons wild and furiously, barely able to see and next to deaf in their helms, are the charges the marshalls need to herd and the only tool they have to shepherd these monstrosities are thin yellow pieces of wood, that may or may not have a flag.

Needless to say it’s a hard and scary job. Having been trapped in a corner and run into by fighters in armor while reffing I can tell you that shit is no joke. In Denmark this year I blocked a minimum of three polearms from taking my unprotected head. I bring this up because I want to make it clear that while the Marshalls only job is to look for the few rules we have being broken, they are also trying to make sure they don’t get injured doing it, so calls are gonna get missed. Far more than in a regular sport, even with the number of refs we put in the field and on the sides.

Marshalling Melee often comes with it’s own adrenaline rush. Not just from the danger to yourself, but also because you know that a majority of the calls you make have a chance of preventing the injury that ends a fighter’s career. You have to see that rule, make the call, get the fighter to listen to you and then take a knee, and do it fast enough that neither you nor they get hit by the chaos going on in the rest of the field. It’s a bit wild.
It also means you often have a close up view of when things go horribly wrong. There wasn’t too much this year, but there were 6 of us who were within a few yards of the New Zealand fighter that got dropped and paralyzed for a few days. I saw a straight shot along the spine, though I was told the New Zealand armor tells a different story. I wasn’t alone in seeing that either. It was before we knew the fighter was injured but we all thought spine. You can a half dozen eyes on something and still miss it…that’s the craziness of this sport.

What does that mean, if our judgement is so fallible? Should our refs wait for another marshall to confirm before making a call? Should they back down before protests of the fighters and captains? No, the opposite is true. Despite, perhaps because of, the error prone nature of the job, Marshalls should be quick to make calls and regardless of protests be firm. It is imperative to the safety of the fighters that control of the field is maintained. Because once it’s lost, it’s almost impossible to get back again. Years of other team sports drove that lesson home. If a ref let a few calls slide in the early game, players would get more and more chippy with each other, whether trying to even the score, get some advantage, or just to prove they were tougher and badder. At that point trying to reel control back in with a harsh calls rarely yield anything but anger and disrespect for the ref, which in turn tended to make players even more likely to push the bounds of the rules.

I know it sucks being sat for no reason. Blown calls on bad strikes and the like that force a fighter to sit are super frustrating. Hell they are frustrating even when they are legit, and for our own safety. I’d never sit for armor failure(helm and guantlet loss not included) if I could get away with it, even if that does put me at far more risk and I doubt I’m alone in this. However the personal frustration of being forced to sit 99 times for the wrong call when compared to the tragedy that comes with 1 missed called out of the 100, is not even worth considering. Calls need to be fast and decisive, with no chance of backing down on the field. The fight is chaotic enough under the minimal guidance and power of the marshall. When that authority is shown to not be absolute on the field, that whisp of control that exists is vanished, driving the danger even higher. There is a process in place to appeal decisions off the field. Having faith in that process allows head refs of a match to have absolute confidence in their calls and stand behind them without worry. Someone else can sort out the fairness, they just have to worry about the safety and maintaining control.

At IMCF we were both very good and kinda bad at this. I personally never felt like marshalls let things get out of hand and kept the fighting reigned in to a reasonable level of violence and chaos. However there multiple moments where marshalls, myself included, were looking to others in the Marshallate for confirmation that a strike or move was in fact was illegal. Perhaps we were waiting for a second illegal shot to make them kneel or we weren’t sure of the angle and didn’t want to sit someone unfairly. I know my concern was not overly influencing the fight when I went out most of the time and I now regret that focus.

I watched a number of kicks to the knee not get called. Multiple vertical spine strikes were let through, more than a few blades slipped onto necks without any consequence and the number of back of knee shots…well Jaye Brooks’ bruises were testament to that. There’s a host of reasons for this. Some of these were just missed in the chaos as happens. Sometimes they were caught by a marshall on the sideline but by the time a field marshall knew the danger was past and there was no reason to make the call.* Sometimes when asking each other clarifying questions on rules interpretations, things would get muddled in the translation.

In the end though I think it mostly came down to the diffusion of power. Every match had 1 head ref, 4 other field refs, and between 6-10 line refs. The head ref was the one in charge and the only one supposed to communicate with fighters. The field refs were meant to watch a specific corner for infractions. And the line refs were there to catch the rest….however who was responsible for what types of calls and the like was kinda ambiguous. As a line ref I knew we could sit people…but was my job mainly to watch for rail hooking, knees touching the ground, and similar issues that are usually hidden in the scrum on the rail, keeping a secondary eye out for armor breaks and other unsafe things? Was I supposed to mainly look for unsafe striking? Was this more similar to American Football where each ref has a specific job, Regular Football where linesmen look for one type of rule infraction but advise on others, Or do we all same the same general job, with some form of hierarchy?

The lack of clarity, combined with certain marshalls having a more passive nature while others were quite aggressive seemed to create an atmosphere of hesitancy around certain questionable calls. Prior to this experience I would think this is good. As a fighter I had wanted them to be sure. Having seen the danger from the other side, I now think of a blow looks like it could be bad, it is bad.

One of the interesting things I noticed while re-reading the rules, is that there is no explicit provision for sitting fighters when they use an illegal technique. It is simply the common punishment. The rule book leaves up to the marshall what punishment they wish to use. However, while I know it is in the works, there is currently no guide on best practices for how to call that. Personally I think one strike to an illegal zone should warrant a verbal warning. If possible, stop the fight locally(this would be another great example of where it would help to have very assertive marshalls). The fight stops, the warning is issued, the fight continues. A second strike(whether a warning has been given or not) is a yellow card and possibly sat depending on the severity of the strike. A third or more the fighter is sat(possibly another yellow?). A clearly spelled out system like this would greatly help, so that even if a fighter were actually in the white and it simply looked bad, a marshall would not have to worry to greatly about having significant consequences to a bad call.

A fighter might decry an unfair yellow from this, if say they through 3 vertical strikes 2 inches to the right of the spine. However, fuck that guy. I teach my guys, don’t play in the grey. There is no rule that says you can’t grapple or hook the back of the knee…however I tell them never to do it, because you could get called. Similarly don’t throw vertical strikes at the back, no matter where you want to land. It’s too easy for the target to move and then even if you didn’t mean to, you might have paralyzed a dude…and more importantly** gotten a red card for my team. If you repeatedly throw questionable shots, you are being a reckless and dangerous fighter and if you get a yellow or even a red for that, it’s your fault. Besides, you can appeal and if you’re right you’ll be vindicated.

Last thing on Melee, because this is getting long, I noticed a trend where one or two marshals would give a verbal warning to a fighter, or tell each other, “Watch that one, he’s doing X that looked like it might be Y” or “Keep an eye on blank, they keep coming close to doing Z.” This type of communication between marshalls was good, but it fell apart between matches and days as different marshalls switched in and out, different events went on, and new concerns came up. We track yellows, but it would be good if we could not only track verbal warnings, but also have some way of identifying those warned to the marshall staff each day. I personally favor a jerseys with numbers on them, but I’m guessing that won’t get past the Authenticity crowd.

This was far less organized than I’d hoped, as I pretty much immediately abandoned my outline in favor of stream of conscious writing. So I don’t really feel like I have any central thesis here, hell I barely have a topic or theme tying everything together. So in that vein here are some quick thoughts that I didn’t know where to fit in elsewhere. What exactly is the primary role of the Marshall? Are they arbiters determining fairness and adherence to the rules or are they safety police, there to keep things from exploding into literal death matches? If both, which is more important? How are we to weigh these things in determining calls? If something is against the rules by a technicality but totally safe, like say placing a weapon along the back of the neck while grappling on a person who’s helmet provides solid steel plate between them and the weapon, what’s the right call? He’s in no danger, but it’s still illegal. If that turns into a takedown, what then?

Brain fatigue is a real thing when reffing 2-4 days in a row in the hot sun. What can be done to keep brains fresh and insights clear near the end of the day, when all the marshalls have already worked multiple shifts? Is there a good test to see if a Marshall is still fresh? I rarely wanted to take breaks and I know I wasn’t the only one.

How does one get practice reffing? I can go do pell work, team drills, lift wieghts to be a better fighter. How can I be a better ref besides events…cause there aren’t enough of those.

Last thing…this is a hard fucking job. It pays nothing. There is little to no glory. The people coming out to marshall for you are taking their vacation time and giving it up to help you fight. They are all huge enthusiasts and fans of the sport…but they don’t even really get to watch, because watching as a fan and watching as a ref are two totally different things. So please, say thanks, appreciate their efforts, and try to be understanding of their calls. Cause without them, you have no sport.

Thanks, see you in the list.

*Since it’s not required to sit someone for an illegal strike, if the striking is done, all punishments can happen later, between rounds. If the strike was part of dropping an opponent, that opponent should be stood back up though, imo. I also believe that if a person hooks the rail for the allowed 3 seconds to get a throw, that opponent should be stood up as well.

**Obviously I’m kidding about the more important…unless you weren’t offended…

  • Overall thoughts
    • What is the purpose of the marshalate?
      • Safety or fairness
    • Brain fatigue
    • Appeals and their problems
    • A lack of appreciation
      • Grattitude
      • Understanding
    • How does one practice reffing?
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