This week Sports Illustrated Online is looking at refereeing issues in mixed martial arts (you can read my defense of MMA’s refs here), and I got an opportunity to talk with “Big” John McCarthy about his thoughts on the state of officiating in our sport. We also talked a little about the evolution of rules in the UFC, and the difference between rules that came about out of practical concerns and those that were changed to appease political opponents.
While I expected McCarthy to know more about refereeing MMA bouts than anyone else alive, I didn’t expect him to have such an encyclopedic knowledge of the sport. The guy can rattle off the names of the fighters in almost every bout he’s ever worked from UFC 2 onward. He also had a few great insights about the nature of the sport and what it demands from referees. Here are some select excerpts from our conversation, just for you guys:
So tell me, when you went in to work your first bout at UFC 2, what guidelines were you given?
BJM: (laughs) The guidelines I was given were, ‘Don’t stop the fights. The fighters will tap out or the corners will throw the towel in. That’s how the fights will stop.’ That’s honestly how I got my job, because the very first UFC fight ever, Joao Barreto was the referee. Teila Tuli was down and got kicked by Gerard Gordeau, and Joao stopped the fight and Rorian Gracie was upset because that wasn’t how it was supposed to be.
So you got the job with the UFC because someone else messed up?
Yeah, The first fight I did that night was between a guy named Scott Morris and Sean Daugherty. In the fight, Daugherty went down and got neck cranked and he tapped out. I thought, ‘Hey, this is easy.’
The way I tried to deal with (the lack of stoppages) was to tell the fighters and their corners in the rules meeting, look, if your fighter’s in trouble, I’m going to look over at your corner and say, ‘Watch your fighter.’ If he doesn’t get himself out of trouble I’m going to say, ‘Watch your fighter, throw the towel.’ That was supposed to let them know that I wanted them to stop it, because I couldn’t.
When did you realize that the lack of stoppages was a bad idea?
Well, that night there was a fight between Orlando Weit and Robert Lucarelli, who was, you know, not all that skilled. Lucarelli started taking a real bad beating and I was screaming for his corner to throw in the towel, and finally they did it. After the fight I went over and said to them, ‘What the hell is wrong with you? Are you trying to get your guy hurt? Why didn’t you throw in the towel?’ And they said, ‘He told us he’d kill us if we threw the towel.’
It was right then and there that I knew I was in trouble. Some of the corner people weren’t smart enough to know when to throw the towel in, or maybe they just wouldn’t.
Was that when you knew there had to be referee stoppages?
When it really hit me that something needed to change was later that night in the fight between Scott Morris and Pat Smith. Morris’ people were from “Robert Bussey’s Warriors International.” I’ll never forget it. Morris slipped on a throw and he started eating shots from Smith, and I looked at his corner and said, ‘Throw the towel, throw the towel.’ They looked at me, shook their heads, and threw it in the audience. I screamed at them and Pat Smith thought I was telling him to stop fighting, so he stopped, thank God.
At the very end of the show I went and told Rorion Gracie that I would never do it again, because they were going to get somebody seriously hurt. A couple weeks later they called and said okay, for the next one I could stop the fight, but only if someone clearly couldn’t continue. That’s when I came up with the term ‘intelligent defense,’ after UFC 3, to let people know when and why I was going to stop the fights.
Intelligent defense is a term that’s been under fire for being too vague lately. Tell me, as best you can, exactly what the term means to you.
If you have a fighter who has been hurt, who has suffered a concussive blow and is clearly dazed, they have to do certain things to show they’re still in the fight. They don’t necessarily have to be successful at those things. But they have to at least attempt to stop their opponent from continuing his attack. If they’re mounted, they’re moving their body, trying to change their position to stop their opponent. They don’t always have to be successful, but they have to at least show that they are trying in order for you to give them that time to try and work out of it. Once they show they aren’t trying or they can’t, that’s the point where we stop the fight.
Has your own notion of intelligent defense changed over the years?
To a point. As the fighters got better and the nature of the fights changed somewhat. Because those early events, I mean, have you watched them lately?
Yeah, they’re pretty painful to watch.
Exactly. It’s horrible. Everyone talks about them with this reverence, but they must not have watched them recently because they’re horrible. It was a completely different kind of fighting than it is today.
Do you think that the rules that are in place now will be the rules we have for good, or do you think we’ll see any changes?
The rules have been working for them. No one has been seriously hurt under those rules. To change them now would open the commissions up for some liability if someone did get hurt. For instance, kicking to the kidney with the heel, like Royce Gracie used to do when he had someone in guard, is illegal in MMA right now. But is that really that damaging of a blow? You can hit someone with a roundhouse kick in that same area and it’s legal. That doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it’s been in place for so long that they don’t want to change it. You aren’t going to see them take out rules. You’ll only see them trying to add rules.
What rules do you think they should consider taking out, assuming they were open to that?
Well, stuff that isn’t really relevant. Grabbing the clavicle is illegal. Who grabs the clavicle? Come on. Who ever says, if only I could have grabbed the clavicle in that fight?
The downward elbow strike is something that some people think is really damaging. But you’re able to hit with every other kind of elbow strike. They really put that in because when it happened in a fight it was someone using it to hit the back of the head or neck area. But that’s already covered. You can’t hit that area anyway now. The actual downward elbow itself is, in my opinion, not any more dangerous than any other elbow.
What’s the hardest part about refereeing MMA fights?
In MMA, you don’t have time on your side as a referee in MMA like you do in boxing. A guy gets knocked down in boxing, the ref has a lot more time to decide whether he can continue. The other fighter goes to a neutral corner, there’s a standing eight count…all in all, about fifteen seconds goes by for the referee to make that decision. In MMA, the other fighter is on him immediately and you have to make that decision a lot faster.
Some of the problems we’ve been seeing with referees now, are they a result of that lack of time, or because referees aren’t experienced enough, or what?
There are several problems that are going on. You have referees who interpret the rules their own way. Positioning is everything in MMA. On the ground, if you don’t know what’s happening in every position, you’re going to make mistakes. They may even be mistakes that the crowd likes. The crowd likes it when guys get stood up.
But you see Roy Nelson fighting Andrei Arlovski. Nelson gets to side control, is working a kimura, and the referee stands them up. This is a referee who doesn’t understand what he is looking at. It doesn’t matter what anyone in the audience is saying, whether they want them stood up or not. You have one guy who’s in a dominant position. It would be like a boxing referee stepping in to stop a guy from throwing a perfect left hook. That’s what’s happening in MMA fights all the time. Referees are interjecting themselves into the fight.
When it comes to stand-ups, that’s really done for entertainment purposes. To keep the crowd from getting bored. Is that wrong?
It’s okay to do it for entertainment purposes, but it has to be done equally. You can’t put an unequal emphasis on the stand-up portion of the fight and say that the ground isn’t as important. A ground fighter might take a beating to get the fight to the mat, but once he’s there the referee might only give him fifteen seconds to work before standing him up. The fighter who wants to stand and strike doesn’t have to worry that the referee will only give him fifteen seconds to work before putting him on the mat. If you stand up a fight because the crowd yells, ‘Stand ‘em up!’ you should never referee another fight.
Do you feel like the rules for stand-ups have changed over the years as fans get more anxious to see knockouts?
I don’t think the rules have changed, but I think that maybe the interpretation of those rules as far as stand-ups, that hasn’t evolved the way it should have. You have a lot of referees coming from boxing and saying that they know fighting. And maybe they do. I’m not saying they don’t.
But if they don’t know all the elements of MMA, what’s going on in the ground game and how things happen in the sport, they’re going to make mistakes. I didn’t have anyone to learn from, so I made mistakes. Every fight I did I went back and watched to try and learn from my mistakes. These guys now, they don’t have to do it that way. There are people they can learn from, and they should be trying to do that or else they shouldn’t be refs.