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Exclusive: Big John McCarthy Talks MMA Evolution, Stand-Ups, + More

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.


Cagepotato Comments

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Ketamine 4Kids- March 29, 2009 at 8:01 am
Big John reffed mma matches well before there were rules, institutionalized 'intelligent defense' and helped legitimize the sport, and someone has the balls to call him a douche? Must be the same type of person that thinks BJPenn is justifiable in his excuses. BJM is the man, and i'd gladly read what he thinks about mma before 9 out of 10 'mma journalists',(no offense, cp)
Heavy handed Hawaiian- March 28, 2009 at 9:40 pm
BJM is the best referee in MMA, hands down. Glad that he's gonna be reffing the Mayhem vs. Kala Kolohe fight...
SiDeBuRnZ- March 28, 2009 at 8:25 am
holy shit are those crow's feet?
AussieJosh- March 27, 2009 at 5:25 pm
Anonymous- March 27, 2009 at 5:12 pm
Bootylam!- March 27, 2009 at 1:38 pm
KingRex- March 27, 2009 at 1:35 pm
Holy fuckin fugly! I'm sitting here laughing to myself about the newly posted ugliest men in the world article, thinking Mr Jardine couldn't be more deserving, only to scroll down a few inches and get smacked right in the face with a Shane Carwin sized hand of super ugly!!

I respect ya Big Johnny but put a cover on that thing. You're looking like a mix between Tim Curry playing the devil in Legend and that creepy guy on the corner, wearing a trech coat, winking at my 5 year old sister.
Armbreaker- March 27, 2009 at 1:30 pm
Big John is the greatest MMA referee ever. I want to see him back in the UFC soon.
Danal White- March 27, 2009 at 1:07 pm
I give you crap for the bullshit your write usually but this was a good interview.

John looks 15 years younger. I know he lost weight but did he get some 'surgery'?
I know califags consider this normal but he looks younger now than he did at UFC2.

I'd hate for him to get operations 4 and 5 and then look like Burt Reynolds or Mickey Rourker, he'd be too much of a distraction to referee.

I give him credit for being the only LAPD cop the brothers dont want to hang or shoot. Doesnt mean he wasnt a dirtbag (at a time when the force was at its peak or low, depending how you see their fame) just one they fear.
Fenix- March 27, 2009 at 1:05 pm
FEDORISAPUSSY- March 27, 2009 at 12:49 pm
No doubt I am being hard on Lyves. But dude it was more than your average Herb Dean or Mr Sneaky Stache Steve Mazaghotti mess up. It was an unpresidented fuck up!!!!!!
Fenix- March 27, 2009 at 12:45 pm
Yves L fucked up once. Let him slide, he is usually always on top of things.
MMAWhore- March 27, 2009 at 12:44 pm
Clavicle Crusher, thats gonna be my nickname when I make my pro debut. Fuck Yeah!
FEDORISAPUSSY- March 27, 2009 at 12:43 pm
Big John is the man ......... PERIOD. The guy is the face of MMA referee's . None of the current UFC refs can hold a candle to him or in any other orginiztion for that matter. He should start the BJM University of mixed martial arts refereeing. And Yves Lavigne should be his first student.
Fenix- March 27, 2009 at 12:40 pm
Whoever said Big John is a douche go fuck yourself. Seriously, go get a dildo and shove it in ur ass! Stupid fucks!
Anonymous- March 27, 2009 at 12:37 pm
"dont get me wrong BJM grew to become the definitive mma ref but in is early days as one he was pretty immature."
Ummmmmmm Wasn't he the only one?
hotsaucemonster- March 27, 2009 at 12:20 pm
@BitchJ Penn

i really really dont see how im ignorant to the situation i already know that BJM was a former police officer and is very proficient at BJJ. i guess im ignorant in the way that i dont see what that has to due with him being an asshole. yes the refs word is law in an arena but he needs to understand people are not there because of him but because of the fighters so he needs to show them respect unlike what he did in ufc 11 when he shoved Scott Ferrozzo for going to the wrong corner when they restarted his fight . as for being able to take out the fighters he is reffing that's pretty absurd he does BJJ as a hobby these these guys do mma as a profession. dont get me wrong BJM grew to become the definitive mma ref but in is early days as one he was pretty immature.
Rault- March 27, 2009 at 12:13 pm
FUCK, if only I had grabbed the clavicle I would have fucking won
skidding- March 27, 2009 at 11:55 am
I don't like the kidney kicks from the guard Royce Gracie style. Because it doesn't damage ur opponent during the fight, but only effective the next day when you pee blood.

I think elbows on the ground should be illegal for the same reason. It doesn't hurt the fighters all that much during the 15 minute fight, but is dangerous afterwards because of the bleeding and tearing of the skin. It's like winning for cutting someone's epidermis.
Douchey McDoucherton- March 27, 2009 at 11:54 am
and the award for biggest CP Nuthugger goes to....Knightrida! Go ahead Knightrida and lay those puffy lips right on the Ben's sack, I'm sure they shaved it just for you.
BitchJ Penn- March 27, 2009 at 11:53 am
Hey Hotsauce since your kinda ignorant to the situation, Big John has trained with Gracies all of his life, He is a former LAPD, He begged Gracie to let him fight in the original UFCs instead of Royce I'm pretty sure he could wreck just about anyone of the fighters he's in the ring with! I'm pretty sure John is impartial while inside the ring if one of the fighters are disrespecting him I would completely agree with him letting them know who is running shit while in the octagon, So I'd say those fighters better watch out or they'll get yveled. So now you know and know is half the battle!!
Goog- March 27, 2009 at 11:52 am
Nice job, CP. I never really put much stock in the refs. If they're good and doing their job, they should be invisible in there. So except for the horrible botches now and then by today's refs, I don't give them much thought. But Big John really just offered some useful stuff there and it was interesting to realize there's more to it than running down the rules and trying not to screw up. Good article. More, please.
NateGetsIrate- March 27, 2009 at 11:50 am
@ RonanTheBarbarian:

I believe he did start a school or at least a training program for MMA ref's. It was something he discussed in his interview with Sherdog. Does that make me a traitor, Ben?
Brandon S.- March 27, 2009 at 11:38 am
Love Big John.
The Juice- March 27, 2009 at 11:38 am
Thats an awesome interview. "if only i could've grabbed the clavicle." haha.