clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Big John McCarthy on new rule changes, Roy Nelson, referee pay in MMA

In a special interview prior to last week’s Bellator event in Israel, longtime referee John McCarthy delved into several hot-button issues, including changes to MMA’s unified rules, as well as the recent incident involving him and Roy Nelson.

Ram Gilboa

This feature interview with longtime MMA referee Big John McCarthy is a guest column written by Israel-based writer Ram Gilboa. This was conducted prior to last week’s Bellator 164: Koreshkov vs. Lima card in Tel Aviv, and obviously before news of Roy Nelson’s nine-month suspension for kicking McCarthy was announced.

(Editor’s note: There was a quote in this interview that was incorrectly attributed to John McCarthy, instead of Gilboa. This was an oversight on the part of a Bloody Elbow editor, not by Mr. Gilboa. Bloody Elbow has since corrected this mistake and deeply regrets the error.)

It’s not surprising to hear that Big John McCarthy is indeed a big man. Wikipedia puts him at six-foot-four, 260 pounds. But, in person, having actually seen the big guy so many times on TV, he’s really just a familiar sight in the room. And then – hey, that is John McCarthy. Big John McCarthy. Ah, remember him refereeing fights some twenty years ago, separating guys you were sure would otherwise kill each other? In some cases that was probably right.

There was that Brazilian killer, Gracie, there was Shamrock, and Dan Severn and man, Tank Abbott, – and nobody wanted to mess around with that ref. He stuck around. Twenty odd years, here he is.

John McCarthy, 54, landed in Israel on Monday to referee Bellator’s 164 main event on Thursday night, between welterweight champ Andrey Koreshkov and Douglas Lima. John is now in a conference room with white walls for decoration in the offices of Ananey Communication – Bellator’s partner in Israel – when he really should be on a beach somewhere, enjoying his couple of days of vacation. His wife Elaine is with him here, in the room, but she doesn’t seem to mind the white walls for now either. Rarely she would interpose, in a constructive manner, and point her husband in the way of a word or a point, or a story.

His manner of speech is sometimes pedagogical, using a lot of rhetorical questions. McCarthy’s been teaching a lot of fighting and refereeing these past years. When he does a move to illustrate a point – a shadow boxing combination, a shadow sleeper hold – it is surprisingly fast, and convincing. It still wouldn’t be wise to mess around with this ref.


What’re the most important things to know for a fan who’s not going to read the whole 2017 rulebook? What’s changing?

McCarthy: What’s changing is a fighter can no longer take his hand out like many fighters – Jon Jones is the one most people talk about, putting his fingers extended towards his opponents eyes – that is now a foul, or the referee can actually start to take points from you if you do it.

Some wrestlers just like to push on your head, so does the referee have some discretion?

McCarthy: Definitely, I can have my hand out, I can put my fingers out, it’s all good. What I can’t do I can’t is put my fingers towards your eyes. It’s up to referee discretion, absolutely. Another part that’s going to be changing is what is considered a grounded fighter. Used to be anything more than the soles of your feet, and that comes from boxing. When a boxer gets hit, even if just my glove goes down, I’m a downed fighter and that’s a knock-down. And so we used the same terminology, but fighters were smart enough to say ‘well, I can make this work for me.’ And they did, they started putting their fingers on their ground, saying, ‘oh I’m down. now I’m up, now I’m down.’

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Hendricks vs Thompson Joshua Dahl-USA TODAY Sports

And it became a problem in the sport, because it was taking someone who was in a bad position, and actually giving them an advantage. And it actually caused fouls to occur, because the fighter who was in a good position, couldn’t tell if their hands were up or down. And it became a problem for the sport. So now what it’s going to be is, if you are in a that position with just your feet on the ground, you would have to put both hands on the ground, to make yourself a grounded fighter, and it’s both hands with your fingers bearing weight, or your palms. Still, you could put a knee down, no hands on the ground, you’re a grounded fighter. You go down and you put one hand down with your forearm, you’re a grounded fighter. But you can’t just do that thing [put just one hand’s finger or two on the ground].

And you bring back the kidney kicks, the Royce Gracie kidney kicks.

McCarthy: Yeah, the whole part of that is, right now, in this sport, I can punch you to the kidney area, that’s legal. I can elbow you to it, I can knee you to it, I can do an 100 miles an hour kick, it’s all legal. But if I get on my back, I can’t do this [he’s doing that, the leg jerking heel kick motion]. It’s ridiculous. All that’s going to go now, someone is going to start doing the heel kicks, it allows someone to know ‘oh, his guard’s open, I can pass’. And that’s what they’re going to try to do. People have that idea that ‘oh, it’s going to cause damage’. It has nothing to do with damage.

You think it’s going to affect in any way, you think it’s going to annoy fighters out of position?

McCarthy: Possibly, it’ll make them move, which only opens the fight up.

And about scoring?

McCarthy: When I first did the scoring, Jeff Blatnick and I were responsible for it. When I did it back in 1999, Bob Meyrowitz was the owner of the UFC at the time. The first thing that we had on was damage. And he looked at us like ‘are you fuckin’ kidding me?!’ ‘What are you trying to do? Everyone’s trying to shut me down, and you want me to say the first thing we’re looking for is damage?’ So we switched it, and we came up with ‘Ok, effective striking, effective grappling, effective ring or cage control, and effective aggressiveness.’

But anyone with a brain knows the effect of the effective aggressiveness is damage.

McCarthy: Exactly. You know, the problem with MMA, compared with, you can look at FIFA in soccer, you can look at the NFL in football, Major League Baseball – those are associations that have all of their officials under one roof. And they bring them in and they do training for these officials. But in MMA we don’t have that, there’s no Israeli official coming to training in California. No one’s from California is going to Germany. So the problem is we have this wide interpretation of what all this means. I know what it means, I wrote it, but a person in the next town, the next state, the next country, they come up with their own ideas. I learned we were going to have a problem with it when we did the unified rules. I was doing a show – ‘The Ultimate Fighter.’ Joe Stevenson was a fighter on the show and he talked to me about elbows. And he goes, ’John, if I’m on my back, can I throw this elbow?’ I say ‘Yes, you can.’ And he goes ‘but isn’t it that twelve-to-six?’ which was new.

‘No!’ I said. ‘Look at a clock, clock’s on the wall, and the only thing you can’t do is to come down with one type of elbow. Other than that it’s good.’ He goes ‘Oh my god, ok I got it. Right? So if I get in side control’ [demonstrating a slightly different angled elbow]. ‘Yes, you can.’

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Theodorou vs Santos Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

So when were doing the rules I sat there with these people – being the only official in there, I knew I’m the one that’s got to deal with this, I got to get this put down, so I’ll know exactly what is allowed.

And so, Joe goes, does his fight, goes to the semi-finals, and he’s going to do another fight, and Herb Dean is going to be his ref. I’m there to do a fight too, and all of a sudden Joe is coming running across, he says ‘John, Herb says that I can’t do that elbow, you said that I could.’ I go, ‘No problem, let me go talk to Herb, I’ll take care of it’. I go up to Herb, ‘Herb did you tell Joe, you can’t do this elbow when he’s on his back, with someone in his guard?’

He says, ‘yeah, you can’t do that, that’s 12 to 6.’ I go, ‘Herb, how in the world is this 12 to 6, when clock’s there, and 12 to 6 is straight up and down?’ He goes, ‘well yeah, but if you put the clock on the ceiling.’

And I went: ‘Are you fucking kidding me? How many clocks have you seen on a ceiling?’ You know, let’s now tilt it this way. It was a realization at this point, oh my god, everyone comes up with their own idea and interpretation. Because once it’s in black and white, you can take and you can mold it a little bit different than what it’s meant to be. And we had problems with our scoring. We had problems where judges had no true idea of what we were looking for. So the whole thing with the new judging criteria, to clarify first off: there’s only two elements of fighting – that’s striking and that’s grappling. You do not bring in aggressiveness and you do not bring in ring or cage control, unless the striking and the grappling is exactly even. So, it doesn’t matter how mean someone looks, it doesn’t matter where someone’s putting someone against the cage. Striking, grappling, who’s the winner in my fight. What we’re looking for is damage, impact; if you want to say who’s causing the other person to have a negative reaction in the fight. Who’s landing the heavier blows? I don’t care about punch stats that the UFC or Bellator puts up on the screen, saying ‘oh, he landed 27 blows compared to 16.’ If the 16 are better than the 27, the 16 wins the round.

So is it all about clarification, basically?

McCarthy: It’s about cleaning it up for them, and then it’s also about making them realize what’s the difference between 10-10, 10-9, 10-8 and 10-7.

We’re going to see more and more 10-8s?

McCarthy: You will see a lot more 10-8s.

And 10-10s?

McCarthy: No, you’re not going to see more 10-10, because 10-10 means it’s exactly even. I have found one, one round out of all the rounds I’ve ever done, that I can tell you, that’s a 10-10 round. Melvin Manhoef versus Rafael Caravlho in Bellator 155. First round.

That’s the only round in all your career.

McCarthy: Out of everyone, only one I can say, that’s a 10-10. Now, there are other 10-10s when we have fights that were stopped due to fouls, and it’s gonna go to a judges scorecards, and it’s been 20 seconds of the round. The only full round I’ve ever seen is that fight right there.

[Elaine asks him was that a terrible round].

McCarthy: It was horrible! You’re never gonna get an action-packed round that should be a 10-10. Doesn’t happen.

Will the new rules change MMA?

McCarthy: No. It’s not going to change it. There will be some difference in what the fighters are gonna do. A lot of fighters start to take rounds off, they think ‘I’ve won the first two rounds in my opinion, so I’m just going try to coast.’ They can now lose that round 10-8 pretty easy.

So we’re going to see more draws now.

McCarthy: You’ll probably will see more.

What rules still bother you and you would still change in MMA?

McCarthy: For the most part, I’m ok with most of the rules. The 12 to 6 elbow needs to go. It’s ridiculous. I can throw that elbow in every other way, except for one angle. That makes it ridiculous.

But who’s giving you trouble about it, doctors?

McCarthy: It’s politics. When you’re in the athletic commission, you had this rule-set, and for the most part that rule-set has been around for fifteen years now, and it worked for you. There hasn’t been people really getting hurt – there’s all this data now, that this works – and so if you change the rules, what they’re worried about now you allow a fighter to get hit by something they weren’t allowed to get hit by before, and now he gets hurt, now you’re liable.

Who’s idea was it in the first place?

McCarthy: It was a doctor from New Jersey. [Elaine says, ‘but explain, because they wanted to give up all elbows’].

There was a fight that occurred – the only two shows that New Jersey did in MMA, before the unified rules, were UFC 28, and they had what they called the IFC, International Fighting Championship. That happened in the Tropicana, in September 2000. It had a heavyweight fight that had a lot of impact with the unified rules. Because most of those rules were rules that we had written up before, they just adopted them. But there was that fight between a guy named Gan McGee, who was 6 foot 11, about 330 pounds, against a guy named Brad Gabriel, about 6 foot, 210, 215 pounds fighter. And obviously, it’s a mismatch, and Brad Gabriel is trying to get close to Gan McGee and getting close to him and Gan starts hitting him with these elbows that the doctor who is there – his name was Dom Coletta – he was like ‘oh my god, that’s horrible, knees to the head of a grounded fighter’, you know. Gabriel goes to take him down, Gan sprawls on him, and starts taking this 6 foot 11 leg and paboom! And so the doctor had these two things that were absolutely horrible to him – knees to the head of a ground fighter, and he didn’t like this straight up and down elbow. And at the time he wanted to get rid of all elbows. And I fought against it and said, ‘look at it, you allow elbows in Muay Thai, it’s the same thing. Why are you saying it’s different in this sport compared to this sport?’

So it was a compromise?

McCarthy: It was a compromise. Everything is a compromise. But it makes no sense. In Muay-Thai it’s still ok. If there’s an arc it’s ok. It’s ridiculous. It needs to go.

Kicks to the head of a grounded opponent. It’s controversial, some fans want it, the hardcore, old-school, everything should be legal, let them fight fans. Let them head-butt each other. And then, even some of the organizations, they like it out.

McCarthy: There’s so many organizations out there. The kicking to the head of a grounded opponent stayed because of the promotions in Japan. And now, look at ONE FC – why did they just take kicks to the head of a grounded opponent off? Politically. Because politically it just doesn’t look good. It’s never gonna be good if we end up saying, ‘Ok, we can kick the head of a grounded opponent.’ There’s always going to be give and take in everything.

So you’re bothered by that 12 to 6 elbow, but not the kicking rule.

McCarthy: I’m ok with that. If I was going to change anything it was some of the structure. We have three rounds and five rounds fight. Boxing has four, six, eight, ten, twelve. In boxing in some places if a fight goes to the end of the fourth round, you can go to the judges scorecard. But in MMA I can have a three round fight, and I have gone through more than half of the fight, but it hasn’t entered the third round, so I can’t go to the judges scorecard. That needs to be changed. We need to start taking the internal parts of what may not be the actual fighting aspect of the sport, but the rules who govern it in other areas.

I could say that no one’s health and safety is going to be in any way diminished by taking this elbow rule out. Knees to head of a grounded opponent, could I say that someone’s health and safety will not be affected? no.

Watching some ONE FC would support that.

McCarthy: Absolutely. If I have it where I say ‘that’s going to make it more dangerous’ – I’m not going to do it.

McCarthy: No. Because it doesn’t make sense. Go ahead and look at some of their scoring. They have judges sitting with earpieces. Why? Because they have one person telling them what to do.

What do you mean, someone’s telling them, score it like this, score it like that?

McCarthy: Yeah. Why does a judge have an earpiece. Why does a referee have an earpiece? Why? Why? Because someone needs to tell the referee what? The referee doesn’t have to worry about production, does he? You’ve got your announcer that comes in, he steps out, everyone steps out, you’ve got that one person tells you to start the fight, you’re good. The only reason they have earpieces is they have someone who is above them telling them, ‘stand the fight up. Stop the fight.’ If you have to have somebody telling the referees that, then you don’t have the right referees.

MMA: UFC 204-Bisping vs Henderson Per Haljestam-USA TODAY Sports

And what about the scoring itself?

McCarthy: They score the fight as a whole. And I’ll tell you, there are some fights, that you can look and say scoring it as a whole – Dan Henderson fights Michael Bisping, just recently. I like both guys. You score that fight on unified rules way of doing it, round by round, Michael Bisping ends up winning the fight. You could look at it as a whole, and take a look at Michael’s face – because Michael’s face was beaten up in two rounds. All of those rounds, Dan wins on the judges scorecard, but then he slows down, and Michael wins the next round and he wins the next round, and he barely wins the fifth round – but he wins the round. So, you could say that in that situation, as a whole, looking at the fight as a whole, one, two or three of the judges might have given that just going ‘well, look at him compared to look at him.’

[‘who would I rather be at the end of this fight,’ says Elaine McCarthy, from over the table].

Who would I rather be at the end of it, looking that way. Does that mean that Dan won?

Well under the rules they agreed to and fought under and tried to win, no, but even as spectator, do you sometime see a fight and wished they just scored it as a whole.

McCarthy: I wanna know, can you as a human being? You have 15 minutes, are you going to remember the first minute, the second minute, the same as you’re going to remember the fifteenth? No one does. And that’s the problem with scoring fights as a whole. You’re asking a judge to remember what happened in that first round the same as what happened last. You’re not being honest, you can’t do it. You can’t do it. I’m not saying that I wouldn’t like to see more changes in scoring. You need to continue to evolve the sport and the scoring system to adjust to the differences of what is occurring in the sport.

Some of the rules are there for promoters, to benefit excitement over what some might call realism. You can stand up people from the ground, because it lacks action, and the crowd doesn’t like it, and they want to sell tickets. Where is that line as a referee? How do you feel about the stand ups, because it changes the fight.

McCarthy: It absolutely changes the fight. No doubt about it. But all fighters need to understand there’s two elements to fighting, there is an entertainment element.

But this is the only part for the referee to make decisions for the benefit of the audience. I don’t think about ‘this is dangerous,’ or ‘this in some way can end the fight.’ Now I think, ‘this is boring.’

McCarthy: If he’s listening to the audience, he ain’t doing it right. You’ve got to have your criteria for when to stand the fight up. Before the fights, when we go over the rules at the back, when I talk about stand ups, what I tell them is this:

If you take the fight to the ground and you’re in the top position, I expect you to drive the fight towards a finish. I’m not here to tell you how to fight. If you want to go out for positions before submissions that’s great, I will see what you’re going after, and as long as you have a chance of making that successful, I will let you ride it out. Where you will have a problem is if you attempt to go for a position and you’ll get blocked, and then you try to do it the same way and you get blocked, and again, and you keep going back to doing it the same way – you’re starting to stall my fight. Think about going in a different way to where you wanna be. If you go after punches and elbows, you want to go after striking, I am telling you right now: I am looking for posture and power. If you posture up and you land with power, you will stay there the whole round. If you put your head in the middle of his chest, and you go body-body-head, you’re telling me ‘I’m tired, I don’t know how to get past his guard, and I’m just trying to look busy’. And I’m telling you you’re stalling and I’m gonna stand you up.

If you end up underneath your opponent, you can close your guard, you can grab a hold of him, suck him in, that’s all legal fighting, but don’t ever look up at me like when are you going to stand it up, because you’re the one stalling my fight. If you want me to start to think about standing it up, I want you to open up your guard and attack that person who’s on top of you, go after things, make him on top to just try to hold positions and control you.

I want you to think about this: In Jiu-Jitsu, name me the submission that you pull off with your guard closed.


McCarthy: Guillotine is the only thing. There is no [other] submission that you’re gonna get from the closed guard. It just doesn’t happen, you’re going to have to open your guard. So, when you open your guard, you’re becoming offensive. when you’re in closed guard, you’re telling everybody, ‘I’m being defensive’.

But if I’m in closed guard, and I’m working for a standup – I can’t sweep, can’t submit. He has vicious ground and pound, and I’m tying the guy up. Just holding on to him, hoping for a standup. Eventually I will get it.

McCarthy: No you will not. A-ah. Not from me.

So this is the correct way of doing it.

McCarthy: Ah! I’ve seen everything. I’ve seen stand-ups from guys that are in position to get submissions, and the referee stands them up. The referees need to understand when they should stand the fights up. When we look at guard, it is as close to a neutral position as we’ll have on the ground. The person on the bottom has a lot of submission abilities, but they can’t do a lot with striking, no matter what they want to say. Same with the guy on top, he’s got the ability to do this [punch]. But he’s got zero for submissions until he starts passing those legs. When someone gets to half-guard, it’s no longer close to fifty-fifty, now it’s a sixty-forty, the guy on top has taken away a lot of those submission abilities, and now even has the ability to some submissions of his own, he’s changed the playing field. He gets to side control, it’s completely different now.

Are you not supposed to stand fighters up from side control no matter what?

McCarthy: I would never. I would tell them work, you make them do things – but you do not. Unless the person on top is stalling, taking and grabbing and just sitting there. If you’re in the top position, and you’re stalling, I will stand you up.

Even from side.

McCarthy: Even from side.

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Nelson vs Silva Jason Silva-USA TODAY Sports

Roy Nelson. Looked around, didn’t see any of your-

McCarthy: You’re right, you didn’t. And you won’t.

No comment?

McCarthy: No comment.

[A bit later, during a short TV piece in courtesy of our hosts, the local Ego Total cable channel, I asked that question again, and did get a bit more from the big man:]

McCarthy: Truthfully the whole thing comes down to I didn’t know. I had no idea I got touched, kicked, I got bumped inside of the cage, and that’s all I knew, and I was busy talking to Bigfoot Silva. Roy had an opinion, that I don’t agree with, he didn’t agree with mine. He later came out and said ‘well maybe. Maybe he wasn’t as hurt as I thought’ because he said he was knocked out, he was not knocked out. You know. It’s Roy’s business not to sign the contract to fight someone if he thinks he’s a friend. Not mine.

[McCarthy then went on and agreed on that as far as he’s concerned, it’s over.]

Jon Jones. Was very vocal against you refereeing his fights, said he’d prefer any referee but you, said something along the lines – he doesn’t like your energy.

McCarthy: BAD ENERGY?!

Bad energy.

McCarthy: [Laughs]. It’s awesome man, I love that line.

What is your point of view in this situation?

McCarthy: I don’t care.

If you’d be assigned again to one of his fights.

McCarthy: I was assigned to his fight. I don’t care. I don’t care if Jon Jones wins, I don’t care if Jon Jones loses, what do I care about him. I care about Jon Jones gets to go out, compete to the best of his abilities and that it’s fair. [Since that TV studio talk was mentioned, over there McCarthy also complimented Jones as being possibly the best Pound for Pound fighter he had ever seen, along with Demetrious Johnson].

There’s a lot of talk now, especially with the new UFC ownership, about fighters pay. So, I want to ask you, from the other side, we never hear, is the official pay good?

McCarthy: I’ll tell you what the pay is.

[Elaine: ‘It’s terrible.’]

It’s terrible?

McCarthy: Comparative to boxing, other sports, we don’t get paid a lot.

Who pays you, only the athletic commissions?

McCarthy: Well, it’s hard. Yes, we’re getting paid by the promotions. If I’m working at UFC, the UFC is the one that’s paying me, but, it just depends on the state’s athletic commission. Sometimes it’s a check straight from Zuffa, or now it’ll be changed to WWE-IMG. Or sometimes, like the Nevada Athletic Commission, they get a check for the officials pay from the promotion, it goes into the Nevada Athletic commission band account, and the Nevada commission will write you a check. But the commission is the one dictating how much.

If my memory serves me right, the referees at the big boxing events make about 2000 dollars.

McCarthy: Oh no, way more than that. If you look at Pacquiao versus Mayweather, he made 25. That was Kenny Bayless. You just had Pacquiao fought Vargas, it probably didn’t do that many in Pay-Per-View, but the boxing referee for that probably made somewhere in the area 4.5 to 5,000 dollars.

And MMA guys make less.

McCarthy: Way less.


McCarthy: Because we don’t have sanctioning bodies in MMA, sanctioning bodies in Boxing sometimes say how much the officials are gonna be paid. You do a championship fight in the state of California, the state of California will mandate that the Boxing official, if it’s a championship fight, get 1,900 dollars, but if it’s for the WBC, they’ll say their thing says the official gets 32, or 33 hundreds; So that’s what they’ll get. So the sanctioning bodies actually help the officials pay.

So being an MMA referee is still a part-time job for most?

McCarthy: It’s an absolutely a part-time job. There’s no one that’s gonna be making full-time money off of it – except for, I could be close, but I have a pension through LAPD. Herb could be one you could say could be close but again, he’s doing other stuff. There’s a lot of other things he’s doing in his life to make money.

You feel this needs to change pronto.

McCarthy: If you want people to be the very best, then you want to them to spend all their time working at being the best, then you’ve got to make it so they can actually make a living off of doing that.

Conor and Alvarez are obviously going to make shit-load of money right now. Do you think the referee should also be comparatively – not saying a multi-millionaire-

McCarthy: He shouldn’t be a multi-millionaire off of it. But I can’t tell you, that’s New-York and they never had it, but I will say probably the pay for it will be 1,500 dollars.

Which is still way less than most big boxing matches.

McCarthy: Yes, and when you can say ‘Ok, that is the biggest gate that Madison Square Garden ever had, it’s going to be a huge pay-per-view day.’

Back in March 8th, 1971, you had Muhammad Ali versus Joe Frazier 1. Back then you could buy a freakin’ full-size car for 3,600 dollars brand new. When you look at that, you had Art Mercante was the referee. He made 750 dollars for that fight when both fighters made 2.5 million. You’d consider 750 dollars then. I’ve done UFC fights, championships – when I did Cain Velasquez versus Junior Dos Santos the first time, on Fox. I made 700 bucks. That’s what I got paid. Just telling you the truth.

I’ve taught a lot of fighters now to be referees and judges. But the biggest problem with most of them is they look at it, ‘I can’t live off of it, there’s not enough money’. The guy who’s the closest to being up there and being seen is Frank Trigg. He came to me, he’s been training for a quite a while now, he’s doing great, he’s doing better and better, but – he doesn’t care about the money.

Ram Gilboa is an Israeli writer working with many of the country's leading news publications, and does combat sports commentating on TV. He loves Jiu-Jitsu, Judo, Boxing, MMA, and long walks along the beach to watch a fight on sand. find him on Twitter at @RamGilboa.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Bloody Elbow Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of all your MMA and UFC news from Bloody Elbow