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Learning from the master, part 1: Referee training with Big John McCarthy

In the first of a two-part series, Paul Gift details his experience getting trained by the master, Big John McCarthy, in all its glory and embarrassments.

UFC 202: Diaz v McGregor 2 Photo by Steve Marcus/Getty Images

16 months. That’s how long it’d been since the last C.O.M.M.A.N.D. certification course offering from legendary MMA official "Big" John McCarthy. In March of 2015, I was signed up and ready to go, ready to learn from the godfather of MMA refereeing and judging, when bronchitis set in and squashed the whole weekend.

So I waited, almost a year and a half to get another chance, which finally came a few weeks ago in Las Vegas at the annual Association of Boxing Commissions and Combative Sports (ABC) conference. If you had 100 bucks burning a hole in your pocket, you too could’ve been trained for two days in MMA refereeing and judging. Put $400 on top of that for a third day of judge training and the opportunity to pass McCarthy’s C.O.M.M.A.N.D. certification tests.

The first two days had an eclectic mix of participants from veteran MMA officials to athletic commission reps to everyday people looking to break into the industry to a former fighter and one crazy media guy. Marcos Rosales, Jason Herzog, Mike Bell, Dave Hagen, Mark Smith, Chris Tognoni, Jacob Montalvo, Fernando Yamasaki, Rob Madrigal, Junichiro Kamijo, Adalaide Byrd, Steve Mazzagatti, and Bob Bennett are all recognizable names who at some point participated in the training led by McCarthy and his protégé Jerin Valel.

As the sole media attendee, I was in the crosshairs from the initial introductions. "Paul Gift. I’m with Bloody Elbow and I write about you guys," I said introducing myself to the room of 60-70 people. They broke out in laughter and it was on for the rest of the weekend.

"Defend our media honor," I thought.

Next thing I knew, McCarthy’s wife Elaine told us the C.O.M.M.A.N.D. pass rate is around 20%. "Damn! Defend your own honor," my thoughts shifted. How embarrassing it would be to fail then have to write about it for the whole MMA community.

In two days we’d take three back-to-back-to-back tests: a written test, a technique test, and then judge a test fight. To pass each test would require a score of 90% or better. Fail at judging the fight and all other scores are irrelevant. The reasoning was simple as McCarthy would explain. We don’t deserve to be officials, but fighters deserve officials who know what they’re doing.

Things kicked off on Saturday morning with referee training but no certification or testing. Just a chill yet somehow stressful day. If you’ve ever been around McCarthy, this makes perfect sense.

I sat back to enjoy the experience, tried not to sound too dumb, and hopefully learn a thing or two.

Referee training participants at the 2016 ABC conference

All About the Fighters

"If you're a referee, you're gonna fuck up," McCarthy said to open the day. "Don't lie about it. Don't make an excuse about it. Be honest about it. That's how you make yourself better."

In addition to being a jiu-jitsu black belt and all-round badass, the man who had his application for UFC 2 ready to go before finding out Royce Gracie intended to defend his title embodies the phrase "large and in-charge." At 6’4", 260 lbs., Big John is truly a large dude. And with confidence literally oozing out of every pore, you know who’s in charge within a few seconds of meeting him.

The legendary MMA official has stories for days and he started with the story of working Robbie Peralta vs. Mackens Semerzier at UFC on FOX 1. He thinks he sees Peralta’s right hand connect with Semerzier's head in the 3rd round and eventually stops the fight. He later realizes it was a headbutt that caused the damage and tells Semerzier to take his case to the California State Athletic Commission where he'll admit his mistake. The fight was overturned to a No Contest.

"It's not about you, it's about the fighters," said McCarthy.

Valel admitted he messed up the Letourneau-Calderwood fight at UFC Ottowa, but in the Ellenberger-Koscheck mouth-foaming finish at UFC 184, where he also took some heat, "The mechanic was right," he said.

The referee can’t stop a bout just because a fighter is almost out or has a hyperextended joint that might snap. When it comes to grappling, professional fighters are going to get hurt and they get to decide what threshold of pain they’re willing to accept right up to the point consciousness fades, something dislocates or breaks, or there’s a physical or verbal tap out.

Amateurs are a different story. Their job is to learn what fighting is like, what it’s like in the back, how to prepare for a fight, etc. We don't want anyone getting hurt in amateur fights so referees will stop threatening holds if a fighter’s in a bad position and doesn't seem to be doing the right things. Amateurs have to get up and go to work the next day.

Escape Quietly

What do you look for if a fighter’s in a belly down rear naked choke and you can’t see his face? Various body parts were called out but McCarthy’s focus was on the fact that fighters can react differently to things. Have you ever seen someone unconscious yet still standing? A few yesses ring out. What about unconscious but with a stiff arm? More yesses.

It can be tempting to focus on micro factors like eyes or arm relaxation during a submission attempt, but it’s imperative to never forget the macro. What is a fighter’s entire body telling us?

"I love working Damian Maia fights. Because I get to be up close and go, ‘Holy shit, that's awesome.’"
- John McCarthy

When it comes to noises, we can’t really use them to make a decision (other than screams of pain). As McCarthy told it, fighters make all sorts of strange noises. Some like Diego Sanchez will summon the gods to escape a hold, so what do we tell them in pre-fight instructions in the back? "Escape quietly," someone jokes as we all bust up laughing.

McCarthy tells his fighters that he’ll let them grunt, growl, and summon the gods if they have to, but if they scream the fight’s over immediately – an automatic verbal submission.

Advance the Fight

When fighters are on the cage, what should we look for? Suppose one fighter has an underhook, head under the opponent’s chin, and is kneeing the thigh to deaden it. The knee does damage but it isn’t fight-ending damage, it’s basically grappling. As referees, we want fighters looking to advance position and seeking fight-ending damage.

As fights moves into later rounds, McCarthy tends to give less time against the cage. "You need to do things to show that you're trying to advance the fight," said McCarthy. Is the cage-pressing fighter varying his attacks or just trying the same thing over and over? If a fighter’s position isn’t improving, they better either rack up damage that could progress to the end of the fight or have given the opponent opportunities to escape that weren’t capitalized on.

If a fighter gets on top, they’re expected to drive the fight towards a finish – improve position, attack for fight-ending damage. If they’re not advancing, posture and power can allow a fighter to keep top position. Lay and pray with a few body-body-heads for good measure won’t last very long.

"I love working Damian Maia fights," McCarthy said. "Because I get to be up close and go, ‘Holy shit, that's awesome.’" Maia’s a master at controlling positions and constantly trying to finish the fight even though he may not throw many strikes.

Cuts and Lacerations

Referees must be prepared to properly handle cuts. Important considerations include (1) the direction of the cut, (2) are there multiple cuts or a crossing cut, (3) is it inside the orbital, and (4) does it run against the lines of the face?

Notice that the amount of blood wasn’t one of the considerations? The amount of red stuff pouring out of a face doesn’t matter. It’s the blood we can’t see (subdural hematomas, blood aspirations, etc.) that matters along with whether the blood we can see is affecting a fighter’s vision or movement.

"Do we let blind people fight?" McCarthy bellowed in his commanding voice that makes you second-guess everything you’ve ever known about the sport.

His example: Stand with both arms shoulder-level extended out to your side. Close your right eye and look straight ahead. Move your right arm in until you can see it. Keep it there. Open both eyes. Move your left arm in until you can see it. Compare the position of your two arms.

"We don’t let blind people fight," McCarthy reiterates as a lot of past stoppages start to make more sense.

Nape and Crown Defined

Do you know where your nape is? What about your crown? The crown of the head and nape of the neck are the defining parameters of an illegal strike to the back of the head, a foul along with strikes to the spine.

McCarthy explained that the crown of the head is essentially where people have that swirl pattern in their hair, or where they would have it if they don’t have hair. It’s where the back part of the head begins its downward slope. In this region, striking the two-inch strip in the middle called the Mohawk area is a foul.

The nape of the neck begins in that knot we all have in the back of our skull – also known as that place that really hurts to get hit in – and extends down to the spine. The original back-of-the-head rule was intended to protect this area. All strikes to the nape of the neck region are fouls.

John McCarthy shows participants where the nape of the neck begins on Jerin Valel. The nape of the neck is the wide region from McCarthy's finger down to Valel's spine. The two-inch region above McCarthy's finger up to what would be the swirl pattern on the back of Valel's bald head is the Mohawk area. These two regions comprise the "back of the head" but the Mohawk is much thinner than the nape.

Manipulating small joints is also a foul. Large joints like elbows, wrists, knees, and ankles are all fair game. Fingers and toes are small joints and if a fighter grabs three or more, they are good to go (three fingers, a thumb and two fingers, three toes). Grabbing two digits or fewer is a foul.

After sharing exactly what happened during the notorious Kennedy-Romero 2nd round break, McCarthy admitted his mistake was that he should’ve stood Romero up, having let him remain on the stool since he was trying to have the UFC’s cutman return to clean up the giant glob of Vaseline that wasn’t supposed to be there. That cutman is gone now and Nevada Athletic Commission Executive Director Bob Bennett added at the end, "The inspector should’ve done a better job."

All of which helped make McCarthy’s point on the importance of a team atmosphere. A referee needs to be talking to the timekeeper, inspectors, and the ringside physician as much as possible, and hopefully have a good rapport. What are they seeing? What are they hearing? What’s the doctor thinking? At any moment, referees need as much information as possible and a team atmosphere is critical for gathering it.

Ask a question about a rule, process, or procedure and the godfather of MMA officiating had a story ready to go, a seemingly endless supply. Perhaps it’s because he lives and breathes this stuff and is so busy that off weekends might still involve officiating amateur shows like the U of MMA in Los Angeles.

That’s evidently how The Eviscerator came to be. McCarthy had a kid at a local show doing a triangle choke who suddenly added a toe hold on top of it. "What the hell was that?" McCarthy asked after the opponent tapped. "It’s The Eviscerator!" the kid exclaimed.

As the day progressed, a very clear theme became apparent: All that matters is the fighters and what your referee peers and athletic commission think. Fighters deserve a quality referee who’s prepared and on-point. A ref’s peers and athletic commission are the only judges of their decision-making they should really care about.

While the day was informative and extremely helpful as a writer, I have no desire to ever ref a fight. But I would be interested in doing some judging at local shows.

I caught UFC 201 and went back to my hotel room to study – on a Saturday night in Las Vegas – coursing with anticipation for the next day’s judging session.

Part two on McCarthy’s judge training and certification session is here.

Paul is Bloody Elbow’s business and analytics writer. Follow him at @MMAanalytics.