Over the years, virtually everything about the UFC has changed, from the rules of the game to the name of the sport (and even the owners). Despite this, one element always remained constant through the early 2000’s: the Octagon’s honorary “ninth wall,” “third man,” and senior referee, “Big” John McCarthy. Fighters Only chatted with him for Issue 45 of the magazine after he won the “Special Achievement” award at the 2008 Fighters Only World MMA Awards.
With 535 UFC bouts under his belt before retiring from refereeing in late 2007, the Octagon was truly McCarthy’s second home. Fans and fighters have grown so accustomed to his towering presence that it came as a big surprise when the 45-year-old announced his retirement to work with The Fight Network, a Canadian television channel dedicated to MMA coverage. Luckily, it seems that it’s impossible to keep Big John away from his life calling, as McCarthy recently announced an end to his broadcast career, and a glorious return to refereeing.
“I just wasn’t happy doing what I was doing,” says McCarthy regarding his brief retirement. “I sat back, looked at my life, and decided I was gonna do what makes me happy. You can’t make a living as a referee, but I still love it. I’ll make my money elsewhere, as long as I can keep doing what I love.”
McCarthy, who works as an LAPD tactics and self-defense instructor outside of the Octagon, is more than just a mere referee. A key figure in the early days of the UFC, he has been instrumental in the evolution of both the rules and the scoring systems. Though today he is an employee of various athletic commissions and not the UFC, he is still widely considered a founding father of the world’s most popular MMA organization.
As the sole referee for every main card match from UFC 2 to UFC 31, Big John has seen the UFC go from a borderline barbaric circus show to the phenomenal event and respectable sport that it is today – an evolution nothing short of mind-boggling.
“[The UFC] has come such a long way,” says McCarthy. “You look at the crowds, at the status of certain fighters – someone like Randy Couture or Michael Bisping in the UK. The acceptance of MMA as a sport is so much higher now. I’m very proud that I was involved in that.”
While fans may have witnessed UFC milestones from the comfort of their living rooms, the LA native has had a unique view of some of the most memorable moments in MMA history. As a hardcore fan, Big John can recall an amazing number of UFC bouts, and even recount minute details that the average viewer may have failed to notice. Among his favorite events are UFC 7, Liddell vs Couture 3, and the very last UFC bout he refereed (featuring lightweights Clay Guida and Roger Huerta).
“UFC 7 was really memorable,” says McCarthy. “We went from a crowd of 2,000 to 14,000. I was incredibly glad to be a part of it. The third Couture-Liddell fight was another one that I’ll always remember – and my last UFC bout with Guida and Huerta.”
McCarthy may enjoy his job immensely, but he is quick to admit that once he’s inside the Octagon it’s all business. When a split second can make the difference between a good stoppage and a lifelong injury, focus and attention to detail are vital.
“It’s very hard to understand what refereeing and seeing a fight from my perspective is like,” says Big John. “You just look at the fight very differently, and you have to constantly focus on the guy who’s in trouble. It’s so easy to get mesmerized and forget why you’re there. It’s also so easy to make a mistake; I know I’ve made a few of those. To this day I think about the whole fiasco with Bustamante and Lindland.”
Though the UFC has tasted unbelievable financial success in the last few years, for McCarthy MMA hasn’t been much of a moneymaking venture until very recently. In 2006, he opened up the Big John McCarthy Ultimate Training Academy in Valencia, California. Along with being the home of several grappling standouts, the gym offers MMA classes to people from all walks of life, including fellow police officers, who Big John continues to train on a regular basis.
“MMA for policemen and law enforcement officers is a really interesting topic,” says McCarthy. “Because what MMA has done for cops, it’s done for criminals. There are a lot of cops out there who’ve benefited from MMA training, but believe me, there’s a lot of criminals who’ve learned to fight too. The thing is that in all situations police officers have to go by rules, criminals don’t. That’s the big difference.”
As one of the world’s top MMA experts, Big John spends a lot of his time helping new promotions all over North America. This has also proven to be a lucrative venture for the 45-year-old who, after dedicating the last fifteen years of his life to MMA, is just beginning to reap the financial rewards.
Earlier this year, McCarthy expanded his skill set by joining broadcast duo Jay Glazer and Frank Trigg ringside at Affliction: Banned, where he provided color commentary for the debut Affliction event. His style and encyclopedic knowledge of MMA proved to be an instant hit among fight fans.
“I really enjoyed it,” says McCarthy. “I didn’t do that much if you really look into it though. I’ve generally been a third wheel, just helping out and adding my two cents, but it’s nothing that Trigg and Jay couldn’t have done on their own. I would love to do it again though.”
McCarthy may be a big supporter of Affliction as well as other emerging MMA organizations but, as someone who was instrumental to the growth of the UFC, he feels that the new players have a thing or two to learn from America’s top MMA promotion.
Earlier this year Big John’s musings proved to be prophetic. He predicted the collapse of EliteXC, citing organizational issues, and the fact that the promotion was publicly owned, as major factors in its fall.
“Here’s the problem,” says McCarthy. “You look at the UFC, it’s been around since 1993 – it’s gone through ups, downs, and even a ‘dark age’. When Zuffa first bought it, they struggled. They lost $44 million. Eventually, The Ultimate Fighter created interest, but that whole process took 15 years. That’s a long time. Now you’ve got these new promotions, dumping money and hoping to bypass the hard times. You can’t just throw money at something – you got to build it slowly, and a lot of publicly owned entities just aren’t willing to take those kinds of losses. I’m not saying that it’s just the UFC who did it the right way – Strikeforce, they’re a perfect example of how to build a promotion.”
For McCarthy, the growth of the UFC has in many ways been a personal success, one that he holds very dear. Some may view the UFC as a greedy monopoly, Big John sees it as the promotion that not only put the sport on the map, but that also legitimized it in the eyes of critics and the mainstream.
“I’m very proud that I was involved in building the UFC,” says McCarthy. “The reality is that the UFC is the Xerox or the Kleenex of MMA. Most people don’t even know what MMA is, but they love the UFC brand. Zuffa has spent the time, the money, the effort, and now they’re seeing the result of it. But that’s not to say all the best fighters are with the UFC.”
Since announcing his return McCarthy has renewed his referee license in the states of Ohio and California, with his first appearance scheduled to take place at Strikeforce: Destruction, at the HP Pavilion in San Jose. But when will fans see their beloved referee back in the UFC’s home state of Nevada?
“What’s so great about Nevada?” laughs Big John. “Seriously, I haven’t thought about it. I haven’t applied for a license yet, but the invitation’s there.”
Having done more interviews than the majority of fighters, McCarthy has become somewhat of a spokesperson for the world’s fastest-growing sport. Since his brief retirement, the former policeman has made numerous media appearances, making ‘the art of the interview’ second nature. But what question would McCarthy ask himself if given the opportunity?
“If you could make something great happen for the sport of MMA, what would it be?” chuckles McCarthy. “And I’m not answering that.” Is there something regarding his future plans that Big John isn’t telling us? Can fans expect to see their beloved referee taking on new and exciting challenges in the future? “Maybe,” chuckles McCarthy.
The phrase “let’s get it on” is a trademark owned by Big John.
“Art Davie was one of the owners of the UFC. He asked me to come up with a phrase to say before every fight. I figured that with two guys standing on opposite sides of the cage about to beat the hell out of each other, how about “Are you ready? Let’s get it on!” Art said it was perfect, and that’s how it began.”
In his college days, Big John McCarthy was an avid water polo player.
“Now, that’s an obscure fact. I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone about that. Most people can’t see me playing water polo, but I’m really not the mean guy everyone thinks I am!”
Prior to becoming a referee, McCarthy considered entering the UFC as a fighter.
“I don’t regret not going for it. I look at it the other way. I really don’t think a career as a fighter would have been long-lived. As a referee, I’ve had a good, long career, and I’ve been able to influence the sport and improve it significantly. As a fighter, I would have had a few fights, then faded into obscurity.”
In 2007, Big John was awarded a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt.
“A very proud moment for me.”
In 2004, McCarthy refereed an unusual match between Royce Gracie and Sumo Champion Chad ‘Akebono’ Rowan, in Osaka, Japan.
“It was just a sad fight. I felt so bad for Chad [Akebono]. The Japanese idealized him as a sumo wrestler, but he’s not a fighter, and they just keep throwing him to the wolves. He wasn’t going to beat Royce, and everyone knew it. The guy has trouble just getting up off the ground.”
Originally published in Issue 45 of Fighters Only.