by Jeff Cain
‘Big’ John McCarthy has been the third man in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) octagon since March 11th, 1994 at UFC 2: ‘No Way Out.’ Over the past twelve years he has refereed every UFC event including some of the organization’s biggest bouts. No other Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) referee is more recognizable or more respected.
‘Big’ John recently explained several MMA rules and how they came to be to MMAWeekly Radio including: fence grabbing, the use of elbows, and knees to a downed opponent. McCarthy also addressed why some fights are stopped while others are allowed to continue, and the subject of fining fighters. The interview can be heard in its entirety by clicking on the radio archive.
Before we get into the specifics of MMA rules, McCarthy was asked what was the one thing that surprised him about what transpired at UFC 57: ‘Liddell vs. Couture 3.’ Predictably it was the biggest upset on the card, Marcio ‘Pe De Pano’ Cruz defeating former UFC Heavyweight Champion, Frank Mir. John commented, “I would have to say the one thing that surprised me was the Mir and Cruz fight. That surprised me. That was a big shock to me.”
For Cruz it was a nice win, but it raised more questions than it answered. Did Mir come back to soon? Did he train enough? Does he still want to fight? Is Cruz a force in the heavyweight division?
Addressing the questions surrounding Frank Mir’s fighting future, McCarthy said, “He’s going to have to decide on what he wants. It’s so easy to be the outsider and sit there and make comments. When you come back from a long layoff, it’s not easy. There were huge expectations of Frank, and I think a lot of that pressure got to him in a way. I don’t know all the factors that went into it. When things weren’t going his way, he wasn’t really doing anything to get himself out of it, and that’s really not a lot like Frank. Sometimes they just tense up and it’s just a bad night. It might be just that, or it might be Frank has just lost that edge in his competitiveness in fighting and he wants to do something else. He’s just going to have to be the guy to decide that. I thought he was very classy in what he said afterwards. He was right. You know what? Everyone has their good times, and everyone has their bad times. If you get knocked down you get back up, and you decide what you’re going to do and come back.”
After the Tim Sylvia and Assuerio Silva fight, the Joe Riggs vs. Nick Diaz bout, and Chuck Liddell vs. Randy Couture 3, fence grabbing has been the hot topic on MMA message boards. John McCarthy was the referee for two of the three matches and was asked to clarify the rule. He addressed the two fights he refereed, Sylvia vs. Silva and Liddell vs. Couture, starting with the Liddell vs Couture.
McCarthy said, “During the fight, when Randy went to take Chuck down and Chuck went back into the fence, his hand started to go through and grab it. I told him to let go of the fence, and he did. We tell the fighters before the fight, look, this is what you can do with the fence. You can put your hands on the fence. You can push off of the fence. It does not matter if you’re touching it. It does not matter if your feet go up on it, anything like that. It’s when your hand starts to go and fingers go through the fence, start to control either your body position or your opponent’s, that’s when it becomes a problem. The first thing we’re going to do is give you a warning, tell you to let go of the fence. If you let go of the fence than it’s king’s X. It’s like it didn’t happen. If you don’t, then we’re actually going to come over and hit your hand off the fence. If that doesn’t work, you will get a foul at that point right there. If your hand came off of the fence, then it’s like it didn’t happen as far as we’re just going to give you the warning, but we’re going to go to you if there is a break and tell you, hey, don’t grab onto the fence again. If you do, from this point, I’m going to give you a foul.”
John continued. “A lot of people can complain all they want, but you look at any sport; there has to be some give. When it comes to the fence, if you end up starting to go back and losing your balance, or someone puts you back into it, you don’t think about your fingers going through it. It just kind of happens. Guys can do it on purpose, and they can do it without really thinking about it. Before the fight ever started I talked to Randy. I told him, look, if you put him back toward the fence you know he’s probably going to start to grab onto it, so keep doing what you’re going to do. He goes, I know that. No problem. Chuck, I told him, don’t grab the fence when you go back there. He said I’m not going to. It’s inherent. It’s going to happen. After it happened, I went to Chuck and I told him, if you grab it one more time I’m going to take a point from you. That’s what you can do. If we took a point every time someone did something that is part of the rules as far as the way they’re laid out in words, we’d be having a lot of disqualified fighters. People wouldn’t be happy about the fact that they didn’t get to see the end of the fight because a referee went and gave someone three fouls and kicked the guy out of the fight.”
McCarthy was also the referee for the ‘Ultimate Fight Night 3′ main event between Tim Sylvia and Assuerio Silva. Late in the third round Sylvia grabbed the fence to prevent being taken down. McCarthy was questioned whether or not he felt the incident changed the outcome of the fight. He replied. “Perception is reality to a point. If they want to perceive that he was going to get suplexed at that point and dropped on his head and that was going to change the fight, go ahead and make up your fantasy dream. Is that really what was going to happen? I kind of doubt he was going to do a big suplex with Tim in the position that he was really at. Tim did reach out. I’ve heard people say, oh he held onto the fence for ten seconds. Tim grabbed hold of the fence. I told him to let go, and he let go and that fits within what we allow them to do. A lot of people complain that Tim’s hand was, he would put his hand up when Assuerio would jump to guard in the standing position. Tim had his hand under-hooked and he was putting his arm up against the top of the fence. It’s Okay if he presses up against with his arm up against the top of the fence. It’s when his hand starts to hook over the top and hold the top, or his arm goes over to hook the top, that’s when we’re going to tell him to get your hand off. I did tell him at times because it started to, and he would take his hand and he would lean it up against it, and he’s allowed to do that.”
One of the most misunderstood and talked about rules in MMA centers around the use of elbows, specifically the point of the elbow. McCarthy explained, “Everyone thinks downward point of elbow strikes are not allowed, so you cannot hit with the point of the elbow. That’s not true. That’s not what it was for. That’s not what it meant. A fighter can strike with any part of his arm in the Unified Rules. It doesn’t matter if it’s the point of the elbow. It’s one type of elbow is not allowed. That is your hand going up to twelve o’clock and bringing it down to six o’clock, in that type of position. If I were fighting Frank Trigg and he went to take me down, and he does a double leg and pushes me up against the fence and I take my hand from the sky and bring it down onto the middle of his back, that is what is an illegal elbow. That’s it. Any elbow that’s got any kind of arch to it, any other kind of elbow, they’re all good.”
McCarthy went on to explain why that particular elbow strike is disallowed. He said, “What it was, was when the Unified Rules were put together they took all the organizations. You had the UFC, Pride. You had the IFC. You had Hook N Shoot at the time. There were various organizations that all met together in New Jersey. Larry Hazzard is the one that put it together so he could clarify his rules. Marc Ratner was on a phone line for it, and they ended up having everyone sit there and try to come together with what they could be happy with. One of the things that happed was there was an IFC show that happened before that meeting occurred. There were a couple of fights, and because New Jersey wasn’t comfortable with Mixed Martial Arts at the time; there were a couple of fights that went on to change things as far as what they were going to permit and not permit. You have all these different organizations, and you have all these people with what they want to be able to do, so it’s tough to get people to agree on things. Finally, one of the things that was brought up is in one of the fights a fighter took another guy’s back and tried to sink in a choke. He couldn’t sink in the choke, so he started taking his hand and bringing it up and elbowing to the back of the guy’s head and neck. The doctor from New Jersey had a conniption about it. He said I will never ever pass something that allows that type of strike. That could be life threatening, and he started going into his thing, and so the one elbow they took out was that elbow, that type of position. The way that they wrote it up, you could interpret it a ton of ways, but the true position they were talking about was that hand coming up to twelve o’clock to six o’clock.”
Advocates against the use of elbows in the UFC would like to see them banned citing elbows cause cuts and cuts stop fights. Anytime David Loiseau of Kenny Florian competes, the great elbow debate reappears. ‘Big’ John was asked if elbows should be allowed. He answered, “You’re going to have guys going both ways. You’re going to have guys saying it causes cuts which causes a stop to the fight which is not the way you want a fight to stop, and so lets get rid of it. You have people saying, you know what? Why are you taking things away from what was this open forum of fighting, and now you’re going to continue to take all of these different types of techniques away? How many fights truly stop because of a cut from an elbow? They did a study on it and it was somewhere around 8 or 9% of all fights have ever done it. That was within the last two years or something. That’s some, but is that some 50% thing, or anything like that you’re looking at? It’s not. It’s a good technique. David Loiseau, when he throws an elbow, I kid him all the time about him sharpening his elbow. Is that really why he ends up cutting people? No. It’s the damn velocity and power that he throws it with. It’s not that he is hitting them with the tip of his elbow all the time. It’s how much power he’s hitting them with, and it’s hitting just maybe just below the elbow or on a boney structure. It causes a cut. There’s pressure. The pressure splits the skin, and it happens. It could happen the same from a punch. It could happen the same from a kick. It happens from knees. Are you going to sit there and say, you know what? A knee caused a cut, now we’re going to start looking at that. You’ve got to be realistic about what is truly happening in that fight and what’s going on with it. You start taking things away, you just keep on watering things down in my opinion. I wouldn’t take things away.”
John was asked about the rule that disallows up kicks from a downed opponent to a downed opponent’s head such as what Anderson Silva was disqualified for at Rumble on the Rock 8 against Yushin Okami. McCarthy replied. “That was again, back in that meeting in New Jersey. Really what it came down to is there was a couple of fights that they brought up. One was Renato Babalu against Brad Kohler. It was in a WEF event back in Georgia a long time ago. Kohler was on all-fours, and Babalu got up and punted his face and knocked him out. They kept bringing up that type of thing and saying if a fighter his down, he cannot be kicked to the face. They did bring up what if both fighters are down. No. When they’re down they can be kicked to the body. They can’t be kicked to the face. And that’s just the way it’s been. There are advantages at certain times to certain fighters. If you’re on the ground on your back, you can kick up if your fighter is in the standing position. You can kick him to the body or face. The only place you can’t kick is to his groin, but you know that you cannot be kicked to the face. He can kick you to the body, but your head and face are protected.”
McCarthy has stated in previous interviews with MMAWeekly that he’d like to see knees to a downed opponent brought back to the UFC. He stated his reasons. “I like the more open fight. Fighters are smart, and they do things within the rules. They look at positions they can get because they understand if they can be attacked from that position in a certain way or they can’t. They adjust. If you take elbows away are fighters’ styles going to adjust? They are going to adjust. It’s just the way they do things because now they realize you can’t hit me with this. I’m going to be able to do certain things that I couldn’t do before that I had to do to protect myself. It’s the same way with knees on the ground.”
Discussing why knees on the ground were outlawed in the first place, John said, “The reason why that was taken away, Gan McGee had a fight in Atlantic City. It was a mismatch from the beginning. The size difference was ridiculous. He got on top of him and got in the North South position and started dropping knees, jumping up and dropping knees on the guy’s head. Again, that was the New Jersey Athletic Commission. They had a conniption over it to the point where they were thinking about not allowing anything ever and we talked them to the point where as long as they can’t knee to the head, they were going to be Okay. And that’s the way it has been. I wish it would change because I think it’s a more true style. Guys take advantage of the fact that they can’t be kneed to the head all the time. I don’t blame them. I would do the same thing. If you put the knees back in there, you’re not going to see that big of a difference in what’s going to happen except for the styles. Guys are not going to do certain positions that they do now.”
When a referee calls a stop to a fight, there’s always going to be those who agreed with the stoppage and those who didn’t. That’s just the nature of sports in general. Any judgement call is going to spark criticism and praise usually dependant on what side of the decision you have a vested interest in. The most anyone can hope for is consistency, but there seems to be no consistency with regards to when fights are stopped and when they’re permitted to continue.
Elvis Sinosic’s last two UFC fights illustrate the huge disparity from fight to fight with regards to when a referee is going to call a halt to the action. Many complained that Sinosic’s UFC 55: ‘Fury’ bout against Forrest Griffin was stopped too early. There’s hardly any doubt that his UFC 57: ‘Liddell vs. Couture 3′ match with Alessio Sakara should have been stopped but was allowed to go to a decision. Why are some fights stopped while others, just as one-sided, allowed to continue?
McCarthy commented, “The hardest thing for people to understand is some guys just have hearts bigger than their bodies and they’re not going to quit. You take a look at the Paul Buentello vs. Aldana fight that happened before that. Paul and Gilbert, I mean they started throwing. They were hitting each other with huge shots. They got to a point where Paul gets on top of Gilbert and he starts hitting him. Now, no one knows it because you can’t hear it, but he starts talking to Gilbert. He says, hey just give it up because I’m just going to beat you. Gilbert looks up and says, well then bring it bitch because I ain’t quitting. I’m standing there going damn I’ve got to let them go a little bit more because he was taking as ass kicking at this point. I got on him. I kept saying do something and finally I stopped it. Guys do things sometimes where you’ve got to go, you know what, you’ve got to let it go a little longer.”
“When it came to Elvis and Sakara, I thought Sakara was doing fantastic on his feet . . . During that fight Elvis obviously took a beating. There comes a point where you, as the referee, has got to protect the fighter from himself. That’s what it is. Some guys are so tough. I tell fighters; fighters know when I’m going to stop the fight. No matter what happens or what they say later on. Trust me, they know because I told them in the back dressing room. I’ll tell them exactly what it is that I’m looking for. And I’ll tell them, hey, if you get hit with a shot and you get hurt, you get put down, I will give you time to try to compose yourself, try to protect yourself. If your hands come up and you start taking shots ,and you just stay in that position, you’re going to hear me tell you, move. You’ve got to get up. As long as you try to move, as long as you try to take away what’s happening, I don’t care if you’re successful. As long as you’re trying, I’m going to let the fight go on. When you don’t try, you know I’m going to be stopping the fight because you are not intelligently defending yourself at that point.”
“Jason Miller against Georges St. Pierre, he was in a lot of bad positions. Every time I told him to move, he moved. The fight goes on, so you’ve got to be smart about how you do it. But there comes a point where you’ve got to protect the fighter from himself if they’re taking so much punishment they can’t respond to it. It’s a judgement call, and it’s tough.”
Weight cutting has become an important variable in the MMA equation over the last several years. The ability to cut weight effectively can make or break a fighter’s chances in combat. Some feel the UFC should change their weigh-in format to same day weigh-ins. McCarthy is opposed to the idea. He said, “I’m against it. People are going to sit there and say if you have a same day weigh-in guys are not going to try to lose the amount of weight, and they’re wrong. Guys will. Guys are going to try to lose weight no matter what. They want to go to the lowest weight class they can. They’re going to try to drop weight even if it’s same day. We have had it where it was same day and what happens is you’re endangering that fighter’s life more by doing it same day than you are by doing it the day before because of the fact that they’re not going to change what they do. They don’t.”
Further commenting, John said, “Tito Ortiz weighed in same day back at UFC 30 against Evan Tanner. He was 216 pounds and went down to 199 because that’s what it was at the time, and then came back up, same day. That’s dangerous. I’m not saying it’s not dangerous the day before, but they can do a lot of things. Fighters, when they lose that kind of weight they go, they’re getting IVs. They’re doing a lot of things to re-hydrate themselves. Although I don’t agree that it’s the best thing for them as far as their health and everything. It’s much better the day before than the day of.”
The final topic John McCarthy addressed was the option of fining fighters for rule infractions during a fight. He was dead set against it. McCarthy commented, “I am totally against taking pay from anybody. I don’t believe in that. I don’t think it’s right. If a guy goes in there and signs to fight for a set amount of dollars, that is what he should get. I, as a referee, I hesitated before when it was a money thing, and I would hesitate now. I do not want to take money from someone. I would rather give them a foul, and yea maybe it’s a one point thing on their card than I would take money from them. I don’t like that at all. That’s just my opinion and the way I look at it, but don’t put me in a position to take someone’s money.”
Outside of refereeing UFC events, ‘Big’ John McCarthy is a self defense instructor for law enforcement agencies. He’s also the lead instructor for Ring Experienced Fight Specialists (REFS), a company striving to bring MMA officiating and judging to a higher level through education. To find out more on John McCarthy, visit his website at www.bigjohnmccarthy.com.