Kim Winslow on Being the First Female Ref in UFC History

On Saturday, Kim Winslow became the first female referee in the history of the UFC when she worked two fights at the Ultimate Fighter Finale.

This week FanHouse caught up with Winslow for a wide-ranging interview in which she talked about her thoughts on being the only woman working as a ref in mixed martial arts, how her job as an air-traffic controller prepared her for stepping into the cage, and why she doesn't hesitate to stop between two fighters, no matter how big they are.

The full interview is below.

Michael David Smith: How do you feel about being the first female referee in UFC history?
Kim Winslow: Well, I was already the first female referee in MMA, so being the first in the UFC is just another step for me. It's an honor, and I'm trying to set the bar for us ladies and I look forward to seeing more female refs in the future.

Do you think of yourself as a trailblazer?
I didn't set out to be a trailblazer. When I first got into refereeing, I sought out other women who were doing it and found out there weren't any, so I ended up being a trailblazer. I didn't set out to be one, but it did end up being that way.

Do you get many comments about being the only female MMA refs? Do you tell people you're a ref and they assume you must be scared to get in between two fighters?
Well, I don't tell a lot of people outside the fight world that I'm an MMA referee, but inside the fight world it's just a matter of proving yourself, and when people see that I'm serious and what my capabilities are, I've received nothing but respect.

Neither of the UFC fights you did made the Spike TV broadcast, but they're available at UFC.com. Have you watched them?
Yes, I try to watch everything I do because I'm always looking for things I can improve on. I think every referee should do that to stay fresh and sharp, as well as watching other referees to learn from them.

The UFC's announcer, Joe Rogan, commented on you briefly. He said during the fight, "I think this is the first time we've ever had a female referee. I just noticed that." What did you think of that?
I heard that and I found it funny.

Should referees be noticed, or are the best referees the ones we don't notice? Do you like getting attention from refereeing televised fights?
I'm a little bit uncomfortable getting attention, to be honest. I like to do my job and go home. Getting attention is a little new for me. But I thought the fact that Joe didn't notice until we were a little way into the fight showed that I was doing my job, not drawing attention to myself. You don't want a referee to stand out. The referees should be in the background. The fighters should shine, not the referees.

What is your professional background and how did you end up in the Octagon?
My professional background is I'm an air-traffic controller. I started watching the UFC in 1993, with UFC 1 and was an instant fan of the sport. I also trained in martial arts even before UFC 1, starting out with taekwondo, and then I switched martial arts forms and learned Brazilian jiu jitsu, muay thai and other forms. So I'm trained in multiple styles, and I understand the ground game and the stand-up, and to me being involved in martial arts is very intellectually stimulating, like looking at submission attempts and how to properly apply them. That knowledge definitely helps. And I also think my work as an air-traffic controller has really helped me learn to tune out the background stuff and only focus on the task at hand. The crowd has no affect on me, and I can handle the stress, and my job has helped prepare me there. Air-traffic control and refereeing are both jobs where your primary focus is safety, and in that respect they go hand-in-hand, and they're also both high-adrenaline jobs.

How important is a martial arts background to being a referee? And do you think referees need to have fought MMA?
Well, you have to know martial arts, but being a referee is also about having the "it" factor. Some people have it and some don't. A lot of people who have martial arts backgrounds wouldn't be good referees because they don't have that judgment, the ability to make those instant decisions. Other times you might meet someone who doesn't have as much of a martial arts background but does have that ability to understand how to make those decisions. Background in the sport can help, but it's not absolutely necessary. I'm also definitely a proponent of continuing education, and I still attend seminars. I would have loved to continue my martial arts training but my state, Nevada, does not allow you to train if you're a sanctioned referee because they don't want any conflicts of interest if you train at the same gym as a fighter -- which I understand.

So you've trained in martial arts but you've never had an MMA fight yourself?
No, I am not a fighter, I'm a safety girl. I don't have the warrior spirit, I'm much more concerned about whether the other person is OK. Some of us are meant to ref and some of us are meant to fight. I have the capability to fight, but I'm not the person who fights unless I have to defend myself.

Yourself aside, what do you think of the role of women in MMA?
I think MMA is a growing sport for women, fighters and fans. It was nice to see a mixed crowd at the Ultimate Fighter Finale, with a lot of women in the crowd. And you're seeing a lot more women training. When I was training, I was the only woman in the gym, and that was difficult, working out with men who weren't sure how to deal with me, didn't want to roll with a girl, that kind of thing. You talk to female fighters and you hear that same story. But with more women in MMA, they're getting more respect.

What do you think of the upcoming Gina Carano-Cris Cyborg fight? Do you want to be the ref for that one?
I can't discuss current fighters, but would I like to be the ref? Absolutely. I'm a proponent of women's MMA, so I like to support women in the sport. California has not licensed me, though. I'll be reffing an all-female event in Las Vegas on July 10, and any time I get the chance to referee women, I take it.

Are there any misconceptions that you think MMA fans have about referees?
One thing I would like them to keep in mind is it's really easy to referee from the couch or the stands with instant replay, but we have to make split-second decisions based on what we see in the ring. We also see things and hear things that they don't: Sometimes we see a fighter's eyes roll back into his head, a flash knockout, which the cameras don't always catch. Fighters' recoveries from those flash knockouts can be absolutely phenomenal, sometimes they can recover by the time they hit the canvas, but we have to make fighter safety our priority. So fans should keep that in mind.

Do you think there should be instant replay in MMA, like the NFL has?
I have mixed views on that. It has been used in New Jersey. I just think it would have to be very, very well thought out. Nick Lembo in New Jersey is a very smart man and I think it has been used well there, and I just think it has to be used well.

What questions do fans ask you about being a referee?
The question I get a lot that I'd like to address is, as a female, whether I can stop a fight, and should I be restricted to lower weight classes. I've never been restricted to lower weight classes. The largest fighters I've been in the ring with were a 386-pounder and a 392-pounder up in Washington (Ernest Henderson vs. Gaylon Cooper in 2007) and I did get in the middle of them and I did stop them effectively without a problem. I do want people to know that. That is not a factor. We are not expected to fight the fighters. I am definitely able to defend myself if it came to that. And anyway I'm not a small female. I'm bigger than Steve Mazzagatti, Josh Rosenthal and Yves Lavigne. It's not a gender issue, and if I weren't capable of stopping fights I wouldn't have come as far as I have.

And you don't have any fear of getting hurt in the cage?
No. I'm ready for anything.

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