The tenuous state of officiating in mixed martial arts is a gripe as old as the sport. But lately more than ever, Sunday morning conversations tend to revolve around the latest commission blunder, whether it be Aaron Chatfield's curious 29-28 scorecard for Che Mills' over Matt Riddle, or Chris Lee inexplicably handing James Te Huna a 10-8 round two over Ryan Jimmo, yet not seeing a similar score for Jimmo's more dominant opening frame.
In more ways than one, "Big" John McCarthy wrote the book on modern day officiating in MMA. And although he sees the obvious progress that has been made since the days of UFC 1, McCarthy believes we still have a long way to go.
"Overall it is better now than it was in the past, by far," McCarthy said on Monday's edition of The MMA Hour. "But the problem is, we have so many more shows going on. There's a lot of things that are happening. There's some mistakes being made.
"When it comes to the judging, the biggest thing is, judging by nature is subjective. You look at a fight and you have a guy that throws a bunch of punches. One judge -- we'll say [it's] you -- is looking at it, and you're giving him credit, saying, ‘Wow, he's really active.' While I'm looking at it saying, ‘He's not connecting.'
"When you're looking at the UFC, there's not a whole lot of excuses," McCarthy continued. "You've got a monitor in front of you, so [even] when you can't see, [you can still see].
"That monitor gives them the ability to see a fight from a variety of angles, not just from the one they're sitting at. And so there's not a lot of excuses to say, well, I didn't see that when it comes to the UFC."
While McCarthy, a pioneer of the sport and one of its most tenured officials, believes the state of refereeing has also advanced since the old days, he still views it as an unfinished product, particularly in terms of knowledge of the sport's many intricacies.
The most recent example took place earlier this month at UFC 156, when referee Kim Winslow stood Bobby Green up from Jacob Volkmann, despite Green's dominance and activity from top position. Criticism immediately flooded in from all corners, including UFC President Dana White, who tweeted, "These refs need to learn about fighting."
"I will [only] stand a fight up when it's close to an even position," McCarthy said. "If you're in guard, or even half guard, and the action has stalled to the point, and I give you warnings [that] I need you to get busy and nothing really changes, you've shown me that you can't do anything, I'm going to stop you. I'm going to restart you. But if you get to dominant positions, be it side control, mount, back, the only way in the world that I would ever stand somebody up out of that, and I've done it once -- I tell this story, it's Jeremy Horn -- is if you go and clamp down and you're the one stalling the fight because you're not doing anything.
"You'll get fighters that'll sit there and they'll want you to stand them up, and you go, ‘There's no way in the world I'm standing you up.' Don't look to me to get you out of your problem. Get yourself out.
"If we start to take people out of those positions that are dominant, then we start to become unfair to the fight," McCarthy finished. "We give an advantage to one fighter over the other, and that's not our responsibility. That's not our job. We're doing something that's completely opposite of what we should be doing."
McCarthy also warned against this particular brand of impatience from referees who are too quick with their trigger finger to let the action develop naturally.
"You've got to have some compassion about how hard it is to do some of the things these [fighters] are trying to do, and doing it against a guy who knows what you're trying to do," McCarthy explained. "When you get guys in these mad scrambles and they'll finally end up in a position on the ground, and you'll see a referee come in and five second later [say], ‘Come one. Work.' It's like, ‘Jesus Christ, don't you think they just did? Wouldn't you be trying to get your heart rate back and breathe a little bit?' You've got to be reasonable when you're looking at things. Sometimes that's what separates the referees that fighters want to have doing their fights compared to others, because they understand the complexities of what's going on."
Just last month McCarthy was the third man in the cage for Demetrious Johnson's nationally televised title defense against John Dodson in Chicago, and McCarthy's wealth of experience shined through during a segment in the bout's fourth round. Trapped against the fence and caught in a front headlock, Dodson continually placed his right hand on the cage floor in an effort to prevent a knee to the face due to a caveat of the unified rules.
With Johnson unable to see the rotating placement of Dodson's hand, McCarthy attempted to ward off an illegal blow by shouting when knees were a legal maneuver. Ultimately Johnson committed a foul regardless, but in retrospect, the referee admits he isn't a fan of the rule.
"People said, ‘Well you were coaching him, as far as his hand coming down,'" McCarthy reflected. "No. I'm trying to keep the fight from having a foul. Okay? That's because Dodson is using a rule to try to protect himself. The rule was not put in place to have someone put their hand to the ground and hold it. It's something that needs to be looked at by the review committee. But all these things that happen, fighters are always going to push things to the limit of what they can within the rules. I don't blame them. We need to then look at it at say, ‘Alright, you're going to have to put yourself in a down position to say that you're down.'"
Strangely, despite his extensive résumé, McCarthy is rarely selected to oversee UFC events these days. The 50-year-old mostly attributes that fact to a long-standing feud with Nevada State Athletic Commission executive director Keith Kizer.
"I thought he was putting some people in positions to judge fights that didn't understand actually what the fighters were doing, and that's wrong," McCarthy explained. "I said that and I stood by it. He got mad, and from that he has never licensed me again. And that's okay. That's his choice. I'm not going to cry about it and worry about it."
McCarthy apologized publicly to Kizer and three years ago resubmitted his application for licensure. Not surprisingly, he hasn't heard back, other than an ominous note stating that his "application will stay on file." Regardless, as he says, McCarthy continues to work where people want him to work, including an occasional return to the Octagon if the opportunity arises.