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MMA Ref Big John McCarthy Is Back, and He Feels No Ring Rust

Big John McCarthy, the referee who has been one of the most prominent faces in mixed martial arts for almost as long as the UFC has existed, talked to me Tuesday for a wide-ranging interview in which he discussed his feelings about returning to MMA after a long layoff, and his thoughts about his 15-year career in the sport.

McCarthy, who sat out most of 2008 while working as a commentator for The Fight Network, says he didn't feel any ring rust when he got back into the cage. I also asked him about working last month's Fedor Emelianenko-Andrei Arlovski fight, about the chances that he could work again as a referee in the UFC, about becoming famous enough that Round 5 has made figurines in his image, and about his own choice for the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. The full interview is below.

Michael David Smith: Now that you're getting back to refereeing after taking time off, how much ring rust have you felt?
John McCarthy: I haven't felt any ring rust. I'd been teaching classes and doing a lot of things for referee education, and teaching has helped me a lot. I also did some refereeing for the U.S. Army for an event they had down at Fort Hood. So it felt very comfortable for me to get back in. I didn't feel any nervousness or ring rust or anything like that I'm just back to doing what I enjoy doing.

You've developed a high profile first through your years in the UFC and then working as a commentator and even having a merchandising deal to have your own figurines. Is it good for a ref to have a high profile or are there problems that can arise from that?

There are a lot of problems that can arise from that. I don't know if it's ever good. When the UFC was growing and I was the only referee, everyone recognized me as the one person consistently in there. A lot of people recognize me from the early days of the UFC, but I tell people all the time, no one watches the UFC because of the referee. I think the UFC realizes that and I realize it.

People have this perception of me like I could beat up the fighters. I've heard that, and that's ridiculous. That's a farce. Being that one face in the early days has caused problems for me. There are people who don't like the referee being noticed. That's fine and I understand why, but I've never tried to bring attention to myself and I don't think any referee is trying to do that. It can happen with people liking someone and it can happen with people not liking someone. Fortunately, most people like me.

And you are well-liked among fans. Is that good for things like getting a figurine deal and getting a job with the Fight Network?
Oh, absolutely. If no one likes you then no one wants to do anything with you. The popularity is nice. The figurine deal will work out well because they're doing a lot of things with championship sets. I was the dummy in the middle of those championship fights, so if you get the championship set it works for me to be there. I've been very fortunate that people have accepted me in the sport, and I've been very lucky. It's kind of funny but it's flattering.

What was the atmosphere like for Fedor vs. Arlovski?
It was great. Any time you have two guys of that caliber stepping into the ring, that's an exciting time for the fans, for the other fighters -- the other fighters all came out front to watch that fight because you don't have the opportunity to see two of the best guys going at it very often. It's the same with Georges St Pierre against BJ Penn. The fighters want to see that because you don't get that atmosphere all the time, and when you have it, it's a unique thing. The atmosphere was electric, and I was very happy to be able to do that fight.

You acted very quickly. Fedor's knockout punch came out of nowhere, and in an instant, Arlovski was unconscious and you were standing over him.
Well, sometimes you're just looking at the right thing at the right time. I was in a position to see Arlovski's eyes when he got hit, and his eyes showed me there was nobody home. He was out. Because he was up in the air, it was unusual because the punch actually turned him, and he turned towards me, luckily. If the punch had been a left hand, I wouldn't have seen what I saw. I saw the way he fell, and in the sport of mixed martial arts, the referee stops the fight if you cannot intelligently defend yourself. And you see the way Andrei fell, he fell face first with his hands at his side. He wasn't going to be able to defend himself, so stopping that is what I'm there to do, and fortunately I was able to do my job.

Who do you think is the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world?
I always used to say that I thought B.J. Penn was the best pound-for-pound fighter there was. I thought he had the best skill set of anyone. I thought Georges St. Pierre was No. 2, and I picked him to beat B.J. because he was a bigger athlete. The way Georges took B.J. apart, I may have to change it a little bit. But I still say the top four guys are Georges St. Pierre, BJ Penn, Fedor and Anderson Silva. Which one you want to put at the top doesn't really matter.

Do you think it's time for the UFC and Fedor to sit down and figure out a way to get him into the Octagon?
You know what? I would love to see Fedor in the Octagon. There's been so much said back and forth, and really it's promotional stuff. Dana White knows that Fedor is a phenomenal fighter. Dana White has tried to sign Fedor, and I understand why he couldn't sign him. It's not Dana. Fedor's management team, their promotion, M-1 Global, wants certain things and they use Fedor to get those things. UFC says, "We're not going to promote your promotion, we're going to promote a fighter."

Would I like to see Fedor fighting there? Sure. I want to see -- no matter what promotion -- the best fighters fighting each other. I don't watch promotions. I don't care what promotion is putting on the fight if it's a good fight. The thing the UFC brings to you is you know those three letters mean you're getting a quality product. They've worked hard for that and they deserve that. There are others that are doing that, too. Strikeforce is doing it. I think Affliction has put on two phenomenal shows.

Will we see you back in the UFC Octagon?
That's not up to me. I don't make those decisions. That's up to the athletic commissions. Or if Dana White and Marc Ratner go somewhere that doesn't have a commission, they can always call me. If they call I'll answer, and if they don't, that's OK too.

In your time working as a commentator, do you think you expressed any opinions that would make it difficult for you to be a neutral third man in the cage for the UFC?
No. Not at all. Being a referee, being neutral, that has nothing to do with your likes and your dislikes. You don't go off that, you go off doing your job. I was with the UFC for 14 years. I helped try to build the UFC. I broke my butt before the people who own it now were there. I love the UFC. I would never do anything to hurt them and I never did.

Do you think either fighters or promoters should be able to veto certain referees? For instance, Brock Lesnar has said he doesn't want Steve Mazagatti refereeing his fights after Mazagatti deducted a point from him in his first fight with Frank Mir.
I think the fighter needs to feel comfortable. It's a touchy situation. If you have something you can point to and say it's legitimate and affected you in a certain way, I can understand why you would say, "I would rather not have him referee." And I think the referee would say, "No problem." As a referee, I don't get personal. I don't think Steve got personal about the Brock Lesnar thing. ... If Brock doesn't like it, that's understandable. But Steve was absolutely within his right to make the call he made.

Who do you think is the best referee in MMA?
That's not a question to ask me. I think there are very good referees out there that do a very good job. Sometimes people look at the UFC as the benchmark of the best referees. I don't think that's completely true. I think there's guys outside the UFC that do a good job. There are a lot of good referees. And then there are a lot of guys who don't know the sport and aren't good.

Would you care to name any of the bad ones?

Do you have a favorite fight you ever worked?
I get asked that a lot. I worked so many fights that have been fantastic fights. One that I really enjoyed the way the fighters competed was Pete Sell against Scott Smith (in the Ultimate Fighter 4 Finale in 2006). Just the way they competed, I thought was fantastic. I also really loved Tyson Griffin against Clay Guida. That was a great fight. Those are not big fights, like the Arlovski-Fedor fight, but the ones that I think of the most are Scott Smith-Pete Sell and Tyson Griffin-Clay Guida.

Do you ever think about fights that in hindsight, you stopped either too quickly or too late?
Oh, sure. Every fight I've ever refereed, unless there's no tape, I've gone back and watched it. If you don't do those things, you're making a huge mistake. You're not taking the opportunity to improve yourself and get better. You've got to go back and look at things. I've never said I haven't made mistakes. Of course I've made mistakes. I'm human, I make them, and if I do make them I try to be smart, look at how the mistake occurred and try to remedy it so it doesn't happen again.

What is your relationship with the Gracie family like?
Well, the Gracie family is so big. Helio's side, with Royce, I'm very friendly with Royce. Any time we see each other we stop and talk. I was a student of Rorion's and Royce's a long time ago, and when Rorion sold the UFC that was when we kind of split because he wanted me to do one thing and the people who owned the UFC wanted me to do another, so we parted ways, but I stayed very friendly.

You're a big, athletic guy. You studied Gracie jiu jitsu before there ever was a UFC. Did you ever want to fight in the UFC?
Yeah, at one point. And they told me, "Later on, maybe, but now I want you to referee it." And I started refereeing as a friend of Rorion's because he asked me to do it. I always said the greatest thing I did was stay as a referee and not fight. Because I wouldn't have had the career that I've had. I wouldn't have done the things I've done. And I wouldn't still be around.

If you trained with Royce Gracie, you must have a pretty good sense of how you would have done against the guys Royce Gracie beat.
Just because I have a sense of it doesn't mean it's true. Unless you step into that cage or ring, you don't know. You can think that you'd beat someone, and maybe you would, but you don't know.

You were the referee at UFC 2, 15 years ago. If I had asked you then, "What will the UFC look like in 2009?" what do you think you would have said?
You know, back then I was telling people about the UFC and they were like, "That's stupid." I thought in the beginning that people would get into this because I understood it, it was something I was interested in, and I wanted it to work, and to me it was important. But a lot of people didn't think it would work. When I did UFC 2, I thought, "I wonder if there will be a UFC 3." That was really my thought at the time. Did I ever see it being where it is now? No. I wish I was that good at prognostication. I'd be working in the stock market.

You were the referee for the infamous Keith Hackney-Joe Son fight at UFC 4, when Hackney kept hitting Son in the groin. Were you thinking to yourself, "We need more rules in this sport"?
If you go back and you look at the rules, the rules changed in each event, and it was always based on something that happened in the previous event. At the time there were no commissions or anything, and it was just the people who owned the UFC who were determining what the rules would be. ... There was nothing I could do because groin strikes were legal at the time. Eventually at UFC 14, we ended up taking groin strikes out. That's a good thing because there's no sport where hitting a man in the groin is fair.

There's actually a video of you on YouTube from before UFC 1: A news report from the L.A. riots, in which you appear on camera briefly. What do you remember of that?
Yeah, my son showed me that. There was a 7-Eleven that was being looted and I was working that, doing my job as a police officer.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't part of your job with the LAPD back then to use your Brazilian jiu jitsu expertise to teach officers to subdue suspects using techniques other than using their batons, to avoid incidents like the Rodney King beating?
No, you're right. That was the last 12 years of my career. I was at the academy teaching recruits and in-service police officers. I was part of the tactics unit. I loved a lot of the work I did there, but I'm also glad I've been able to have a career in MMA after that.

How much longer do you think you'll be refereeing, and will you be involved in MMA in any other capacity?
I don't think about it anymore. I made the decision to leave at one time, and right away I knew I was going to miss something. Now I'm back to refereeing and I'll do it as long as it's working for me and my family, and if God allows me to do it, I'll do it. When it's time for me to fade away, I'll know I was lucky enough to be part of something great. Most people don't have that luck. I'm a very happy person for what I've been doing.

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