A few years ago, Frank Trigg was just like anyone else complaining about the state of officiating in mixed martial arts.
Okay, maybe not exactly “just like anyone else.” Trigg is, of course, a fighter who had a memorable career, and is in the UFC Hall of Fame for his legendary fight with Matt Hughes at UFC 52 — a bout many longtime observers still consider the most exciting one-round fight in MMA history.
But besides that, he was no different than your average Twitter commenter in expressing his disgust about the refs.
“I had literally been b*tching about how bad the refereeing was,” Trigg said on a recent edition of The MMA Hour. “I was complaining all over the place. I heard everyone complain about it, I had some friends of mine ... (who) were having to go two, three, four punches longer than they had to end the fight, or they were getting hit by more hard, significant punches than they needed. It was disheartening. I kept complaining and I kept complaining.”
Then the dean of mixed martial arts officials, “Big” John McCarthy, who has been calling fights since UFC 2, made a phone call that altered Trigg’s life.
“I got a phone call from John McCarthy and he said, look, if you think refereeing is so easy, why don’t you come do it?” Trigg said.
Fast forward a few years. Trigg made his UFC officiating debut on Dec. 9 at UFC Fresno, making him just the second man, along with former UFC Superfight champion Dan Severn, to both take part in a title fight and officiate a UFC match. And his opinion on officiating sure has changed in that time.
“Refs have the absolute toughest job, because if we are 1 1/100th of a second too late, that’s an extra huge, hard punch coming in,” Trigg said. “We have to be there.”
Before Trigg had ever considered the notion of becoming an official, he had taken McCarthy’s MMA officating training course, simply to better learn the rules as a frequent color commentator. By his words, Trigg failed miserably.
Then he took the course a second time, for real, and failed again. That set Trigg down a path in which he eventually passed the course, then began officiating amateur bouts, on the road to being licensed in both California and Hawaii.
Trigg, whose final pro fight in a 30-bout career was in 2011, fully grasped how far he had come when he set foot in the Octagon at SaveMart Center.
“I do my walkthrough in the cage, right before the first fight,” Trigg said. “Whenever I fight on the card, whenever I ref on the card, I don’t care if its the first fight or the fifth fight, when I finally step in for my first official duty, I walk the cage. I looked up and I realized the Monster Energy logo was in the center of the canvas and it hit me right then that I’m here, in the cage, and I’m wearing all black. I’m not wearing a pair of shorts, not wearing fight gloves.
“It took me a second. I had to go, okay, let’s take a breath.”
The night went fine for Trigg. But he’s under no illusion he’s anywhere near being close to his best as a referee yet. McCarthy himself best drove that point home.
“I asked McCarthy awhile ago, I said, ‘Hey, I want to look at the fight which was your best refereeing fight, the fight that you were perfect in, because I want to mimic that style and what you do and what you did,’” Trigg said. “And he’s like, ‘Yeah, I don’t have one.’ I said, ‘What do you mean you don’t have one?’ He said, ‘No, no, there isn’t one I was perfect, I am still constantly improving.’
“The best guy in the world is telling you, ‘Every day I’m still working on this craft, every day I’m still trying to improve myself.’ I’m like man, this learning curve is never going to end, there’s always something I’m going to have to figure out.”
Ultimately, Trigg would like to get licensed in all of the major commission states, like Nevada and New York, and work events big and small. But he’s willing to take his time. This is in part because he understands that as a referee with notoriety due to his fighting career, he’s likely to be featured by promoters in advertising when he works smaller shows, and get fast tracked to main events and co-mains, and he wants to make sure he’s got his officiating game as refined as possible.
But it’s also about coming to a fuller understanding about the difference between his old gig and new.
“Fighting is selfish,” Trigg said. “I have to do everything I possibly can to make sure I’m beating your ass. That’s what I have to do. Whatever it takes to get to that point I’m dominating you, that’s what I have to do as a fighter. As a referee, it is selfless. I’m not in there for me. I’m not in there to let people look at how is this big deal what it is this thing. I’m in there as a ref for the UFC. It’s nothing to do with that. It’s all about making sure these guys are taken care of, and that’s been my approach.”