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Click Debate: Why John McCarthy no longer refereeing is a ‘big, big blow’ to MMA regulators

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

John McCarthy essentially invented the role of mixed martial arts referee. He has been the third man in the cage since before “MMA” was even coined as a term. McCarthy debuted at UFC 2 in 1994 and has been the most knowledgable, well-respected and well-known referee in the industry since then, even having a hand in writing the rules of the sport in 2001.

Last month, it was announced that McCarthy would be joining the Bellator MMA broadcast team as a color commentator. His new role will be pulling him — at least for the foreseeable future — away from the role of referee that he has pioneered. And that departure will leave a sizable hole that it’s up to athletic commissions to fill.

“It is a big, big blow to regulators,” Mohegan Tribe Department of Athletic Regulation director Mike Mazzulli said.

For more than 20 years, if a commission director had a big UFC fight coming up, he or she knew McCarthy could be penciled into the main event. Whether it was Tank Abbott, Ken Shamrock, Tito Ortiz, Chuck Liddell, Anderson Silva, Jon Jones, Conor McGregor or Ronda Rousey, McCarthy saw it all.

McCarthy moving over to television, partly due to an injury he sustained last year and partly due to a career progression, hasn’t quite sent commissions scrambling, but it certainly created a shift in the industry.

“The thing about government and the thing about institutions is no single figure is irreplaceable,” California State Athletic Commission (CSAC) executive officer Andy Foster said. “However, John McCarthy is probably as close as it’ll ever come. Certainly no one is irreplaceable and you have to have a succession plan in place for that these types of events. Had you told me last year that this was going to happen, I wouldn’t have believed you. I certainly wouldn’t have seen this one coming.”

McCarthy’s duties extended past just what fans see in the cage. Foster said he would talk to McCarthy five or six times a week about issues going on in the sport and cards coming up. Mazzulli said McCarthy’s advice has been indispensable for him in his two decades in combat sports regulation. Mazzulli and McCarthy were both in the New Jersey room in 2001 when the Unified Rules of MMA were written.

“I didn’t just rely on John when it came to refereeing,” Mazzulli said. “I’ve learned a lot from him and I still learn a lot from him. He helped me write my policies. I will still go to him and ask him questions.”

Mazzulli said McCarthy will retain his role on the ABC rules and regulations committee, chaired by Sean Wheelock. McCarthy has said he will still teach his ABC referee and judge certification courses, but not as frequently as before. McCarthy will still referee and judge boxing in California and he is a licensed boxing judge in Nevada.

Nevada Athletic Commission (NAC) executive director Bob Bennett likes to think of the referees and judges he uses for cards as his starting lineup. And in MMA, McCarthy was something of the team captain, the quarterback and the coach all rolled into one.

“What the fans and media don’t see is he’s a leader among the officials,” said Bennett, who credited NAC chairman Anthony Marnell III for helping bring McCarthy back into the fold in the state. “John is a leader and he leads with intelligence and practical knowledge that’s second to none. It spreads, it’s contagious and people gravitate toward him. He’s a real positive influence.

“There are other officials out there that will be able to fill the void in the cage, but not necessarily in that leadership role.”

Foster said Herb Dean is the “heir apparent” to McCarthy, if he wants the role. Foster said when McCarthy informed him he’d be stepping away, he called Dean and said he has first pick in California.

“Anything I’ve got, let me know,” Foster said he told Dean, a California resident. “It’s yours if you want it.”

Bennett said he has been alternating McCarthy and Dean in UFC main and co-main events. Now, he has to take a look down his card and figure out where to place referees.

“I take a lot of time to do my starting lineup,” Bennett said. “Who’s doing the championship bouts? And then work from the end of the card up to the front. When you have John in there, he’s a go-to guy — you never have to worry about him.”

Jason Herzog is a name that came up a lot among regulators when asked about referees who could get more assignments. Herzog, Mike Beltran and Mike Bell are mainstays in California and Foster said Josh Rosenthal will be a regular for shows in the northern part of the state.

Mazzulli mentioned Kevin MacDonald, Dan Miragliotta, Rob Hinds, Todd Anderson and Jerin Valel, who is McCarthy’s assistant teaching his COMMAND courses, as refs who could emerge in McCarthy’s absence. Bennett uses some of those names, as well as the likes of Mario Yamasaki, Chris Tognoni and Yves Lavigne in Nevada. Foster said he believes former UFC fighter Frank Trigg, a relatively new ref in California, will be at a very high level in a few years.

Marc Goddard and Leon Roberts are highly thought of referees in the United Kingdom and Mazzulli said he plans on using them often when Mohegan Sun regulates Bellator shows overseas. Goddard will be at UFC Belem this weekend and should get more assignments in the U.S., though the amount of travel and cost of travel are issues.

It gets extra difficult when there are two big shows in one night, which happened last month with UFC 220 and Bellator 192. Dean, MacDonald and Miragliotta worked the UFC show in Boston, while Beltran, Herzog and Blake Grice, one of the best referees from the Southern states, staffed Bellator in Los Angeles.

In April, UFC 223 in Brooklyn will conflict with a Bellator card in Hungary. Mazzulli said he has already spoken to New York State Athletic Commission (NYSAC) executive director Kim Sumbler about splitting up quality referees. As it is now, MacDonald and Lavigne will be heading to Budapest, while Miragliotta will be working the big UFC card.

There are only so many good referees to go around and there are more MMA cards now than ever before.

“We’ve been developing talent and bringing people up,” Foster said. “But really the depth of knowledge for mixed martial arts officiating in one person is unparalleled when it comes to John McCarthy.”

Still, regulators are confident that there are enough quality officials to do the job. It’ll just be up to some of the current high-level referees to ascend to the role held so long by McCarthy.

“Are we going to lose something? Absolutely,” Mazzulli said “Hopefully there will be a vacuum where we can get some replacements. But I think you’ll see a couple of these guys do a good job.”