John McCarthy has been one of the most prominent voices inside the cage for years. He’s only just getting used to being known as one of the voices sitting cageside.
The 57-year-old Bellator commentator has had to make a fast transition to working the broadcast desk after spending the last two decades establishing himself as one of the foremost authorities in the sport of MMA. “Big John” became a household name among fight fans not only for his presence as an in-cage referee, but for his influence on the ever-evolving rules of MMA and his fellow officials.
In January of last year, McCarthy shifted careers, putting aside his referee work to focus on being a color commentator after signing with Bellator. It was unexpected given McCarthy’s reputation as a stern disciplinarian and according to McCarthy, he was as surprised as anyone when the role was offered.
“As far planning for it, I had no plan at all,” McCarthy recently told MMA Fighting. “But there was an opportunity that came up and taking the job I was just trying to do the best with whatever they wanted to to use me for. That was their choice and we’re just happy to be getting the opportunity to work cageside. It’s something I was very lucky to fall into.”
Since taking the gig, McCarthy has sought advice from former Bellator color commentator Jimmy Smith, as well as former UFC analyst Brian Stann and longtime veterans Mike Goldberg and Mauro Ranallo. As far as Bellator goes, McCarthy has been pleased with how hands-off the organization has been when it comes to directing him and requiring him to stick to a certain script.
McCarthy says in-ring interviews are the most difficult part of the job so far, since it requires listening and processing dialogue with a fighter in a short period of time all while dealing with the pressures of a live crowd and live television. The other challenge he’s faced is changing fan perception of him.
Though he feels he’s grown comfortable with showing off more of his personality, McCarthy laughs when he wonders if maybe he’s adapted too quickly for some people’s tastes.
“Personality-wise, everyone has a perception of who you are,” McCarthy said. “Obviously, as an official I always tried to just be that guy that was controlled. So everyone kind of looked at me as very gruff and not having a sense of humor and being serious all the time, but that’s not who I am. I’m a practical joker, I have fun all the time, I’m laughing all the time, I’m making fun of people, they make fun of me, and that’s what makes life fun.
“A lot of time I’ll be doing something and people will go, ‘I think he’s drinking.’ No, I don’t drink, I’m not drinking, but they expect you to be a certain way and when they see that you’re not, they’re kind of taken aback, like, ‘What’s he doin’?’ I’m more of a silly person than people have seen me to be and when they watch me now, they’re thinking he’s got to be on something. That’s what I’m getting a lot of on social media, that I’m drunk.”
As focused as McCarthy is on his new career, he remains an expert on the rules and regulations of MMA, and he was open to sharing his thoughts on an odd officiating situation that went down this past September at a Bellator show in Dublin, where welterweight Michael Page and referee Dan Miragliotta became involved in a messy dispute after Miragliotta took a point away from Page for his mid-fight shenanigans.
Afterwards, Page claimed that Miragliotta called him an expletive post-fight. Miragliotta, for his part, apologized for the exchange, but also vowed that he would not referee a Page fight again.
McCarthy is glad that the commission allowed Miragliotta to speak on the matter and he agreed with Mohegan Tribe Department of Athletic Regulation president Michael Mazzulli that Miragliotta let his emotions get to him. He feels that as long as there are clear boundaries set for the fighters, they should be allowed to express themselves inside the cage.
“We all work inside of this box and if you’re the person, you’re the official stepping outside of that box and now taking action, you better be right, what you’re doing,” McCarthy said. “And then everyone will adjust and bring that action inside of that box. When you’re outside of it, it’s probably not going to look good, and Dan was outside of that box.
“I’ve had guys that were the biggest trash talkers, they did more things inside than you guys ever knew about. Now I didn’t take points, if it got too loud, you would hear me say, ‘Knock it off.’ I’ve told them in the back, ‘If you say something, make sure that he, you, and I are the only ones that can hear it. If you do that, I don’t give a damn.’ Now if you cross the line, there’s always a line, you start saying a racial epithet, you are mocking someone’s religion, you are denigrating their family, you have now crossed the line and gone beyond trying to psychologically do something and the official will take action against you.”
McCarthy had plenty of praise for Miragliotta as well and if anything, he can understand why Miragliotta did what he did based on his own experiences.
“It’s a matter of the more that you have dealt with something and you thought about it and then you go, okay, this is what you do, now you know exactly what to do before something ever happens,” McCarthy said. “Dan’s an emotional guy, and Dan’s a great guy. He’s as nice a human being as you will find, he’s a great official, he’s a great friend, I love him, but he gets emotional when he doesn’t like what someone does. Dan believes in the martial arts. Dan believes that you have respect for your opponent. That’s the way Dan’s brain works.
“When you do something that’s outside of his view of what the martial arts is, you can see that he gets affected by it. He’ll shake his head and he’ll do things and you’ll go, ‘Dan, stop that!’ He can’t, it’s just who he is. You can tell him stop and he goes, ‘I know, I know, I know,’ but then as soon as it happens again he’ll do the same thing. It’s something that he has to work on too, you have to be impartial, it doesn’t matter what you say, it matters what you do.”
McCarthy will be on the call in Uncasville, Conn., for a pair of shows this weekend, starting with Bellator 231 on Friday followed by Bellator 232 on Saturday.