Veteran referee “Big” John McCarthy has not been issued a license to officiate events in Nevada after applying with the state’s athletic commission earlier this month.
In a mailed letter from Keith Kizer, executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, McCarthy, who submitted his application Sept. 10, was informed that the state “[does] not anticipate adding any additional referees at this time. We will place your application in the pending file in case the situation changes.”
McCarthy, who has refereed nearly 600 MMA events worldwide since UFC 2 in March 1994, would seem a welcome addition to any commission staff, but the iconic referee said he applied with no expectations.
“I don’t look at it like that. A license to referee or judge with an athletic commission -- it’s not a right,” he said. “It’s a privilege. Everyone kept bringing up the fact that I wasn’t licensed in Nevada, so I said, ‘Alright, I’ll apply.’”
McCarthy retired from officiating in December 2007 to pursue a career in broadcasting. After various stints with The Fight Network and then as a commentator for Affliction Entertainment’s first event, McCarthy’s absence from the sport’s flagship promotion stood in stark contrast to the game’s early days, when he refereed virtually every main event from 1994-2001.
McCarthy left the network in September 2008, citing breach of contract. He was re-licensed in California, his home state, and has maintained licenses in Ohio, Utah and jurisdictions in Canada. He returned to the role he originated in the U.S. at a Strikeforce event last November.
In recent years, MMA officiating has been scrutinized often, with discussions ranging from the timing of referee stoppages to judging scores. Nevada officiating, where a majority of the higher profile UFC events take place, has not been excluded and often highlighted.
In particular, McCarthy was often asked to draw upon his 15-plus years as a referee in his various broadcasting positions when commenting on his former colleagues’ performances.
In October 2008, Yahoo Sports’ Kevin Iole addressed a reader question in a mailbag about whether or not McCarthy’s comments on officiating had him on the outs with the NSAC. Iole wrote “... a little birdie tells me Kizer, one of the sport’s most influential regulators, is none too pleased with McCarthy these days for criticisms McCarthy delivered of him. It’s not to say that it’s impossible, but he’s got a long road ahead of him.”
In a March interview with Sherdog.com, McCarthy stressed that his issues were not with the UFC, nor personally aimed at Kizer and the NSAC.
“I had a criticism toward people being put into place as far as officiating,” said McCarthy. “I have a problem when you have an official who is put into place to have an impact on the sport I love when they don’t understand the sport, when they don’t understand what the fighters are doing. They understand someone getting hit in the face. They don’t understand the manipulations of the ground game and who is winning the fight. I probably should’ve shut my mouth because I’ve got a big mouth, and it’s got me in a lot of trouble, but it’s the truth. I want everyone to understand what is really happening in the sport so they can make educated decisions and judgments.”
When asked if Iole’s characterizations held water, Kizer replied via email: “I do not know who Kevin’s ‘little birdie’ is, and would no more speak for Kevin than I would for you. However, I can tell you I have always appreciated constructive and/or truthful criticism, regardless of source.”
White, who criticized McCarthy and his involvement with rival promotion Affliction, was surprised by the NSAC’s decision.
“Wow. That is my reaction,” said White. “Having a license is a privilege, and John said a lot of s--t about the Nevada commission and other commissions.”
Asked if McCarthy’s past comments or a perceived animosity felt for McCarthy by the UFC over his Affliction gig may have played a role in his application for a Nevada license being placed in the "pending" file, McCarthy declined comment. Kizer said no. Kizer added that due to a lack of openings, he could not comment on McCarthy's application, as it is pending until an opening materializes.
Kizer said the NSAC currently has six referees licensed to work MMA fights, with a current “pending” list of 20-30 applicants vying for an opening in one of those existing slots, most of which will never work in Nevada due to the high qualifications demanded and extreme rarity of an opening. The short list is exactly that, he adds, so qualified referees get enough work to stay sharp.
“We keep our list very short,” Kizer said of the existing list of approved MMA refs, “mainly because we want to keep people busy. We probably have about 20 cards a year. Some states may have 100 people licensed, but how often can they work? You want to have enough work for [referees]. It’s very important that the ref, doctor and inspectors communicate during a fight.”
Given the existing list of six licensed referees and numerous applicants, Kizer could not say when an opening would materialize.
“No one’s been turned down [for a license],” said Kizer. “He’s applied, and he’s in the file with other applicants.”
Since taking the job as NSAC executive director in 2006, Kizer said two referees have been added to the state’s list of licensed MMA referees.
White was noncommittal as to whether or not the UFC would have an issue with McCarthy working its U.K. shows. There, the promotion assigns its own referees in the absence of regulatory agencies.
“I don’t know. I just don’t know,” said White. “I would never say never, but …”
However, it appears some are anxious to see the 6-foot-2 referee return to the Octagon. In recent weeks, fans have organized campaigns -- some sent directly to White’s Twitter account -- asking that McCarthy be utilized at UFC 104 on Oct. 24 in Los Angeles.
McCarthy, who had extensive involvement with drafting and shaping the unified rules that now govern most of the sport, said his time away from refereeing helped him realize how much he loved the job, one for which he literally built the template through the sport’s early days. Nevada or not, he’s glad to be back in the mix, wherever he can work.
“I just keep doing what I’m doing,” he said. “I’m a very busy person. I have no problems with anybody in Nevada. I think the most important thing is you’ve got to be someone who’s honest and has integrity. Don’t be influenced by outside things, what fans are saying. You let the fighters do their thing. They’re the ones that should be deciding the fight.
“When you do your job right as a referee, there’s not gonna be a lot of people saying things,” continued McCarthy. “The sport is growing; the officiating is having to grow with it. The whole reason I’m [back] reffing is because it’s what I love to do, and I’m going to enjoy doing what I’m doing.”
Greg Savage contributed to this story.
This item was was updated at 4:40 p.m. ET on Sept. 25 to clarify Kizer's position on McCarthy's application.