MMA's flagship organization returned to California for the first time in two years with UFC 104 "Machida vs. Shogun" on Oct. 24 in Los Angeles. And while Lyoto Machida's controversial decision win over Mauricio "Shogun" Rua carried the headlines following the show, referee "Big" John McCarthy's absence from the Octagon was obvious for longtime fans and has many of them asking, "Why?"
Whether or not the California State Athletic Commission assigns McCarthy to work the upcoming WEC 46 event on Jan. 10 in Sacramento could shed light on speculation that he has been bypassed for UFC and WEC events (both promotions are owned by Zuffa LLC). Since his return to officiating in November 2008, McCarthy has been assigned to other high-profile shows, including those under the Strikeforce umbrella.
Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker sees McCarthy as an asset.
“He’s the best referee in the country,” said Coker. “He’s refereed all of our big shows. He was one of the pioneers.”
In fact, Coker has gone so far as to request McCarthy specifically for certain events.
"Every commission has rules on how that works," Coker said, "but if it's a situation with big fights on CBS, we're trying to get him an approval for the commission; it's never been a problem. I don't see why he wouldn't be (approved) for the number-one guy in the country."
Since taking the helm of the UFC’s officiating duties at UFC 2 in March 1994 and single-handedly building the template from scratch over 15 years and more than 600 events, McCarthy has not refereed a UFC event since 2007. He retired briefly to pursue a career in broadcasting with Canadian cable channel The Fight Network, but he returned full-time to officiating in 2008. After applying for reinstatement in Nevada, his application was placed in the pending file. That led industry insiders to wonder if it was an issue with state commissions or if his well-publicized broadcasting stints with the ill-fated rival Affliction promotion and others were hampering his return effort.
While McCarthy’s fate in Nevada remains nebulous, he is currently licensed by the CSAC and works shows there. He is also licensed in Utah, Illinois, Ohio and some jurisdictions in Canada.
Dave Thornton, interim executive officer of the CSAC, addressed questions from Sherdog.com on the matter via phone and e-mail. In light of McCarthy’s past comments critical of officiating made while he was a paid commentator for the sport, Sherdog.com asked Thornton about who made the assignments for UFC and WEC events.
“Though we have many officials who are working their way up, right now we have only a small pool of about 10 referees qualified to work large promotions,” said Thornton. “We select referees based on experience, training and number of bouts each has to date… We do not keep track of our referees by who has worked what particular promotion, e.g., Strikeforce, WEC, UFC. Our referees are not categorized as ‘accepted’ by any promoter. They are either qualified for any large promotion, or they're not.”
McCarthy, who owns a gym in Southern California, does not have any existing conflicts of interest that would preclude his being assigned to events in the state, said the CSAC's Thornton. In addition, Thornton said no promotion hosting an event in California has requested to him that McCarthy not be assigned to its event.
Still, many scratched their heads when McCarthy was skipped over for the UFC 104 assignment. McCarthy, who had limited comments regarding the situation, said he had been available that evening and has stated in recent public interviews that he'd continue to make himself available for all future MMA events, including the UFC.
In the fast-growing sport, the increasing demand for officials has placed a burden on state commissions trying to keep pace with the exploding workload from more events. That can translate into inconsistent officiating, ranging from how rounds are scored to when restarts are enacted and when fights are stopped. McCarthy has worked extensively to help standardize these concepts across jurisdictions, regularly teaching seminars so officials can be more consistent, regardless of what level show they are officiating. McCarthy also launched his own training program, COMMAND (Certification of Officials for Mixed Martial Arts Development), for referees and judges in December 2007 and holds courses every couple of months.
“If you’ve ever sat down with John and had him explain to you how he referees and protects the athletes and gets his job done, it’s amazing,” said Strikeforce CEO Coker. “The education and knowledge he has is unbelievable. I sat down with him almost three months ago and it was like taking a seminar. There’s nobody better qualified than John.”
Referee assignments have not been made for the Jan. 10 WEC show; those will be completed in mid-December once the card is finalized, said Thornton. He added that while promoters are free to protest referee assignments at least five days before an event, assignments are solely the CSAC’s decision.
"As mentioned, we schedule our referees based on who is due for the next fight," said Thornton.