Do UFC Referees Know How to Fight?

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UFC referee Herb Dean calling a fight

In every exciting UFC fight, there are three people who actually matter. There are of course, the two people fighting, but there’s also the referee who’s ensuring that the fight is clean and fair. The UFC referee’s job may be different than the fighter’s job, but the refs still need to know how to fight before they get inside the octagon.

The UFC referee’s job


Before Dana White and his business associates bought the UFC, the UFC was very different from the UFC of today. There were far fewer rules, and many people were severely injured as a result.

For example, Joe Son fought at UFC 4. In that fight, he was repeatedly punched in the groin until he lost the fight. In the modern UFC, he would’ve won that fight due to a disqualification. 

That is the ref’s job in modern UFC and MMA fights. Refs talk to the fighters backstage before the fight to inform them about the rules. Then, during the fight, the refs enforce the rules to the best of their ability. As John McCarthy, one of the UFC’s most famous refs, told ESPN, the ref’s job is to “protect the fighters.” 

This usually means knowing when to stop the fight when one person is knocked out. But it could also mean knowing when someone has passed out from a chokehold. That said, refs can also make sure that the fighters actually fight. That’s rare, but sometimes, neither person wants to fight, so it’s the ref’s job to make sure that the fighters actually do their job in the octagon.

Why a ref needs to know how to fight

It’s important for a UFC referee to know when someone’s been knocked out, as too many punches or kicks to the head can lead to death. That’s exactly what happened in a few boxing fights, though nothing like that has happened in the UFC yet. But that doesn’t mean that deaths haven’t happened in MMA before. In fact, João Carvalho died after his fight against one of Conor McGregor’s friends.  

Something tragic like that could also happen with a submission. Many Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu attacks involve choking someone out. Obviously, if the ref doesn’t stop the fight in time, then the person can die from not being able to breathe anymore. This is extremely rare though, as it takes a while for a chokehold to kill someone. But, in real life, chokeholds have killed people before, so if a ref doesn’t act in time, then chokeholds can be dangerous too.

Finally, sometimes things get too heated in the octagon. Two people are trying to beat the other person up, and sometimes, one of them takes it too far. In these extreme cases, refs will need to be able to physically handle the fighters so that neither person gets too hurt. 

The UFC referees who were fighters


As ESPN reported, McCarthy’s referee training course involves teaching refs about fighting. But some refs had their training inside the octagon. Some of the more famous UFC refs, such as Herb Dean or Marc Goddard, have actually fought professionally before. Dean was a heavyweight and he retired with a 2-3 record. Goddard was also a heavyweight, and he retired with a 7-6-1 record. 

Their experience as fighters gives them a unique perspective when they’re refereeing a fight. They know exactly when the fight is over and generally won’t allow the other person to do too much unnecessary damage.

This type of unique knowledge is exactly what McCarthy wants new refs to have with the COMMAND program, according to ESPN. COMMAND stands for Certification of Officials for Mixed Martial Arts National Development and it’s necessary to pass the class before becoming a licensed ref.