PRO MMA (promma.info) recently had the opportunity to speak with the original mixed martial arts referee “Big” John McCarthy.
“Big” John was introduced to MMA fans at UFC 2. However, he actually came very close to fighting inside the Octagon rather than being a referee. He explained to us why he made the choice to referee as opposed to fighting.
“Big” John took us back to the early days and how he got involved with the Gracie family and the UFC. He also talked to us about his time with the L.A.P.D., how MMA has evolved, Dana White, Bully Beatdown, having his own Round 5 action figure, and much more.
PRO MMA: First off I want to say thank you for taking the time to speak with us at PRO MMA (promma.info). I have pretty much followed your career since UFC 2 and have always considered you one of the most significant figures within the sport of mixed martial arts. How are you doing and what is keeping you busy these days?
BIG JOHN MCCARTHY: Well thank you. I’m doing good. My schedule is either being home for a day or getting to an airport to go someplace else. In the last two weeks I was in Edmonton, Canada for the MFC show, when I got back I took off for Beijing, China and did the Art of War show. I just got back from that. I’m going to Kansas City to do a teaching course for Missouri, Oklahoma, and a couple other states’ athletic commissions. When I get done with that I get to come home for a day and then go back to Orlando, Florida and do something for EA Sports there and then I go to St. Louis, Missouri from there to do the Strikeforce show so I’m busy.
PRO MMA: That sounds more like a rock star than an MMA referee.
BIG JOHN MCCARTHY: (Laughs) I don’t know if it’s a rock star but it’s definitely keeping me busy and keeping me moving, so… I’m enjoying it.
PRO MMA: I would like you to think back if you would as to what was your very first introduction to martial arts of any kind and how that finally led to you meeting the Gracie family?
BIG JOHN MCCARTHY: The first introduction I really ever saw to martial arts was in the movies through Bruce Lee. I used to watch at the time professional wrestling and my Dad would sit there and bag on professional wrestling cause he didn’t like that, but he took me to boxing and I started becoming very involved in boxing and watching certain fighters and then I saw Bruce Lee and I wanted to do what I saw on TV. But my Dad, he was my reality king, he said no you’re going to do amateur wrestling, so I started wrestling and boxing. Then when I got into the L.A.P.D. I had a friend that did judo told me there was these brothers, he didn’t even know their name at the time, this was back in the beginning of the 90’s, he said there are these brothers from South America, they like to fight on the ground and you would like what they do, and ended up finding out it was a guy named Gracie and I went down to South Bay and ended up meeting Rorian Gracie, and then Royce and Rickson and all of them and started working out with them and that’s how it all started, that’s how it all happened.
PRO MMA: I had read that you originally wanted to fight in the UFC but Rorian, who was your instructor, advised against it. Is that true?
BIG JOHN MCCARTHY: Well, he didn’t advise against it like… what happened was when they were coming up with the UFC, it was actually called “War of the Worlds” at the time, and then they changed it to the UFC, and then they put out applications for fighters and I filled out an application and put it on Art Davies’ desk, and Rorian said I heard you put in a thing to fight, and I said yeah, and he said you can’t do that, you know, you’re with us, you’re with Royce, Royce is fighting. I said I can totally understand that, I don’t want to fight against Royce but when there’s a chance I would like to do it. And he said when Royce is done we’ll talk about you doing it. And I said ok, and that was all it was. And after UFC 1, which I was at, I was there as a sparring partner for Royce, they asked me to referee and did me the greatest favor of my life by getting me to referee because it turned into being something I was able to continue doing for many years and I would have been done as a fighter long ago.
PRO MMA: Had you refereed MMA fights prior to UFC 2?
BIG JOHN MCCARTHY: Not what would be called an MMA fight, no I had not.
PRO MMA: Have you ever had any professional or amateur MMA fights?
BIG JOHN MCCARTHY: I had about five amateur fights. No professional. But back then nobody knew anything. It was from about UFC 8 or UFC 10 where you started getting these really good athletes coming in that really changed the sport.
PRO MMA: Something I noticed about you over the years is that it seems your demeanor inside the cage has changed. In the early days you had a very forceful and authoritative demeanor where you wore somewhat of a scowl on your face. You had that look like you wanted to be in there yourself or if one of the fighters got out of line you would have no problem kicking their ass. But as time went on it seems your demeanor softened and you seem more relaxed in there now. Do you know what I’m talking about?
BIG JOHN MCCARTHY: (Laughs) You know what, I have people all the time tell me, “You look so mean” or “It looks like you’re mad in there.” I’m not mad, I was never mad or mean or anything like that and never had that intention. I was just very, I was intense about doing the best job I could do. That’s what was important to me. There was things I did in the beginning that I softened because I didn’t want to hurt people. In the beginning when I was able to stop fights there were a couple fights that happened, Tank Abbott vs. John Matua. John Matua was out and Tank was hitting him and I went in there and forcefully grabbed him and yanked him off of him, and the people who owned it at the time, SEG, the liked that. They said, “Hey, do that. We want, we’ve gotta have that.” And so I started kind of bullying into guys. But I was going to hurt someone along the way and I realized it, so I stopped trying to do that as much and started instead of taking out the guy who is winning, it’s like you’re gonna win the fight but you’re gonna get screwed over by the guy cause the referee is gonna nail you getting you off the guy, I started trying to change it and get in between the fighters and just put myself in the position so the guy who was winning couldn’t hurt the person he was fighting any more. So yeah I tried to change things and you evolve as time goes on you do things that try to make you better at what you do. Have I evolved? Yeah, I’ve evolved, or at least I have.
PRO MMA: You were a police officer with the LAPD for many years. How old were you when you became a policeman?
BIG JOHN MCCARTHY: When I first became a police officer? 22-years-old.
PRO MMA: How long did you spend with the L.A.P.D.?
BIG JOHN MCCARTHY: Almost twenty-three years, Twenty-two years and nine months.
PRO MMA: Your Dad was a police officer too, right?
BIG JOHN MCCARTHY: Yes, he was.
PRO MMA: Is that pretty much what made you interested in it as well?
BIG JOHN MCCARTHY: Yeah. Truthfully it was, he looked at me and said, “You’re walking a fine line. You better figure out what you want cause you’re going to end up in jail.” I was doing some dumb things and getting in fights and not being smart about some things so it was, what side do you want to be on, and I would rather be putting people in jail than getting put in jail, so that’s why I ended up going that way.
PRO MMA: What was your position with the LAPD?
BIG JOHN MCCARTHY: I was a training officer. I worked all kinds of different assignments, from vice assignments in Hollywood to, I worked gangs for five years and ended up the last ten years of my career I was an instructor at the Academy doing tactics and defensive tactics.
PRO MMA: Were you ever on the TV show “Cops?”
BIG JOHN MCCARTHY: No, I was never on Cops, thank God.
PRO MMA: When you look back from how the sport of MMA began and when you were in there refereeing those early UFC’s, did you ever have any idea that it would be where it is today?
BIG JOHN MCCARTHY: No, I didn’t. At first when the whole concept came out and Rorian was putting it together, I loved the concept because I believed in the art of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and I thought that people were going to like it, and it was unique. And really a whole lot of people didn’t catch on that fast before it happened, and then when it happened everybody jumped on and thought it was cool, and then the political pressure happened and they tried to kill it. It went through a lot of hard times and you tried to work through those and do the best that you can but never thought it was going to be enormous sport or entity that it is now.
PRO MMA: Did you have any conceptualization that you as a referee would one day have your own action figure?
BIG JOHN MCCARTHY: Are you kidding me? Come on, no. Never. Never ever thought anything like that. MMA has given me a life that I can never complain about.
PRO MMA: I wanted to talk a little bit about your Round 5 action figure. Is that the proper terminology, “action figure”?
BIG JOHN MCCARTHY: That’s it, it is an action figure, not a “doll”. (Laughs) I don’t know how much action I bring to it but it’s an action figure.
PRO MMA: Tell me a little bit about your Round 5 action figure and how that came about?
BIG JOHN MCCARTHY: The Round 5 people contacted me through Randy Couture. Randy Couture had association, he started doing the Round 5 thing with the Lau brothers and they contacted me through him and I talked to them and they said they would like to do this action figure. I said, “Absolutely.” And they’ve been fantastic to work with from the very beginning.
PRO MMA: What process did you have to go through as a model for them to create it?
BIG JOHN MCCARTHY: In the beginning that have you send pictures and have you take 360 degree pictures of you and they will ask you to be in a certain pose as if you were starting a fight. They wanted pictures of your tattoos so they could put it on the clothing that you wear. Everything that was associated with you and the sport they wanted to have some type of documentation and photo so they could start to create the doll, and for awhile you didn’t see anything, but then they started sending information and photos of the figurine as they were starting to do it, what you thought of it, if there were any changes you thought there should be made in it. And they gave you that freedom to actually have an input on what was going to happen with it and how it was going to look and that was really neat. It wasn’t just, this is what you’re going to look like and I don’t care if you like it or not and you’re stuck with it. They were very good about giving you some input on what was going to happen with it.
PRO MMA: Do you have children of the age where they can play with daddy as an action figure?
BIG JOHN MCCARTHY: No, all my children are older. But they tell me they’re gonna beat up on it. so… (Laughs)
PRO MMA: I hear that UFC is coming to the Staples Center in August. Could we see Big John back in the Octagon?
BIG JOHN MCCARTHY: I doubt it. Dana White doesn’t want me working UFC so I’m sure that he’ll put something in saying he doesn’t want me and that’s fine.
PRO MMA: Can they do that? Do they have that option of saying who they do or don’t want in there?
BIG JOHN MCCARTHY: They’ll tell you they don’t, but yes they do. Yeah. They have that ability, and that’s fine.
PRO MMA: When is the last time you spoke with Dana White?
BIG JOHN MCCARTHY: I haven’t spoke to Dana since I left the UFC.
PRO MMA: Loretta Hunt is helping you write your book is that correct? Is it out yet?
BIG JOHN MCCARTHY: Yeah, she’s going to be writing the book. They just sold the book so we’re working on it right now, but it’s not out yet.
PRO MMA: Any due date on the book?
BIG JOHN MCCARTHY: I believe it’s going to be out Winter of 2010.
PRO MMA: What do you think about the recent incident with Dana White saying those things about her?
BIG JOHN MCCARTHY: I think it’s improper. It’s wrong. If you don’t agree with the story, that’s OK. But to verbally attack somebody that way is childish. It’s counter-productive to the sport and it’s counter-productive to the image of the UFC. Dana has done a great job of helping the UFC become the brand that it is and he’s very good for the UFC. I would never say otherwise. But there’s certain things he’ll do at times and it’s just because of his temperament, his passion, the way he goes about things, sometimes is not the right way of doing things and people say it’s Dana being Dana and it is, but Dana has to be smart about things like everyone because he is not in charge of a quarter-million dollar company, he’s in charge of a one billion dollar company and he has an impact on the entire sport, and Dana needs to conduct himself in a professional manner.
PRO MMA: I just didn’t understand the purpose of it. Why put it out there for everybody to see?
BIG JOHN MCCARTHY: That’s the whole part that’s kind of funny. He wanted it out there. It’s not like he was having a conversation with you and someone off to the side was filming it. He wanted it out there and he put it out there. And in the end I’m sure he looks at it and says it was a bad decision. But what’s done is done and he’s going to have to deal with the things that occur off of it. Hopefully it goes by and in the end no one thinks about it any more, but it’s not good for the sport because Dana is the face of the UFC and a lot of people associate the UFC with the sport, and they put a label on the entire sport with things that are being said in that video.
PRO MMA: Do you have any idea what’s going on there with that group?
BIG JOHN MCCARTHY: I have no idea at all, have no contact with them, and don’t know anything.
PRO MMA: Have you been doing any commentating recently Big John?
BIG JOHN MCCARTHY: No, dang I guess the last time I commentated was back with Affliction, long ago.
PRO MMA: Do you want to do more of that?
BIG JOHN MCCARTHY: Nope. I really don’t. I like the refereeing, that’s what I like doing. There’s no point in doing something that is OK to do. Do what you love, if you don’t make as much money at it, so what.
PRO MMA: What does the rest of 2009 hold for Big John McCarthy?
BIG JOHN MCCARTHY: Well the rest of 2009 you know, is just staying busy. I’ll be teaching my C.O.M.M.A.N.D. course for the certification of officials in MMA. I’ll be doing that for the Association of Boxing Commissions coming up in July and just continue to referee fights. When someone wants me all that got to do is contact me and I’ll come out and do the show.
PRO MMA: If people are interested in your referee certification classes how can they find out more?
BIG JOHN MCCARTHY: If someone is interested in taking either the judging or referee course they can go to my website at www.mmareferee.com. That will send them directly to the command course. Or they can go to my website for they gym which is www.bjmuta.com, there’s a C.O.M.M.A.N.D. link they can touch on that will send them to it. That will give them a lot of information on the course, what it’s about, how long it is, and it will give them a way to contact if they’re interested.
PRO MMA: Are they going to have a second season of “Bully Beatdown,” have you heard?
BIG JOHN MCCARTHY: Yeah, they just contacted me, I was in China. They left me a voice mail saying hey we’re getting picked up for another season and we want you to come and do this we need to talk to you, so I have to get back to them and talk to them about it but yeah they are going to have a second season.
PRO MMA: Thank you for your time Big John. You have a great rest of the year and hopefully we can talk again soon.
BIG JOHN MCCARTHY: Sounds good. Thank you.
By: Jack Bratcher