What it takes to become an MMA referee

MMA referee Kim Winslow reffing a WEC event live on Versus.

Not everyone wants to be an MMA fighter, but what should one do if they dream of being near the action? There are several jobs they can take on – a coach, an announcer, a judge, the cut-man, or even a referee.

Many people who may be interested in becoming an MMA referee only see the “fun” side – the traveling, being among the fighters, going to after parties, mingling with MMA superstars, etc. However, to become a referee and to work in the top organizations like Strikeforce and the UFC, it takes years of experience.

So you want to be an MMA referee

To get started no degree is required. However, an interested person must have profound knowledge of MMA, certification and their license in the state where they live.

Depending on where you plan to train to get your certification, it can cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars to around  $1,000. Plus, two or more days of extensive training will be required.

You must also be familiar with the Unified Rules of MMA as well as be in good physical condition. If you know nothing about MMA you must learn either by going to a school and training or buying books and DVDs to study.

If you have a busy schedule and can’t take a few days off to go to an actual training session you can take the online certification course. Although you don’t have to travel to a location or another state, you also won’t get the hands-on experience through practical application.

But if you are an MMA fighter or work in the field already, using the online application may work best for you as videos and workbooks will come with the testing materials.

When you are ready to take the certification, some of the things you will be tested on include: How you control the fighters in the ring, knowledge of the rules, how the rules are applied, knowledge of movement and positioning, and familiarity of fighting techniques like takedowns, submission, sweeps, etc.

Fighter Safety

The most important component you will need to know is what is the main job of an MMA referee? The answer: Safety. As a referee your job is to prevent the fighters from receiving unnecessary damage.

Although some people become refs with the mindset they will make lots of money, this won’t be the case for a long time. After you pass the certification test, it still wouldn’t be advisable to quit your day job.

You won’t earn enough to support yourself or a family at first. But the important part is getting your feet wet, gaining knowledge and experience so you can move up into the professional ranks.

In the early stages the Athletic Commission in your state will assign you to an event. As an amateur referee you will earn between $200 to $1,500 per event, not per fight.

To move up the ranks, you will need to prove yourself to the Athletic Commission. With this in mind you may have to take any job they have, e.g. an inspector who stays with the athletes in the locker room, observes the taping of fighters’ hands and walks the athlete to the ring or cage.

After several years of proving yourself to the Athletic Commission you will become eligible for upgrading your credentials and license, which will definitely be needed to referee events for Strikeforce and the UFC.

Once you reach this level, you will earn more than enough money to quit your 9-to-5 job. Although certification lasts a lifetime, to be a great referee, it is important to continue learning through seminars, education and observing referees who are more experienced.

Two of the referees you should study are Herb Dean and “Big” John McCarthy, who are not only excellent at their jobs and have years of experience, but they have trained and competed as fighters, and both own training schools where you can get your MMA certification in California.

Dana White once said, “If anyone ever wants to know how to be a great ref, they should watch Herb Dean. I wish there were more Herb Deans in the sport.”

Dean has refereed at over 4500 fights in several states and countries. McCarthy has over 1000 bouts he refereed worldwide. He is also a WBC boxing referee.

Kim Winslow

But one of the most talked about referees is Kim Winslow. In 2009, Winslow became the first woman to referee a UFC event.

Like other women who became “firsts” in their field, Winslow is considered a trailblazer, and to be taken seriously she knew she would have to earn the respect of the fighters, other refs, the MMA community and fans and those in power, especially in the UFC.

Winslow, who was already a martial artist, studied Tae Kwon Do when she was younger. When she saw UFC 1 she was instantly hooked to the sport. Later, Winslow began studying Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, Muay Thai and other forms of martial arts.

In two short years since debuting at the UFC, Winslow is slowing gaining the respect she needs to survive in this business.  During the Ultimate Fighter Finale in 2009 MMA commentator Joe Rogan said a few minutes into the round, “I think this is the first time we’ve ever had a female referee. I just noticed that.”

Winslow considers this statement a compliment because she feels it’s a referee’s job not to be seen, to be in the background, and do their job.

Winslow is most often asked if she can handle breaking up fighters who are in the heavyweight division. She is confident in her ability to do her job effectively even if that means getting in between big guys, which she has done on numerous occasions.

In fact, in 2007, Winslow was the referee for the match between Ernest Henderson (386 pounds) vs. Gaylon Cooper (392 pounds), two enormous “super heavyweights”.

Despite proving she can do her job well, and just as good as any of the male referees, there will always be the naysayers who think women should not be refs in any male-dominated sports, especially one where two fighters are going at it like warriors.

Some people have even suggested female referees should be trained differently than male refs or assigned to different fights, that they should only be allowed to referee men in lighter weight classes to help secure the safety of the fighters and their self.

Winslow refuses to listen to the “haters.”

“I am capable of taking care of myself in the cage and if I weren’t capable of stopping fights I wouldn’t have come as far as I have,” Winslow states.


Being a referee involves more than knowing the sport. It centers on having good judgment, quick reflexes, patience, fairness, excellent timing, split second decision making and the ability to handle a stressful occupation, especially when a ref gets booed due to a call the audience thinks is wrong.

However, referees often see things the person in the stands or who is sitting on the couch at home does not, because they are in the cage.

They can see if a fighter’s eyes roll back in their head, or if they are trying to call it quits, or there is a flash knockout, which even the cameras don’t always catch. Ultimately, more than anything else, that fighter’s life is in the hands of the referee and it is his or her job to always put safety first.

Here are a few links you should check out if you are interested in becoming an MMA official or referee:

5 thoughts on “What it takes to become an MMA referee”

  1. One key oversight in this is a MMA Referee is not a career. If for some reason you do get into the MMA Commission and get that first chance and do well, you are still going to mostly loose money the whole time you choose to do it. Its a work of passion and nothing else.

  2. A couple points: The income range for refs is overstated. Most of the commissions start below $200 and several are well below that number.

    Secondly, there are online courses but that will not help you like getting mentored by an experienced ref and trainer. If you want to get trained go to a trainer approved by the Association of Boxing Commissions http://www.abcboxing.com.

    Thirdly, be prepared to pay your dues. You’ll work in small shows and probably drive to multiple states when you’re trying to break in. You’ll lose money while you’re getting started.

    Lastly, it’s not for everyone! As the author indicated it’s a lot of stress. You WILL BE BOOED! You will be called names. You will at some point have a fighter’s life in your hands. Think it through and get trained properly if you seriously want to try it.

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