Saturday, December 4, 2021

Back To School, Showdown Joe Takes An MMA Referee Course

By Showdown Joe Ferraro
Originally posted on

The role of judge or referee in mixed martial arts is not an easy one to perform and unfortunately for the fighters, fans and promoters of this sport, something needs to be done to assure the safety of its athletes becomes priority number one.

This past weekend in Edmonton, I successfully became a certified referee under Big John McCarthy's C.O.M.M.A.N.D. course and let me tell you; it was one of the most difficult challenges I faced in over a decade of being involved with this sport.

C.O.M.M.A.N.D. stands for Certification of Officials for Mixed Martial Arts National Development and is an intensive course encompassing what is required for an official to be more than ready to step into a cage and ring to officiate a sport that has more variables at play than one can possibly imagine.

Unfortunately for MMA enthusiasts, this course has yet to be deemed mandatory by all of the athletic commissions that regulate the sport and quite frankly, this is a crime.

The course is broken down into three areas and participants require a passing grade of 90 percent (at minimum in all three) to be certified. As it stands today, the course has a 75 percent failure rate, as participants simply do not make the grade to officiate or judge in MMA.

Would-be referees must know and identify over 25 takedowns, 35 submissions, 25 positions and seven sweeps, reversals and transitions. They also must know the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts inside and out.

After the identification of the aforementioned moves and keen knowledge of the unified rules, participants are also trained and tested on in ring / cage mechanics. This is comprised of what is required by an official before, during and after a bout. It's not just about positioning (which is HUGE when refereeing) but dozens of other variables that are key to the safety of the athletes who put it all on the line.

All of this knowledge is paramount for one to be proficient in officiating and without it I do not understand how commissions around the world allow men and women to step into the cage/ring and ref without proving they have this type of knowledge.

If the four major sports leagues — the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL — mandate that officials are properly trained before being allowed to step onto the playing surface, why doesn't MMA do the same? If this sport is expected to be taken seriously then this type of certification must be the no minimum an athletic commission requires from an applicant prior to receiving their license to ref or judge.

In fact, I challenge every referee in the business to take this course and to see if they can pass. I wonder if the referees being licensed to work in the UFC, Strikeforce, Affliction, the WEC and down to the grass-roots events have ever been mandated to take this course.

Do they know what a Von Flue choke is? Are they aware of what an Electric Chair submission or Electric Chair Sweep is? Do they know what an inverted triangle is? Are they truly aware of where the interspace is between two fighters who are in an orthodox stance or when one has now switched to a southpaw stance?

What is the proper positioning when two fighters are on the ground? Where is the open side? What are they looking for when a submission is locked in? When do they stop it? How do they stop it? How do you prevent an arm bar submission from turning into a broken arm?

What determines whether a fighter gets a warning, a point deduction or disqualification? What are the 31 fouls listed in the Unified Rules of MMA? When should the doctor be called in? How much time is a doctor allowed to assess a fighter? What is the proper procedure for dealing with a fighter's mouthpiece that has fallen to the mat?

Big John McCarthy, the founder and instructor of the C.O.M.M.A.N.D. course, is the gold standard in MMA officiating. He has been there since UFC 1 and stepped into the cage at UFC 2 and has never looked back. In fact, he has only looked forward and has set the bar as to what is required by an MMA official. That bar is so high that then next best referee(s) are a distant second, third and fourth.

McCarthy was also instrumental in creating the Unified Rules of MMA back in April of 2001 and has been along for the ride each time there have been any sort of modifications. He knows this sport inside and out, forwards and backwards, and his C.O.M.M.A.N.D. course is underutilized by every single commission in North America.

There is so much at stake in MMA that it astonishes me that promoters, managers, fighters, fans and my fellow members of the media do not speak up and force the government officials within the athletic commissions to mandate that all officials be certified as referees and not be granted by their positions because they simply filled out a state or provincial license application.

Throughout the course, McCarthy made one thing clear: Judges can affect a fighter's livelihood but referees can affect a fighter's life. That is a serious lesson that everyone should take note of.

If a judge has no idea what is happening on the mat or which fighter is truly winning the fight, how can they possibly score a bout fairly? How many times have we heard that a longstanding, experienced boxing judge is now being given an MMA assignment? I can give you that answer.

Pretty much every single MMA event that has ever occurred!

Since when does 10, 20 or 40 years in the sport of boxing teach a judge what the mount is? What a high crotch or single leg takedown is? What a guillotine, kimura or americana is? These are the folks that are scoring MMA bouts. Do we fault them for taking the assignment (payday)? Do we fault the commissions for giving them the right to do this job without being educated on what to look for in an MMA contest?

Are the promoters to blame for not caring who the commissions insert as judges in their events? Do we blame the fighters for stepping into the combat arena and not questioning the credentials of each judge that will be scoring their bouts?

As mentioned earlier, judging may affect a fighter's pocketbook (and derail a promising career with poor decisions) but the biggest concern I have is the lack of knowledge from too many referees in MMA. These are officials who are responsible for the lives of the fighters that step into the ring/cage.

Money is one thing but human life is another. If an official does not know what signs to look for when a fighter has simply had too much, the official, the commissions and the sport of MMA is treading on thin ice. Commissions are always speaking about liability but if the officials they license are not fully qualified… pardon me… but then the liability falls directly onto their laps.

Fighter safety should be the No. 1 concern for all of the athletic commissions. If they do not believe that then it will take the unfortunate death of one of our modern-day gladiators before these government officials wake up and smell the coffee. It does not have to ever get to that point but we are currently traveling on that road with what is happening in MMA today.

There is an abundance of politics in the world of MMA and that is a topic for another day, but those in positions of power need to put aside personal agendas and think about the fighters – please.

My eyes were opened wide this weekend and I put the time and effort into preparing for Big John's grueling demands to pass the C.O.M.M.A.N.D. course. I successfully passed but cannot help to think there are hundreds of events and officials out there that do not have C.O.M.M.A.N.D. certified refs and judges. THIS IS A CRIME.

McCarthy may have his critics but his course should be mandatory. The UFC, Strikeforce, Affliction and all promotions, alongside the Association of Boxing Commissions, including Nevada, New Jersey, Columbus, Quebec, Florida (and yes, even Ontario) should step back for a moment and look to the future of this sport – before one of our warriors loses their life.

I took this course because I was invited by Dale Kliparchuk, the Commissioner for The River Cree Athletic Commission, and saw it as a challenge. It was not just about me covering the course for Sportsnet but Kliparchuk and McCarthy “dared” me to take the course to see if I could pass. I studied and prepped myself before I went in to my own personal battle to pass the course. And with some research and understanding, I passed. I am grateful for the experience but my eyes were opened to what is truly happening in the world of MMA.

To all the members of the media who criticize referees – to all the fans, fighters, promoters, managers and commissioners – I challenge you to take this course. In fact…I dare you.

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