(“Big” Dan raises Silva’s hand – briefly. Photo by Paul Thatcher.)
They don’t call him “Big” Dan Miragliotta for nothing. At 6’ 4” tall and 295 pounds, he is a towering presence in the ring or cage and he’s got an impressive background in the martial arts and has refereed hundreds of fights over the past decade. I sat down with Dan to discuss everything from his crazy daily routine – he rises at 4:30 a.m. to train before going to work running a backhoe and jackhammer, as he has done for the last 25 years – to how this humble Jersey boy got started in MMA to the future of the sport. And of course, I had to get his thoughts on the Anderson Silva vs. Damien Maia fight at UFC 112 as only he—the only other person in the cage during the fight—can tell it.
FM: So, Dan, how’d you get started in MMA anyway?
Dan Miragliotta: Well, I broke my neck wakeboarding when I was 14 and was in the hospital and in traction four months. I was body surfing during a very high tide, misjudged one of the waves and crashed on the beach. My neck went straight into another guy’s back and it snapped. I broke two vertebrae in my neck and didn’t realize it until two weeks later when I couldn’t move my neck. I started doing karate to get my coordination, balance and motor skills back.
FM: What types of styles have you studied?
DM: I started learning a Japanese style karate known as Shito Ryu at around 14 and got my black belt at 18. At 21, I started doing Kenpo Karate and have a 5th degree black belt. I also have a brown belt in Doce Pares Escrima, a senior instructorship in Muay Thai under Vut Kamnark and am a 3rd level instructor in Shoot fighting under Bart Vale and a blue belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu under Renzo Gracie.
FM: Have you ever competed?
DM: I used to compete in karate, full contact fighting and full contact stick fighting. I’ve also run my own training school and ran 24 MMA events in the early years. Nick and Matt Serra, the Miller brothers, Chris Liguori, and Jorge Rodriguez all had fights with my promotion. Matt Serra’s first fight was at my school.
FM: So you got started refereeing with fights through your own promotion?
DM: Yes, I refereed many of my own events back in the day before MMA really became mainstreamed and then started with smaller organizations.
FM: You mentioned you had your own school at one point. Do you currently teach any MMA classes anywhere?
DM: I teach Muay Thai, Jiu-Jitsu and Shoot fighting two nights a week at Five Star Personal Fitness Training Center in Atlantic Highlands, NJ.
FM: Do you have any hobbies outside of MMA?
DM: My wife and two sons and I snowboard in the winter, water ski and wakeboard in the summer and ride dirt bikes and quads in the spring and fall. We do things as a family.
FM: In your opinion, how has MMA changed over the years?
DM: It’s evolving and fighters are starting to make what they deserve so they don’t have to work two jobs and they can train and fight like professionals. It’s really come a long way and it’s overdue. It’s really unfortunate that some of these guys that fought six or seven years ago used to fight for $400 or $500 a fight.
FM: You were the referee for the Anderson Silva vs. Demian Maia fight at UFC 112. What are your thoughts on the earlier rounds?
DM: There was a point in the second round when I was almost giggling…because [Anderson Silva] is just so good and I was watching him hit Demian Maia at will. Anything he wanted to throw, he connected with. The guy is amazing, but then all of a sudden it just stopped…and it was upsetting.
FM: In the middle of the fight, there was what some are calling a “little shove” between you and Silva? What was the real story there?
DM: Between the third and fourth rounds, I don’t know what he was doing, but he was kind of hiding behind me as I was refereeing the fight and I went in to try and stand [Maia] up and the next thing I know, he’s like playing peek-a-boo behind me and I kind of like pushed him away and was like, “come on, what are you doing?” so after the round was over, I walked to his corner and I said to him in front of his trainers, “I’m warning you right now, I’m giving you your first warning for unsportsmanlike conduct and if you do it again, I’m taking a point away.” After that, he didn’t do the taunting and unsportsmanlike stuff. Between the fourth and the fifth round, when I started the fight, I grabbed them both, brought them both to the center of the ring and said, “I’m telling you both, this is a championship fight. I’m going to give you both a warning for being committed to this fight.”
FM: So the fifth round started out a little better then?
DM: They started fighting and there were a couple of good points where Maia actually scored some points with punches and then the next thing you know, that’s when Anderson started running around again and I stopped the fight with minute left and I told him, “This is your final warning.” I should have just taken the point away. I knew he was winning all five rounds anyway, but nothing was really being done. I was mad at myself for not taking a point away. But it’s over and hindsight’s 20/20. Like I said, I was honored to do the fight and I was proud to do the fight and then when it was over, I’d been a spectator and not the referee.
FM: Did Anderson Silva say anything to you after the fight?
DM: We had words. Everyone says he doesn’t speak English. I don’t know. He understood what I said to him. He kept apologizing. He called me coach. He said, “coach, I’m so sorry. This isn’t me. I don’t know why I did this; I’m so sorry.”
I said, “Anderson, you are an extraordinary athlete, an extraordinary martial artist. You can’t keep giving performances like this because you’re just so good. Let the people see how good you are.” I don’t know what happened. It’s a shame because he’s talented and Demian Maia’s no slouch either…I give Demian credit. He tried to come back in the fourth or fifth round and he kind of risked his neck to go in there to try to knock Anderson out because he knew he couldn’t get him on the ground and Anderson just ran away. That’s why I stopped the fight and I actually warned him.
FM: There’s obviously been a lot of backlash about the fight. What do you hope comes as a result of this?
DM: I hope the public—I’m not going to say forgives him, but—forgives what he did because I would like to see everybody who spends their hard-earned money and goes to the events and buys them on pay-per-view get what they paid for. There were people wall-to-wall at UFC 112 and they were there to see the champion fight like a champion and I hope he sees what happened and I hope he changes his fighting for the next fight.
FM: How did you feel being the referee for that fight?
DM: It was a fight I was very proud and honored to have and then when it was over, I was disgusted. I didn’t even want to hold his hand in the air.
FM: Speaking of which—you raised Silva’s hand at the end of that fight for about one second, dropped it and walked away. What were you thinking at the end of the fight?
DM: You’re not supposed to get emotional about the fight, but that was a disappointment with the whole thing, but I still have to do my job so I raised his hand. I didn’t want to be in the picture and I just walked away. There was no one else even there to hand him the belt, so it wasn’t just me that was disappointed.
FM: There were a lot of great fights that night that were overshadowed by the Silva debacle, don’t you agree?
DM: The Frankie Edgar fight was terrific. Nobody expected that. I mean I don’t care how you judge it. You could say it was 3-2, 4-1 or 5-0, I mean you had three different judges with three different scores but they all gave it to him no matter what, so he still was the champion. He still won the belt and he’s a Jersey boy, so that was good to see. And BJ Penn is a phenomenal fighter; there’s no doubt about that. He didn’t get the name “The Prodigy” for any small feat, so there’s no doubt about him being as good as he is. And everyone Frankie’s fought, people said he was going to lose—Sean Sherk, Spencer Fisher, Tyson Griffin—I mean he doesn’t have knockout power, but he has some very good skills.
FM: You’ve been involved with MMA in some way since the very beginning. Given the strides the sport has made over the past 10 years, what lies ahead for the future of MMA?
DM: For every true fan, it’s going to go past boxing. Still, small changes need to be made. The more the public sees it, the more the public grasps it and the better we do at presenting it to the public, it’s just going to keep getting bigger and better. Like I said, hopefully these fighters will get paid what professional boxers make and I think it will happen, I really, do because it’s a sport that’s being grasped by so many people.