The Lawman's Next Fight

When John McCarthy entered the police academy of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) in his early twenties, some two decades ago, he already was curious about a hot topic in martial arts circles: which fighting style was best?


“I came from a background of wrestling and boxing,” he said in December in a telephone interview. “I believe in those two things. I went to the Police Academy doing those two things, and then met people who were martial artists.” One of those people was a judo player. When they grappled wearing gis, the 6’4” McCarthy recalled, “I was getting tossed on my head.” That only further inspired him to expand his knowledge.


“He was the one that told me about this family,” he said. “All he said was, ‘Hey there’s this family. There are these brothers from South America, and they love to fight on the ground, and you would love it.’”


Those brothers were from Brazil, and their name was Gracie. John began training under Rorion Gracie, and became hooked on the grappling style known as Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. But Rorion Gracie had bigger plans, and those were to get the whole world into Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. Rorion partnered with Art Davie and Bob Meyrowitz to produce an event to feature style vs. style fights with almost no rules. That event was called the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).


“The thing that got my attention and made me like what they did and who they were was the fact that they would step up and, you know what, if someone wanted to fight, they would fight,” said John. “Many other martial artists were saying things like, ‘Oh, I would hit you but I don’t want to do it, this would kill you.’”


This real fighting was “what made the UFC successful,” according to John. But although the early UFCs were advertised with the slogan “There Are No Rules,” the truth was, “even though there were very few, there were always rules.” This was mere publicity. Said John, “I never agreed with it, but that was their show.”


“Rorion was there to promote his brother and his style of martial arts,” said John. “Rorion was doing it to further Gracie Jiu-Jitsu.” To Rorion, UFC was basically “an infomercial for them.”


Rorion’s brother Royce would win three of the first four UFC tournaments. At that time, “No one understood how to fight him.” While the efforts of the Gracies began to revolutionize martial arts and combat sports, another development, this one unplanned, was occurring. A new sport was being born, and it was running into some serious problems.


At what became known as UFC 1, the first bout was between standup fighter Gerard Gordeau and rotund sumo wrestler Telia Tuli. “Telia came in on Gerard, and he sidestepped and Telia went down,” John remembered. “Gerard took a nice kick and placed it in the middle of Telia’s face, and the tooth went fl ying out, and Gerard hit him with a right hand. Then the referee stopped the fi ght.” It was over in less than thirty seconds. “I don’t blame him now, but at that time he wasn’t supposed to do that,” John said of the referee. “That’s what basically gave me my start.”


Because of the unanticipated danger in this event, Rorion asked him to be the referee for UFC 2. “Rorion didn’t really care about those other guys.” said John. “That was a problem, because a lot of them didn’t know what they were doing.”


Some of those fighters, who were the unwitting bait for the shark that was Royce Gracie, would tell their corners, “You stop this fight and I’ll kill you.” With their corners “too stupid to throw in the towel,” John recalled, “Someone was going to get seriously hurt.”


He stressed to the UFC organizers, “These other people aren’t smart enough to even understand this kind of fighting right now. And they are going to get their own guy hurt.” He advised, “We’ve got a problem. The referee has got to be able to say this guy can’t go on any more.” They listened, and John Mc- Carthy thus began a career as a referee for this new sport.


After the Roger Huerta-Clay Guida fight, held December 8 of this year on a UFC show in Las Vegas, he retired as a referee. He also retired from the LAPD in September 2007, and now serves as an analyst, broadcaster, and strategic planner for The Fight Network, a Canadian-based television network.


In those thirteen years, “Big” John McCarthy not only established himself as the most

respected, preeminent, and best referee in MMA, he also has been a tireless advocate of fighter safety. He saw the UFC succumb to political pressure around the time of UFC 8 in February 1996, when he was told not to let anyone get hurt – if there was blood, he had to stop the fight. He observed the gradual evolution of the rules, watched gloves and weight classes become mandatory, and was there as the list of fouls and prohibit
ed tactics grew from show to show.


By 2000, the current unified rules were nearly formalized. “Truthfully, the rules the UFC follows now, the unified rules, are basically the rules the UFC was using before Zuffa bought the UFC,” he said.


In that time, Big John has seen the athletes evolve. For example, many top wrestlers in the early UFCs stuck to modified wrestling with striking. They “never truly tried to learn much else,” he said. There were a few exceptions in the early UFCs, such as Frank Shamrock and Pat Miletich. Both, according to John, had wrestling, striking, and submission skills.


Today’s fighters, like Roger Huerta and Clay Guida, both of whom have wrestling backgrounds, are “complete mixed martial artists,” said John. “They may not be unbelievable at the striking game, but they’re very proficient at it.”


In John’s thirteen years as a referee, he has witnessed some historic and memorable fights. “Royce Gracie against Dan Severn (UFC 4, December 16, 1994) was a turning point in the sport,” he said. When people watched Royce submit the former All-American wrestler Severn, they thought, “Wow, even a wrestler can’t go with him.”


When kickboxing champion Maurice Smith defeated Olympic wrestler Mark Coleman at UFC 14 on July 27, 1997, “that was the next step. [Maurice] protected himself on the ground, [and was able to] do damage on the feet.” Done was the original thinking that “grappling beats striking every time.”


Frank Shamrock’s fourth-round defeat of Tito Ortiz by submission from strikes at UFC 22 on September 24, 1999, represented the next changing of the sport. “That was when it showed the complete mixed martial artist.” Frank had the striking and submissions, Tito the wrestling, but in the end, it was Frank’s element of conditioning which prevailed.


For John, Tito Ortiz’s win against Ken Shamrock at UFC 40 on November 22, 2002, also started a change in the sport because of the number of people that came to that event, and its success on pay per view. “It may not have been the greatest fi ght in the world or the most competitive fight,” he said, but those factors and the electric atmosphere at the event made up for that.


Also on the list are the Chuck Liddell/Randy Couture trilogy (UFC 43, 52, and 57), and the Tyson Griffin/Clay Guida fight at UFC 72 on June 16, 2007. “I thought that fight had everything,” said John. Because of the conditioning, takedowns, stand-up, and submission attempts, “I love that fight.”


Now that McCarthy has retired as a referee, he will still witness the fights he loves and be a prominent part of the MMA world. He believes “this is the time to take another step, go in a different direction, and do something different.” Besides running Big John McCarthy’s Ultimate Training Academy in Valencia, California (, he wants to help The Fight Network grow, and is encouraging them to add coverage of amateur wrestling and submission grappling. He also has some major goals for MMA.


Some involve improving the ten-point system and the training of judges. “There are people judging mixed martial arts fights that have no idea what they are looking at,” he stated. Other goals are more sweeping. “There are so many fighters out there that are world-class fighters, and they should be ranked, and they should be allowed to fight [in co-promotions],” he said. To do that, a truly independent sanctioning body and rankings are essential.


Right now, there are “too many champions,” all with separate promotional companies.

“It’s ridiculous,” he said. “It degrades the sport.”


With the resistance, especially by UFC, to working together, John realizes that this is not going to happen “overnight or the next year.” But, “co-promotions work [because the fans] really don’t care what promotion is putting on the fight.” He added, “I care about seeing the fights. I don’t pay to watch a promotion. I pay to watch fighters.”


Also on his ambitious list is the formation of a fighters’ union, which he admits would be “very difficult to set up.” This, of course, would require some fighter “that’s going to have to take that first step.”


These may be longshot propositions, but then again, who have thought that a bunch of skinny Brazilians in gis would revolutionize martial arts and combat sports in a matter of years? And who would have predicted that a boxer and wrestler on the LAPD would become one of the most renowned people in this new sport? One can expect that Big

John McCarthy will be as successful in his next round of fights as he was in the first wave of revolution in the combat sports that yielded mixed martial arts.


Eddie Goldman’s No Holds Barred blog is at His No Holds Barred podcast is at He can be reached at

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