So You Want To Be A F*cking Referee?!
by Michelle D. Drake, special guest contributor on May 6th, 2012
So you wanna be a f*cking referee?!
If you’ve ever watched “The Ultimate Fighter” even once, you’ve no doubt heard Dana White ask the fighters, “So you wanna be a f*cking fighter?” I don’t know about you, but those words and the tone in his voice sends shivers and chills up and down my spine. It’s so exciting to have that question asked by none other than DFW, that it makes all of your hard work and dreams become a reality as well as makes you think, “Do I really wanna be a f*cking fighter?!”
Because I’m not DFW (I do go by my initials, MDB, and only the cool people call me that!), I can’t ask the question about being a fighter, but I can ask you this, “So you wanna be a f*cking referee?”
Almost every single day I’m asked, “How can I become a MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) referee?” Whether this question comes from a curious friend or fan who overhears me saying, ‘I’m a ref’ or someone sending me a ‘friend request’ on Facebook, I can’t escape a day without that inquiry. Good thing is, I love what I do and don’t mind being asked that question at all. I figure that since I’m asked all of the time how to become an MMA referee, I’ll go ahead and write this little article to explain the process—that way the next time I’m asked, I can just tell people to read this article on mmaowl.com!
First off, I’ll let you know that each state has different requirements, so I’ll speak in general terms then explain the process that I went through in Texas. While most states don’t require previous referee experience, I strongly suggest you have some martial arts referee experience—whether it is boxing, karate, taekwondo or judo. That way you’re used to making snap judgment calls, looking for fouls, movement around and with the fighters, and knowing your positioning in the fight area. It is crucial that you’re experienced in the fighting area and know how to move around fighters so you don’t get caught under a fighter’s foot or get in the way of a kick or punch. You will look like a complete idiot if you’re constantly running around and dodging kicks and punches because you’re not used to movement and positioning. Another important factor in MMA reffing are critical thinking skills. Bringing in reffing experience gives you an advantage in that you’re used to being in the mind-set of looking for fouls and infractions as well as able to enforce rules and assess penalties.
Next, let me address something that is very important: the ‘why’s’ of becoming a MMA referee. If you want to get into it for the money, fame, it looks fun, or you’re a really big fan, let me correct your thinking. There is no money. We get paid in peanuts, unless we’re reffing at a UFC event. But even the normal UFC “big dogs” don’t have a UFC every weekend. Most have regular Monday through Friday gigs like you and me. If it’s fame that you want, go into show business or fighting. The only way you’re going to make a big name for yourself is if you fuck up! Again, the “big dogs” have been doing the UFC thing for decades and deserve all the fame they have. I’ve come to realize that if no one is talking about your reffing, you did a good job! If you’re a really big fan and think it’ll be cool to ref, keep buying tickets for your local shows and cheer your little heart out. Really big fans don’t make competent referees, sorry.
Moving on… please, please, please, for the love of all things good and pretty, practice and know Jiu Jitsu. Ya, it’s great to know boxing, karate and all the stand-up stuff but it’s absolutely imperative that you know the ground game. If you don’t, you’re doing the game, and especially the fighters a great disservice. You have to know what the submissions are, how they feel, where the pressure is being applied, how to undo the submission, its defense and its movement. Otherwise a lot of potential damage could be done or a premature stoppage can take place or you could get rolled on if you’re standing in the wrong place during a sweep.
Now, the good stuff… how to actually get your license. Again, each state is different so I’ll speak as to my experience and what I did. From what I’ve been told, it’s very similar to most states but do check with your respective commission to find out for sure. The first thing I did was to contact my state commission (Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation – TDLR) and let them know of my interest of becoming a referee. I was told to get certified first by an ABC (Association of Boxing Commissions) approved referee/judge trainer, there are seven of these trainers: Herb Dean, John McCarthy, Yves Levigne, Mario Yamasake, Robert Hinds, Kevin MacDonald and Nelson “Doc” Hamilton. I attended Herb’s course in Pasadena, California. After being tested for two days, I was certified as a MMA judge. I did not pass the referee portion of the test because it’s just that hard. I came home and told the commission of the outcome and they allowed me to shadow events to prove myself to them. I shadowed all over Southern Texas and on my own dime too! That’s how you know whether or not you really want to do this and if you’re willing pay any amount of money to follow your passion.
After being put through the ringer and never ending hoop-jumping, I was granted my referee license in the great State (some say Republic) of Texas. After a few months of working events, I really wanted to get certified as a referee so I attended Kevin MacDonald’s course in San Antonio, Texas and passed with flying colors. Next week, I’m heading to Santa Fe, NM to take Herb Dean’s Referee course again. He has a running joke with me that he won’t let me be his co-ref because I’m not certified by him That WILL change on May 12!!
I’ve been officiating for over a year now and have yet to get “the call” to do THE big show, the UFC. But I was called to be one of the judge’s with Bellator 62 this past March 23rd, in Laredo, Texas. You won’t get the big shows for several years, if at all. I still work the smaller, local amateur (aka ammy) shows in Texas. That’s the life of a MMA referee.
I hope this answers your questions about becoming an Mixed Martial Arts referee. Please don’t take this job lightly. Yes, it is a passion for us. Yes, we are huge fans of MMA. And yes, we get star struck too. But most importantly, we take the rules, fighters’ safety and this sport very, very seriously.
**Michelle got the ‘call’ to officiate at very first all female MMA event, Invicta FC 1 in Kansas City, Kansas, on April 28th, 2012. She also became the first female MMA referee in Kansas and will be writing an article on her Invicta FC experience soon!