"Big" John McCarthy on the Beginning of the UFC, Helio Gracie & His Start in MMA
When the UFC makes its network television debut on Saturday night, there will be a very familiar face taking his rightful spot inside the Octagon. No, it’s not UFC President Dana White nor is it UFC Heavyweight Champion Cain Velasquez or challenger Junior Dos Santos.
The man that has become just as recognizable and almost as popular as any mixed martial artist to have ever fought in the UFC is referee “Big” John McCarthy. Known for his trademark, “Let’s Get it On,” call that he bellows before the beginning of every fight he officiates, McCarthy was chosen by the California State Athletic Commission to act as the third man in the most important fight in the organizations history.
Ever since his career as a referee begun back in 1993, McCarthy has been witness to some of the most grueling, competitive and important fights the sport has ever seen. So it was only natural that he got the call to work the bout from the Honda Center in Anaheim, CA. His popularity has transcended throughout the lean years of the sport and remains clearly evident as the sport has grown.
It comes as no surprise to many that his name conjures up emotions from many of the hardcore fans who remember McCarthy just as well they remember any fighter who has stepped inside the cage over the years. He routinely receives just as loud if not louder ovations the very fighters he is in charge of. Ask anyone familiar with McCarthy and they will tell you it is well deserved.
McCarthy along with Loretta Hunt put together a book based upon his experiences inside and outside of the Octagon. Appropriately entitled, “Let’s Get It On- The Making of MMA and its Ultimate Referee,” was released on September 1st and is a must read for any mixed martial arts fan, especially the newer ones who are interested in learning about the early days of the UFC.
“The book starts off with how I grew up and how I went into certain directions,” McCarthy told Bleacher Report. “There are a few chapters on my life, the LAPD, how I got involved with Rorion Gracie and how MMA began. How the Gracies tried to integrate their teachings from Brazil into the US.
Then it goes into the making of the UFC, how and why things came together as they did. A lot of it was done to give credit to people who have done a lot to bring the sport to where it is. It wasn’t written to thank anyone for anything they did for me in particular. You have two types of MMA fans, the newer fans brought along on The Ultimate Fighter and the old die hard guys who have been there from the very beginning.
Those guys have a pretty good idea of how and who were instrumental in putting this thing together. They may not know how Art Davie and Bob Meyrowitz were involved other than Meyrowitz sold the company to Zuffa. They aren’t familiar with Jeff Blatnick, who was an Olympic Gold Medalist in Greco Roman Wrestling, and how he lent credibility to the sport.
Here was a guy who went up against the naysayers and said this sport isn’t bad, it’s good. It’s full of great athletes. He never got credit for that or how he helped implement certain rules and the current judging system. It’s not the Medias fault, but everyone gives credit to Dana White, but he’s not the guy who came up with it. He’s done a great job promoting the sport, but long before Dana knew what the sport was there were guys working hard to make this work and they deserve credit.
Loretta Hunt wanted me to write this book for awhile about the history and why things happened and I kept telling her no. Finally she said there are too many people who have been passed by and no one will ever know about their contributions until someone talks about it. For those reasons alone, it was worth it to write the book.”
Long before he was working inside the cage as a referee, McCarthy was a Los Angeles Police Officer who was chosen by the brass to try and come up with a better way to subdue assailants other than the use of batons. Little did he know just how far that training would take him and how much different his life would become.
“The way that I met Rorion Gracie was because of the LA riots that occurred after the Rodney King ruling,” explained McCarthy. “The LAPD wanted to teach officers a better way to control someone other than using the baton because it’s pretty stupid that the only option an officer has it to hit someone with a steel pipe. It’s not a good idea, so they put together a Martial Arts Review Committee made up of a lot of great martial artists from Southern California.
I happened to be one of the officers on the committee and was introduced to Gracie. I began working out with him and he and Art Davy were putting together a show called War of the Worlds. Art had gotten a gentleman by the name of Campbell McClaren to buy into the idea. McClaren was part of Semaphore Entertainment Group. Bob Meyrowitz put some money down and they changed the name to The Ultimate Fighting Championships.
As a police officer my job was to teach other cops the curriculum the department came up with to subdue suspects. They needed to have a set of rules in place so if someone went to trial they prosecutors could show that the officers stayed within the guidelines taught to them. The reason I got into MMA was because of the police department.”
McCarthy has seen it all take place inside the Octagon. He has officiated thousands of bouts and countless championship fights. He has outlasted some of the best fighters and bore witness first hand to displays of true heart, grit and gutty determination. From the classic back and forth battles to the one sided beatdowns, McCarthy has some great memories of a sport he truly loves.
“I was happy to be part of all of it to be honest with you,” said McCarthy. “I loved being a referee, I still do and that’s why I’m still doing it now. I learned to not walk away from something you love or you will be miserable. All the fights I was part of are memorable to me, are there some that hold a bit more significance than others? Sure there are, I thought UFC 40, when Ken Shamrock and Tito Ortiz fought for the first time was special.
If you had been part of the UFC and understood how things were before it was sold to the Fertittas, you would appreciate how far it had come. It was dying and when they bought the company they put a lot of money into it. The Fertittas deserve a ton of credit and people don’t really give it to them. Dana is the front man that they wanted, but it was Lorenzo and Frank who put up a lot of money.
They put themselves far into a hole and that’s a hard place to be no matter how much money you have. They stood by it and when UFC 40 with Ken and Tito rolled around, that was a time when I really looked at it and thought it could make it. Before that there were many times when I thought it was going to die. This sport is going to die, it’s not catching on. At UFC 40 I remember standing in the ring and looking around feeling the electricity that I thought it was going to make it.
The sport wasn’t going to be pushed to the side like I thought it would so many times. Doing the first fight with Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell at UFC 43 was awesome. Being involved with Randy’s fight against Tim Sylvia at UFC 68 which was at the time was the biggest crowd in North American History. That was phenomenal, just having the crowd on its feet for the entire fight was amazing. So yes, there have been some special moments for me.”
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