If you watch MMA long enough, you’re bound to encounter a judge’s decision that you don’t agree with. MMA judges and referees are the butt of many a joke and the target of much scorn from fans, fighters and promoters. Partially to blame is the relative youth of the sport. Also at fault is the subjective nature of the rules. Both of these problems should subside over time.
So what are we to do in the meantime? Sit by and accept the shoddy judging and sketchy decisions? If you find yourself with a passion for the sport of MMA as well as extra time and a little cash, you could become an MMA judge or referee! Obviously this career choice isn’t for everyone. For the vast majority of MMA officials, this will always be a secondary career. Having said that, there’s always a chance that you get a call from the UFC or Bellator one day!
So how does one get into MMA judging or refereeing? Before you start applying for licenses in 10 States, there are a few things you could do to properly prepare yourself. They are:
The beautiful thing about MMA is precisely the reason why it’s so tough to judge and officiate; there’s an awful lot going on. Any casual fan can usually tell who is winning a fight but few can put their finger on exactly why that is. The best place to start learning to true intricacies of MMA is by attending Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) classes. Most major cities have classes and qualified instructors that can help you learn the nuances of BJJ. Judges need to have a proper understanding of BJJ to effectively evaluate the success or failure that fighters are having on the ground. Referees should have this knowledge to be aware of situations which put the fighters at risk of serious harm.
Quick Tip: Watch fights without the sound and test yourself. See if you can call out the different holds, identify where pressure is being applied and how you would react.
In 2001, the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board drafted what have become known as the Unified Rules of MMA. These rules have been adopted as the de facto standard rules that govern MMA across North America. Some of them are familiar and obvious (5 minute rounds) and some of them are more obscure (establishing where the “back of the head” starts and stops). Aspiring referees will need to understand what constitutes a foul and what steps are appropriate following one. Future judges will need to understand the scoring system and how to apply it.
Quick Tip: (For judges) The next time you watch a fight, turn off the sound, download a score card and judge the fight for yourself. See how your card compares to that of the actual judges. (For referees) Review old fights that had strange foul calls (i.e. eye pokes or low blows). Determine what you think should have happened and then review the rules to see how close you got.
Amateur MMA is growing even more quickly than the pro sport. Obviously not every city is the same but most major metropolitan areas have some level of amateur MMA. If possible, sit as close to the cage or ring as you can. In almost all cases, judges will be sitting cage or ringside which means you have ropes, the cage and distance to contend with. For referees, pay attention to how the fight official positions him or herself throughout the fight. How close does s/he get to the action? How does s/he move when the fight transitions from the ground back to standing? Many first time referees forget that they’re not simple bystanders and can get caught in the action or, worse, get caught too far away from it.
Each state is different but there are certain similarities across the board. First you’ll want to contact your state commission to ask for their specific requirements for officials. Most will require some sort of certification process (especially for judges) and the commission should be able to point you towards completing your certification program. In many cases, referees will be asked to shadow other referees around the state which typically comes at your own expense. People who wish to referee in multiple states will need to contact each state individually to inquire about their licensing procedure.
Judges aren’t always required to complete a certification process but, again, it can vary by state. There most likely will be a fee associated with a judging license ($60 in Kansas) as well as a few general questions.
One thing we can all agree on, there can never be enough good officials in MMA. If you have the desire and ability to make a difference, there could be a career in MMA waiting for you!
Brian Doerfler is the Social Media Manger for TITLE Boxing and TITLE MMA.