“Big” John McCarthy has been a referee for the UFC since March 11,1994, and has played a major role in MMA. What an honor it was for me to speak with him about MMA, athletic drug testing and his wife’s ongoing battle with lupus. BILL S: I feel your biggest contribution to the sport was […]
“Big” John McCarthy has been a referee for the UFC since March 11,1994, and has played a major role in MMA. What an honor it was for me to speak with him about MMA, athletic drug testing and his wife’s ongoing battle with lupus.
BILL S: I feel your biggest contribution to the sport was adding referee stoppages when a competitor cannot intelligently defend himself. That rule may have saved the sport altogether. Explain the importance of this rule, and the difficulty of knowing when to stop a fight or not. What helped you form the idea to implement this rule?
JOHN M: Back when I was asked to be the referee at UFC 2, I joked with a friend of mine about what my responsibilities were, which were not many. The only time I was supposed to stop or interfere with the fight was if the fighter tapped out, or if the corner threw in the towel. Other than that I was not supposed to do anything unless a foul occurred and there were only two of those being No Biting and No Eye Gouging.
When I refereed the first couple of fights I quickly learned that there were going to be problems with being the referee. I realized that the fighters had talked to their corners and told them to never throw in the towel, so I was not going to be able to rely on the corner to protect their fighters and the fighters were getting hurt to the point where they didn’t have the mental or physical ability to tap after they had been hurt badly. I told the corners I was going to advise them when their fighters were hurt and I was going to advise them when to throw the towel. Well, like I said the corners were advised not to throw the towel by the fighters so I had no way of keeping the fighters safe.
After the show I told Rorion Gracie that I was never going to do it again. He looked at me and asked why? He thought everything had gone really well. I looked at Rorion and told him that he was going to get someone seriously hurt with the restrictions he had on the referee and the stopping of the fight. I told him that I could not just stand in the cage and watch one fighter stomp the head of a defenseless fighter while his corner stood there holding onto a towel because they were too stupid or afraid to do what was right.
At that point I told him that I needed to have the power to stop the fight and I came up with the terminology “If a fighter cannot intelligently defend himself, I will stop the fight”. To this day we still use this as a standard for what we are looking at from the fighter to allow them to continue on in the fight. We tell the fighters in the back while going over fight rules and protocol that if they get hurt, we expect them to show us through their actions that they are okay. We want to see them move, fight back, get hold of their opponent etc. What we do not want to see is them starting to hide, putting both of their hands on one side of their head in an attempt to block the blows. We want to see that the fighter is intelligently defending himself or herself.
BS: You used to work for the LAPD, do you use any skills learned in police training in the Octagon?
JM: Things that I learned from being a police officer have helped in being a better referee. I learned that you do what is right for the sport and for the fighters no matter what. I learned that there is a thing called the letter of the law and another called the spirit of the law. Many times those two things don’t coincide either in the street as a police officer or in the cage as a referee, but you need to always go about doing what is right for the sport and the fighters.
BS: With concussions and brain damage playing major roles on fighters’ lives and families, what else can be done to help brain trauma and recovery?
JM: The understanding of concussions and their severity is one of the big hurdles facing all combat or contact sports. We must do everything we can to educate the fighters about taking care of themselves not only in the cage, but in training as well. We need to do more to keep the fighters from getting dehydrated and carrying that condition into competition. We need to learn from studies concerning alternative medications that are less harmful to the fighters overall health and ones that actually help regenerate cell activity instead of impede it. Thanks to researchers like Professor Yosef Sarne of Tel Aviv University, we’ve discovered that cannabis may help prevent long term brain damage by administering THC before or shortly after the injury. In fact, Israel Defense Force (IDF) practitioners administer CBD or low-dose THC as a first-line of treatment to IDF soldiers. Is that something that could possibly help a fighter who has developed Traumatic Brain Injury or Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy? I don’t know for sure, but why in the world would we not explore the possibility?
BS: The UFC has a 50 nanogram limit on THC; do you anticipate the UFC ever lifting their ban on THC for medical purposes?
JM: Well, the UFC doesn’t test fighters. The UFC uses USADA as the organization that checks and tests fighters under contract to the UFC. USADA does have a 50 nanogram limit on THC during in-competition hours. Those hours are 12 hours each side of the fighters competition time. There is no limit on THC in what is called out of competition testing. If you test positive for 300 nanograms of THC during a test that is outside of in-competition testing, you will not be penalized by USADA. What they are saying is, we don’t want fighters under the influence of THC during the actual fight. They are not saying that they think THC is performance enhancing, what they are saying is they don’t want a fighter under the influence of THC because it could possibly slow his reactions or instincts which could possibly endanger that fighter who has THC in their system.
BS: Many MMA fighters as well as other professional athletes have obtained a doctor’s recommendation to utilize and possess medical cannabis. Should fighters be able to choose cannabis over addicting pills and traditional Dark Age medicines?
JM: I think every athlete under the care of a physician should be able to discuss with their physician what type of medication is best for their particular style of life and ailments. I think it is silly to say that marijuana is a dangerous drug while opiates and opioids are being used all the time and under medical supervision are considered safe. Any medication can have side effects, but we should always be open to finding better ways to handle some of the aches, pains and problems that come with pushing your body to the point of it breaking down. I can remember commercials from when I was a kid that talked about all of the health benefits associated with smoking cigarettes. Is that what we say today? We should always be striving to learn and evolve. We should never hold onto old and outdated methods just because that’s the way we did it then.
BS: Fighters are extremely conscious of what they put in their bodies. Jon Fitch once told me that he uses cannabis to recover, and as a dietary supplement to induce hunger and get the calories he needs. Many professional athletes use medical cannabis as an alternative to addicting and liver-damaging pills. It’s time that Joe Rogan uses his passion and understanding of cannabis to help change the minds around him. It’s time to acknowledge this plant, not as a substance of abuse, but rather, as a useful medicine. The UFC should #standupforcannabis the way they support Budweiser, change this rule today. What is your opinion on cannabis as it relates to fighting?
JM: Well, lets make one thing clear. I have never ingested cannabis. Growing up, my father was against it and I have had asthma my whole life so I wasn’t big on inhaling anything into my lungs. So, I don’t have any type of personal experience to say yes or no. But my personal opinion on marijuana as a Performance Enhancing Drug for fighting is absolutely not!!! I think the problem with marijuana when it comes to fighting is it can reduce your abilities, slow you down, diminish your reflexes, which in essence makes it more dangerous for the fighter ingesting the marijuana.
BS: Even though you have never been interested in marijuana yourself, your wife Elaine has found medical cannabis to effectively treat the symptoms of lupus.
How long has she been using medical cannabis to her benefit?
JM: She started using cannabis to help her lupus in 2016, so it has not been a long time, but we can really see how it makes a difference with her headaches and her fatigue. I want to be very clear, my wife doesn’t use cannabis in a recreational form. She has a serious disease and uses cannabis as a medicine to assist her in living as normal a life as possible. That is the thing that is crazy about this. When you tell people that you use marijuana to treat your illness, right away they get this look like “Oh you just like to get high!” That is the last thing people like my wife are doing. All they are doing is trying to live a normal life and thank God there is something out there that actually helps them do that.
BS: Diagnosing lupus is difficult. How did she figure out what was going on?
JM: It actually took a long time to get an official diagnosis of lupus from the doctor, probably about a year to a year and a half. She went through a ton of testing, but that was a godsend because during her testing we discovered that she had bladder cancer. Nobody wants to have lupus, but in a way my wife’s lupus helped us in discovering the cancer that she had. I am glad to say that she is cancer free now and our focus is on how to make her lupus less limiting.
BS: When was she diagnosed?
JM: She was diagnosed with lupus in 2014
BS: Damn, she spent the first two years of her disease, with doctors practicing their pharmaceuticals, and offering nothing but possible side-effects. Is there any information you can offer those who need help identifying the symptoms of lupus?
JM: Most people don’t truly understand lupus. Lupus is an autoimmune disease that can damage any part of your body including the skin, joints, organs, the brain, and the eyes. Chronic means the symptoms tend to last longer than six weeks and often years. In lupus, something goes wrong with your immune system, which is what helps fight off viruses, bacteria, and germs. In healthy people the immune system produces proteins called antibodies that protect the body from viruses and bacteria. When a person has lupus, their immune system cannot tell the difference between foreign invaders and their body’s healthy tissues, so they create autoantibodies that attack and destroy healthy tissue. These autoantibodies cause inflammation, pain, and damage in various parts of the body.
Lupus is a disease of FLARES. You get a flare up and you feel ill. Then you have remissions where the symptoms improve and you feel better. Lupus can range from mild conditions like a rash, which can be only a small patch on one part of your body to life threatening ailments that shut down your vital organs. With good medical care, most people with lupus can lead a full life. So, if you have been having any of these symptoms please go to a doctor and start the process of seeing what you can do to live as normal a life as possible.
BS: In addition to using cannabis and conventional medicine, does Elaine follow a special diet?
JM: Yes, she does have to be careful with what she eats and now has many food allergies. We figured out that gluten is very bad for her and causes headaches and possibly migraines. The Paleo Diet seems to be the diet that works best for her and her illness because what you are eating is natural or comes from the earth instead of having some company manufacture it or add preservatives to it.
BS: You created COMMAND to train and certify referees. How does someone go about becoming an amateur referee, and joining your program?
JM: I started the COMMAND program to give people wanting to be officials in MMA a head start. I wanted them to have a place they could go to that answered the questions that I didn’t have answered for me. When I started out there was nobody that I could go to as a mentor to help answer the questions of “What’s the best way to deal with this” or “How can I handle this better”. I had to learn on my own. I had to make a mistake and then figure out how the mistake was made, the proper way to handle the problem and how to keep it from happening again.
COMMAND was started because of my belief that we need quality officials if our sport is going to grow. I am smart enough to know that I cannot do every show and eventually I will retire and not officiate anymore and there needs to be quality people that are prepared to step up and take the sport to the next level. Unfortunately, I personally do not have a lot of time to do the course. I am booked just about every week of the year, usually for two shows, sometimes as many as four so finding the time to teach the course is always an obstacle. If someone is thinking about getting into MMA as an official they should go to www.MMAReferee.com for more information.
BS: You are active on Twitter. It’s nice to see you answer every single #ASKBJM question. You have also spent some time commentating and broadcasting. Do you anticipate a career next to Joe Rogan at any point?
JM: The whole Twitter thing is funny. I had no idea about Twitter for years and then I was told I had to get a Twitter account by a company I was working with. All of a sudden, people started asking questions on it and were making comments about the sport that were untrue or wrong and I wanted them to know what the right answer was. I started answering their questions, but the same question would be asked every week. I had a friend of mine who suggested I put a hashtag on the end of every answer so people could go back and see the answers to other people’s questions and that’s how #AskBJM started. I try to answer as many questions as I can because I want people to be as informed and educated about MMA as possible. I think that an educated fan base is better for the sport. The one question I get on a daily basis that I don’t even try to answer anymore is “What’s the best fight you have ever officiated?” I try to tell people that picking one fight out of the thousands of fights I have done would be impossible and disrespectful to all of the amazing fights I have been lucky enough to have been part of. I will usually try to break things down by elaborating on the best fight I officiated this year, but that doesn’t seem to satisfy them.
As far as broadcasting, I doubt you will ever see me sitting beside Joe Rogan. I have had fun doing some things, but there is a problem with Athletic Commissions and their officials doing interviews or doing broadcasting, so I try to keep it to a minimum.
BS: What a privilege it is to speak openly about cannabis with arguably the most recognized face in the MMA industry. Joe Rogan would be another awesome conversation. How do you like interacting with Joe? What do you think about his busy life?
JM: Joe Rogan is an amazing guy. He is a super smart, very intelligent and intellectual person who is also an amazing athlete. I have nothing but respect for Joe and they way he goes about living his life. He also happens to be one of the funniest comedians you will ever see.
BS: What about Dana White?
JM: He is the greatest fight promoter ever. He is a driven and fiercely loyal person who is incredibly generous to people around him, but don’t get on his bad side. Once he is pissed at you, it will take you a long time to turn that around, LOL. I really like Dana and I know the UFC would not be where it is today had Dana White not been a part of it.
BS: And, Art Davie?
JM: Art Davie is the guy who started it all. If it wasn’t for Art Davie and his dream, the UFC never would have happened. I owe Art for starting what has become the sport that I love, the sport that I have had an impact on, and the sport that has given me a second career. This sport that has given so much to my life and allowed me to go places and see things I never would have seen had it not been for MMA. MMA is different today than what Art started 23 years ago, but there has to be a beginning and Art was the one that made that happen. There are a lot of pretenders out there saying that they started the UFC, or they are the Co-founder of the UFC. All I can say about that is if it wasn’t for Art Davie, there never would have been a UFC.
BS: No “Big” John McCarthy either, Art coined his nickname…
BS: What about Steve Cantwell?
JM: Wow that’s a name from the past. Steve was a really good Kickboxer out of One Kick Nicks gym in Las Vegas. I only refereed Steve once or twice but he was a really explosive fighter who had 3 great fights against Brian Stann. In fact, he won the WEC Light Heavyweight Title when he beat Brian. I have not seen Steve for a long time, but I really hope he is doing well.
BS: Steve is now the master grower for Green Life Productions, here in Pahrump, NV.
BS: Any last words?
JM: I just hope that everyone out there understands that we are all the same, but we are also different. What works for one person might not work for another. We must constantly strive to improve our QUALITY OF LIFE. I am the first person that thinks abuse of any kind is wrong. I know that seems funny coming from a guy that stands in a cage with two people beating the crap out of each other. But that is sport. Putting two skilled people against each other is competition. When you have one person that has skills, fighting another person that doesn’t, now you have an abusive situation. Nobody should abuse anything, be it alcohol, cannabis or even food. We all need to understand what our limits are, and know when we are ingesting more than our bodies need, but the craziness that has clouded the true medical benefits of cannabis needs to end. We need to embrace the fact that we have access to a natural product that can positively affect the lives of millions of people. What can be better than that?