How to Become an MMA Referee? Step by Step Guide


UFC Referees and Judges Salaries

Being in the MMA doesn’t mean you’re there just for the fight. No – MMA fights have a lot of other participants, whose roles can be as essential as the ones the fighters have. There are the judges, whom we have already talked about hereOpens in a new tab., but also the referees. We’ve talked about them, too, but we’ve never discussed the process of becoming an MMA referee.

Summarized step by step guide to become and MMA referee:

  1. know MMA terminology,
  2. know MMA rules,
  3. know how to judge an MMA fight (when to deduct points),
  4. obtain a license by completing a course,
  5. follow the change of rules,
  6. start with smaller MMA events,
  7. make your way to the UFC.

That was a brief overview of what it takes to become an MMA referee. In the article below, we will walk you through the detailed step by step process. We’ve talked about the best MMA refereesOpens in a new tab., about their salariesOpens in a new tab. and now we’re going to tell you how to become one of them. So, if you ever pondered about being an MMA referee – you’ve come to the right place!

Difference Between MMA Referees and Judges

Before we actually begin, we’ll go over the difference between an MMA judge and an MMA referee. Although the difference is probably well-known and we’ve [already discussed it in an earlier article], it’s not in vain to recapitulate the difference between these two very important roles in the system of MMA fighting.  

Judges are ringside observers who score the match and make the final decision in case there’s no K.O. or a disqualification. They do not participate in the fight directly, but rather just observe it. They score each round based on the fighters’ performances, they can deduce points for rule violations and ultimately decide the winner if both fighters are still standing after the fight is over.

The referee, on the other hand, participates in the fight. He is always inside the octagon and has to watch out that the fighters respect the rules and each other. He’s responsible for announcing the winner, but his actual powers are quite limited. He can deduce points for rule violations, he can stop a fight, declare a fighter as unfit for further combat, but he cannot influence the final decision about the winner. 

Now that we’ve once again covered this very important distinction, let us move forward with our topic. 

The Beginning of Refereeing in MMA

Back in 1993, when MMA started with the UFC 1 event in Denver, CO, the sport was officially advertised as having “no rules, no scores and no time limits”. This was a very specific situation because most, if not all combat sports – at least the officially recognised ones – have some rules of combat that determine the aspects that were supposedly missing in the UFC 1 event. 

Despite the announcement, all the matches had a referee and his role proved to be essential, because he probably saved the life of American fighter Teila Tuli, who got knocked down by Dutch fighter Gerard Gordeau early in the first fight of the event.

Once down, Gordeau proceeded to kick Tuli in the face, knocking one of his teeth out, which is when the referee jumped in and stopped the fight, effectively saving Tuli’s life.

João Alberto Barreto, a Brazilian black belt, was the referee and soon after stopping the match he entered into a fight with Rorion Gracie; Barreto yelled that Tuli was unable to continue the fight and that he had the right to make that call, while Gracie argued that he could not do it because there were no rules.

So, basically, Gordeau could’ve killed Tuli and the referee could to nothing about it? That doesn’t seem reasonable, does it now? 

A controversy arose, but the organisation eventually managed to convince the fighters and the world that a referee could stop the match if a fighter could not defend himself anymore.

Of course – they had to stop the fighters from killing themselves. So, starting with UFC 3, this rule became official and so the MMA started creating its ruleset. 

The rules expanded over time and they would change – usually – before each individual event, which made it difficult for the referees to follow them from time to time.

Today, the rules are – more or less – clear and codified, which makes it easier for the referees to properly officiate the fights. 

How Do You Become an MMA Referee?

The path to becoming an MMA referee is not simple and it demands quite a lot of you. Well, not as much as fighting, but it’s certainly not a piece of cake, as some of you might think. A referee must be knowledgeable, he must be quick and decisive, he has to have a certain level of authority and he has to know what he is dealing with, i.e. what he is doing. So, how do you actually become a referee?

Well, the answer is simple – you become a referee by obtaining a licence!

A licence can be obtained either from a public commission or via private courses.

The public commissions are state-certified boards that are authorised to issue refereeing licences to individuals under their jurisdiction. They usually offer courses that last for several weeks and demand that you do some practical work while “shadow refereeing”.

The courses cover a variety of different aspects – but more on that later – while “shadow refereeing” covers the necessary practical knowledge. In these cases, you actually follow an official referee – by being his “shadow” – and you observe what he does and how he does it.

You may also participate in some actions – e.g. checking the ring, checking the fighters, collecting score cards – but your actual influence at that point is non-existent. But, after completing the necessary courses and the necessary practical work, you can buy a licence from the commission for around $100, which is actually not that expensive. 

Private courses are more expensive, but they might also offer better insight and more detailed courses. One example is COMMAND, a private refereeing course initiated by “Big” John McCarthy, one of the best and most famous MMA judges ever. COMMAND offers a varied and profound course that is very popular among future referees; it also offers a course for future judges. The criteria is very strict and you have to be able to, after completing the course, freely and normally communicate with McCarthy and his colleagues about the specific topics and issues related to MMA and the fights. 

What Are the Prerequisites to Become an MMA Referee?

We’ve already said that you need a licence to become a referee, but before you get a licence – you have to complete a course. What you learn during that course and how you apply it will decide whether you can or cannot apply for (or buy) a licence. So, what do you actually need?

According to “Big” John himself, his COMMAND course has three necessary prerequisites, without which you will not pass his courses and get the licence you want so badly. 

The first thing is – knowledge. Although he is neither a fighter, nor an analyst – the referee must know everything they do. The techniques, the moves, the terminology – a referee must know it all. According to the information available around the Internet, McCarthy’s COMMAND course has around 115 different terms you need to memorise and be able to talk about.

The goal of this aspect is to test your knowledge and your application of that same knowledge. After your training is done, you have to be able to use the taught terms and apply your knowledge in a conversation with the instructors. 

Rules are the second thing you have to know and that’s both expected and logical. You cannot be an arbiter, a referee if you don’t know the rules you have to apply. As it has been said, MMA referees didn’t have it easy in the beginning.

There were no official rules, a fact some people interpreted as the referee having absolutely no influence on the fight, meaning that he could not even stop the fighters from killing each other. Of course, reason prevailed and the rule-less sport soon got the necessary guidelines that have been expanded as the years passed.

Now, the MMA has very well-defined and clear rules that need to be learned before entering the fighting arena. You have to know what the fighters can and cannot do; you have to know how to deal with the judges; you have to know what makes a fighter (un)prepared for a match; you have to know… so much. It’s not comparable to learning civil and penal statutes – that much we can say – but it’s certainly not like reading a tabloid.

You have to invest to be a good referee and knowing the rules is the very essence of your job. You’re not there to please the crowd – who’ll probably boo you a lot if you’re adhering to the rules – you’re there to stop the fighters from becoming animals, i.e. you’re there to protect the fighters and the fight, not to enforce public opinion and whatnot. 

The third and final aspect is – judging. Although the judges and referees are different types of MMA officials, the referees have to know how to score to be able to follow the fight and to apply all the rules.

They also have to know when and what for they can and must deduce points, which can influence the outcome if the match goes to the judges. We’ve already discussed the rules of MMA and how much influence the referee actually has, so we can refer you to that article for a more detailed insight into this aspect of decision-making in the MMAOpens in a new tab.

And that’s it. Two theoretical and one practical element make up a good refereeing course. We presume that the public commissions don’t have a much different curriculum than the legendary John McCarthy, whose COMMAND course is, thus, a very good point of reference. 

Another important thing worth noting is the fact that a referee has to constantly follow the changes and has to be kept up to date. A referee’s training is not complete when he gets a licence. It is never complete and a good referee will always participate in new courses and seminars, despite his experience and reputation.

So, if you want to become an MMA referee, keep in mind that you’ll have to educate yourself until you decide to retire. 

The Perspective

So, you’ve gotten your licence and you’re now an official MMA referee. What now? You just call up Dana White and you’re in? That’s not how it works. Getting your licence is the first, necessary step, but it’s just a small one compared to how much work is still in front of you, if you want to reach the top level. 

You’ll start your career in smaller events, probably state or regional ones. There, you’ll slowly start to build your reputation and gain more credibility. Again, the fans might not agree with you – a lot of them do come to these types of events just to see the brutality of the fights – but you’re not there to please them, you’re there to protect the game.

Just remember what “Big John” once said:

I don’t give a f–k if the fans boo or don’t like me. I don’t give a f–k. I have to do what’s right.

John McCarthy

So, when in doubt – always respect the rules and to the best thing. 

So, your career is going to start off slowly. You’ll be doing smaller bouts before you even get a chance to enter the bigger events in the UFC, and even more to enter the exclusive UFC pay-per-view events that also bring the most money.

It’s a long way from getting your licence to becoming “Big John” and most of the referees don’t even make it that far up. Still, if you truly love the sport – it’s a sacrifice you’ll gladly make. Being a professional referee is more than just a profession, it’s a passion that you have to nourish and it’ll probably be worth it someday.

You might not become “Big John”, but you can reach the top. You can enter the UFC one day and have a big career which should be worth the effort, in our humble opinion. 

This is your perspective. A lot of blood, sweat and tears, as Mr. Churchill once said, but in the end – it should pay off; even if you don’t become “Big John”, you’ll be doing what you like and what you’re passionate about and that should be a reward in itself. 

How Much Do MMA Referees Make per Fight?

The referees in MMA are hired and paid on a fight-to-fight basis, although more money is earned when refereeing bigger events. The fact is that there is a basic salary for different categories of referees and it increases based on their reputation, the event and the money the promotor gives out for each event.

For example, big name referees such as Herb Dean and “Big” John McCarthy earn substantially more than most of their peers for the same event and category, but that is business. So, now that we’ve covered everything else, let’s see how much money you could expect from professional refereeing!

Based on the publicly available data for 2020, a professional UFC referee earns as much $1,500 per regular match or about $380,000 per year. Of course, big names can earn even more (up to $2,000 per match), but this is an average number.

Fees for pay-per-view events, which usually have bigger budgets, can go as high as $10,000, which is a substantial sum. These are, of course, just official numbers and there are speculations that some of the numbers go even higher. 

These numbers concern only professional referees with a high reputation in the UFC. Sadly, there is no equality between different categories or even genders. For example, entry-level referees and female referees earn a lot less than the pros.

Younger referees as little as $250 per match, but the less reputable pros manage to average about $500 per match. If we include the fact that younger referees don’t actually get invited to pay-per-view events, the yearly amount of c. $14,500 is not just unfair compared to the above-mentioned sums, but also quite small. 

But let’s say that it is somehow just to pay the less experienced referees less, but what about women? We haven’t talked about them in particular because the same rules apply to both men and women when it comes to the rules and prerequisites, but not when it comes to wages.

There are several reputable professional female referees and they still earn a lot less than their male counterparts, which is something that should be eliminated. Equal work demands equal pay!

Yet, women referees average about $1,000 per fight if they have a high reputation, but it’s usually even less than that. The difference is even more visible with pay-per-view events, where women earn just $3,000, compared to the more than three times higher amount their male peers earn. With a yearly income of around $60,000 it is evident that women referees are discriminated and that should definitely be fixed somewhere in the future. 

So – that’s about it, right? We’ve covered everything you need to know about becoming an MMA referee – how to do it and where, what you need, what you can expect and how much it pays. We believe our guide is the most complete one out there, which is why we hope you found it helpful. If you want more of the same, keep following us for more. Until next time!

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