MMA boomed in popularity over the past decade, and the UFC is the frontrunner most deserving of that boom.
Their fighters are becoming global superstars, with millions of fans worldwide and millions of followers on social media.
But, what’s even more special is that even some referees became popular and famous, or infamous, on some occasions.
Guys like Big John McCarthy, Herb Dean, and others are just as well-known as some UFC champions.
I wondered about other famous UFC refs through its history and developed a list of the 15 most famous UFC referees of all time.
Note that this list is not ranked in any way, and the only criteria were the popularity of the refs among fans, not the quality of their officiating.
Before I start, you can check out the article about UFC referees’ salary if you are wondering how much the UFC referees are making.
When it comes to the most famous and respected referees, not only in the UFC but MMA in general, ‘Big’ John McCarthy is possibly number one.
McCarthy was born in 1962 and started officiating in 1994. His first referee gig was at UFC 2, making him the most experienced MMA ref in history.
He got his nickname Big because of his physical appearance, being 190 cm tall, weighing around 130 kg.
Not many people know that he was a police officer for over 20 years, too, and for 13 years, he was a referee simultaneously.
He officially retired from MMA officiating a few years back, but many believe he might make a comeback soon.
What made Big John so famous is his expertise and professionalism in the cage. Mistakes happen to every MMA referee, as you constantly have to make split-second decisions.
However, he officiated hundreds upon hundreds of MMA fights and only made a few of those mistakes, making him possibly the best UFC referee of all time.
If not the best, then the most famous, for sure. He won the World MMA Referee of the Year Award three times and officiated dozens of UFC title fights.
A fight he officiated went down in history when Conor McGregor knocked out Jose Aldo in 13 seconds, making it the shortest title fight in UFC history.
John is currently a co-host of the WEIGHING IN podcast.
Possibly the only other MMA referee in history who can match up with Big John McCarthy is Herb Dean.
The “Greatest MMA referee of all time” debate always comes down to McCarthy and Dean, and it’ll quite possibly be only Herb when it’s all said and done.
Unlike Big John, he is still active; the most active UFC referee in 2020, officiating 75 fights that year.
What makes Dean so special is his fantastic decision-making. He knows the rules by heart, but most importantly, he knows how to implement them: when to give out warnings, deduct points, stop fights, break clinches.
All the tiny things that we as fans don’t see but can alter the fight dramatically, Herb does a hell of a job correcting them.
He got his nickname The Gold Standard from UFC’s color commentator Joe Rogan and the promotion’s president Dana White, calling him the gold standard for all MMA referees.
He won the Referee of the Year award a staggering eight times, making him by far the best in that regard.
The only reason why there’s even a debate between him and McCarthy is that Dean had several questionable mistakes or decisions over the years.
The most significant occasions were his stoppage of the fight between Ben Askren and Robbie Lawler, while the other was for his late stoppage of a fight between Khalid Murtazaliev and CB Dollaway.
Everybody knows who Herb Dean is, and every fighter wants him to officiate their fights.
One of the most famous UFC referees of all time is the great Mike Beltran. He’s known as an incredible MMA referee, but he is famous for his awesome facial hair.
Beltran rocks a shaved beard but has a mustache almost reaching his hips. He usually braids them not to get in his way when officiating.
Although his facial hair is his most famous feature, Beltran is also a hell of a referee and has very extensive MMA knowledge. He was shortly a professional MMA fighter before transferring to officiating.
Some fans questioned his reaction quickness, but he hasn’t had any major lapses in his career even though he is a very frequent referee in UFC, Bellator, and other promotions.
He officiated many high-profile fights, most notably the incredible showdown between Jon Jones and Alexander Gustafsson.
Marc Goddard is a British UFC referee that is quickly rising on the best-of-all-time list and still has many years of refereeing in him.
He officiates tons of fights a year for the UFC and other promotions, such as KSW, Cage Warriors, etc.
Goddard is famous for the way he handles situations in and out of the octagon. He is always very professional and precise and doesn’t allow himself to get agitated or provoked.
The way he squashed a feud with Conor McGregor was seen as a great move and showed how unmoved he is when he goes about his business.
He officiated some of the biggest fights in UFC history and is a face that even casual fans recognize in the octagon.
The biggest fight he ever refereed was the Stipe Miocic vs. Daniel Cormier 3 fight on UFC 252. That fight will go down as the biggest in UFC heavyweight history, putting Miocic on the “greatest UFC heavyweight ever” pedestal.
Mario Yamasaki officiated hundreds of MMA fights but became famous for his biggest mistakes, not his biggest accomplishments. T
The Japanese Brazilian MMA referee started working with the UFC at the first event the promotion ever organized in Brazil. He was there as a manager that helped organize the event.
He became a referee only later and did a great job for a while until controversies began to follow.
First, he was criticized for disqualifying Erick Silva at UFC 142 after alleged illegal elbows.
Then he failed to stop several bouts on time, culminating with a matchup between Valentina Shevchenko and Priscilla Cachoeira.
Shevchenko landed over 200 strikes while Cachoeira landed three, and Yamasaki didn’t stop the fight at any moment.
Dana White heavily criticized him after the event, and Yamasaki never refereed in the UFC again. Afterward, his statement made him (in)famous when he said that he wanted to let Cachoeira be a warrior and try to fight back.
Another UFC referee that was fairly unknown but respected later became famous only after a streak of horrible decisions inside the octagon is Steve Mazzagatti.
The American referee is also a firefighter and a TV personality, but none of that made him famous, as did a Dana White rant on him in front of the news reporters.
He called Mazzagatti “continuously dangerous,” making “unending bad decisions,” and asked for his license to be removed.
And, well, he had arguments to base the request on. He started deducting points from fighters for stuff that’s not even in the rules, stopping fights while both guys were still swinging, etc.
However, his most controversial decision that’s disputed to this day is the only loss in Jon Jones’ entire career – a disqualification against Matt Hamill.
Mazzagatti was the one who called the illegal elbows and is to this day criticized for making a horrible decision.
He is widely known as the “worst UFC referee of all time.”
Kevin Mulhall officiated plenty of fights in the UFC but hasn’t been seen in the octagon since 2019.
Nevertheless, he has a clean track record and is considered to be an amazing MMA referee, capable of making smart and fast decisions.
However, nothing really stood out about him, until he became famous for being in the middle of an altercation with a fighter.
Jason High shoved Mulhall that refereed his fight against Rafael dos Anjos back in 2014. Mulhall stopped the fight in the second round, after which High stood up and shoved him in frustration.
He reacted calmly and professionally, which earned him praise from fans and MMA authorities, while High was instantly cut and never fought in the UFC again.
If you’re making a list of MMA referees of any kind, you better have Yves Lavigne on there.
The legendary Canadian UFC referee officiated dozens of fights and became famous for his decisiveness, even in controversial situations. He sticks to his decisions and rarely makes mistakes.
Yet again, it seems that only the mistakes make you famous, and those few he made were big, putting him through scrutiny among fans, and MMA experts.
I’m not saying the slander wasn’t justified to some extent, but I strongly believe Lavigne deserves more praise than he’s getting.
His greatest, terrible mistake was at UFC 102 when he was late to see Chris Leben tap out against Jake Rosholt that had him in a triangle choke.
Leben fell unconscious, and it wasn’t for a second or two that Lavigne realized what was going on. Leben started convulsing in the ring in the biggest scare you can see in a cage.
Luckily, he woke up and survived, but it left a stain on Lavigne’s career that will never go away.
It seems like UFC refs become famous for all the wrong reasons, even if they have great qualities as well. Another referee just like that is Josh Rosenthal.
The American never had any major lapses inside the octagon, but what made him famous is what happened outside the octagon.
Rosenthal was arrested and got 3+ years of jail after he pleaded guilty to marijuana possession.
He was also charged with the intent to distribute, as the police found dozens upon odzens of marijuana plants in a facility owned by Rosenthal.
It quickly made headlines and made the UFC referee drug lord instantly famous. He is an incredible referee, though, so it’s a shame to see him throw it away like that.
Yet another UFC referee to become infamous after a lapse in judgment in the octagon is Leon Roberts.
Roberts was a well-respected referee until a UFC 251 bout between the legendary Jose Aldo and spectacular Petr Yan for the vacant UFC bantamweight title.
The UFC refs get criticized a lot for stopping fights too early, not giving fighters the opportunity to recover.
But, what Roberts did in that fight was the absolute opposite. He let the carnage go for far too long. Even during the match, MMA personalities Tweeted, “stop the fight,” but the ref let it keep going and going.
Aldo thanked him later for giving him a fighting chance. Still, everybody else blasted Roberts, especially Dana White, who stated it was a “horrible” stoppage that should’ve been done sooner.
Roberts hasn’t officiated a single bout after that up to this day.
The list of (in)famous UFC referees continues with Kevin MacDonald. He’s a great, younger referee that still has a lot of experience in the octagon.
He worked closely with John McCarthy, but even Big John criticized him hard after the incident that made MacDonald known to the wider public.
In what has been branded as the “worst UFC stoppage of all time,” MacDonald stepped in between Ion Cutelaba and Magomed Ankalaev after Cutelaba appeared to be shaken by a few shots.
However, he didn’t seem that hurt that the fight should’ve been stopped – he never fell to the ground, lost his footing, or fell onto the fence.
He slightly stumbled and was furious when MacDonald decided to end the fight. At least it made MacDonald famous for making the worst stoppage ever, right?
Finally, a guy that’s more famous for his skills than his mistakes. Dan Miragliotta is a Hall of Fame UFC referee and deserves the No-Nonsense nickname he got.
He’s famous for being a great ref, but for being the biggest ref in all MMA, too – even bigger than Big John.
The nickname stands for his demeanor and approach to every fight he officiates. He solidifies himself as the chief of the octagon, and takes no talk or smack from fighters, even the heavyweights.
Miragliotta had a few notable lapses in the cage, but overall did a fantastic job as a UFC ref.
He officiated several UFC title fights, but the most famous fight he refereed was the infamous clash between Josh Koscheck and Paul Daley.
Daley went on to punch Koscheck after the final bell as Miragliotta separated them. Daley was kicked from the UFC the same evening.
Jason Herzog is one of the best UFC referees of all time, just as he is one of the most famous.
He was criticized several times for his reaction speed and the ability to analyze the situation.
Sometimes, he stopped fights too quickly, while sometimes, he let them go on for too long, but it’s clear that he has all the support in the world from the UFC.
He did a great job at every title fight he ever officiated, the final one being the UFC 259 clash between Amanda Nunes and Megan Anderson.
He quickly stepped in when it mattered and prevented unnecessary damage.
However, I believe that his biggest trait is his ability to implement rules the way they should be implemented.
He gives out one warning, and the next warning gets a one-point penalty, regardless of if the foul was intentional or not.
Every illegal blow shifts the momentum of a fight, so even if it happens accidentally, it should be penalized, and Herzog does that better than any other ref.
Keith Peterson is a referee that was fairly unknown up until recently. He was the UFC referee that officiated the clash between Dominick Cruz and Henry Cejudo at UFC 249.
Cruz believed the fight was stopped way too soon, as Peterson stepped in to stop the fight two seconds before the end of the second round.
He was angry in the octagon already, but what he said next shined an undesired spotlight on Peterson.
The ex UFC champ claimed Peterson smelled of “alcohol and cigarettes,” which sparked a fire on social media, slandering Peterson.
Peterson’s colleagues, including Herb Dean, defended him publicly, but some fans still believe he came to do such a dangerous job under the influence, making him one of the most infamous UFC refs.
Finally, I’ve decided to put Mark Smith on the list as the biggest up-and-coming UFC ref today.
Yeah, he took a recent slander from Dana White that criticized him for not stopping a particular bout earlier, but then again, who hasn’t been criticized by White?
Smith is a great referee that’s getting more and more responsibilities in the most elite MMA promotion in the world.
He was the third most active UFC referee of 2020, having officiated 57 bouts. Only Jason Herzog (60) and Herb Dean (75) refereed more.
He’s a great ref and will continue to progress for years to come.