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John McCarthy says he’s ‘not retired’ from MMA refereeing, but focused on new Bellator commentary role

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John McCarthy is not retiring as a combat sports official. He just won’t be in the same prominent role most people have expected of him for the last two-plus decades.

McCarthy has been hired to be a color commentator on Bellator MMA broadcasts, the promotion announced Tuesday. The legendary MMA referee said that is where is focus will lie now, but he will not be completely removed from officiating.

“Can I go and referee? Yes, I can go and referee,” McCarthy told MMA Fighting. “If I want to go and referee something internationally, I can do it. I can do small shows here if I want. I’ll do charity events and things like that. I’m not gonna say, ‘Oh, I’m retired.’ I’m not retired. At this moment, I’m just taking on something else, so that’s gonna go on the back burner. All of my attention is gonna go toward being the best color commentator I can be for Bellator.”

For instance, McCarthy said he’ll be judging a boxing card in California on Jan. 27, one day after he calls Bellator 193. McCarthy is a licensed boxing referee and judge in California and a licensed boxing judge in Nevada. He said there’s a “possibility” he could be licensed as a boxing referee in Nevada at some point in the future, too, but that would be up to the athletic commission.

In other words, McCarthy will still be around the regulation scene and teaching is COMMAND referee and judge certification courses. He just won’t be the third man in the cage for UFC and Bellator cards for the foreseeable future.

“I love officiating,” McCarthy said. “I love what I do. I love the people that I get to work with. I love all the fighters. But when I say I’m walking away, I’m walking away from what people are gonna expect. They think that I can commentate Bellator and then go ref a UFC — that ain’t gonna happen. I’m gonna be stepping away from what most people see of me as a referee. I’m still gonna work with athletic commissions.”

McCarthy said the new job with Bellator came about very quickly. Late last month, McCarthy said he heard Bellator and longtime color man Jimmy Smith had parted ways. McCarthy said he even reached out to Smith to wish him well. Days later, Bellator president Scott Coker called McCarthy and asked if he was interested in auditioning to replace Smith. McCarthy jumped at the idea.

Back in July, McCarthy, a longtime Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, was injured in training while trying to show a student a d’arce choke. McCarthy said it was like a constant stinger and he couldn’t even move his arm at times. He needed two surgeries to repair the injury and was out of refereeing action for a couple of months.

“That injury made me kind of relook at things,” McCarthy said. “I don’t want to be a guy who’s holding on or stepping into the cage when there’s somebody else that can actually do a better job, because I’m not prepared.”

McCarthy took Bellator’s proposal as something of a sign and after consulting with his wife Elaine, he accepted the offer after a successful audition.

One of the main things he’s looking forward to is being able to appropriately explain the ins and outs of MMA rules and regulations — including judging criteria — to a greater audience. McCarthy has been known to answer hundreds of rules questions he gets on Twitter, but now he’ll have a much bigger platform.

“I think that’s a big part of why Bellator thought of me to do this,” McCarthy said. “I think they’re looking at it as the more educated their fans are, the more they’re gonna enjoy the sport, the more they’re gonna understand what’s going on, the more they’re gonna understand why the judges are doing something the way they are, why the referee is doing something.

“I’m here for the entire aspect of the fight. What the fighters are doing, why someone is being successful, what the other person has to do to counter what they’re being successful with. That’s all stuff that they’re hearing now. But there’s nobody right now that’s out there that can explain and educate to the fans the rules of the sport and why fighters need to do something or why judges are going with one fighter over the other in a specific situation. I think I bring that — even at this early start of my career in commentating — I bring that to the table, while a lot of people are guessing when they’re putting something out.”

McCarthy, 55, began refereeing MMA at UFC 2 in 1994. He’s the most prominent, recognized and respected official in the history of the sport and had a hand in penning the Unified Rules of MMA back in 2001. While he’s still working at a very high level and remains one of the best in the business, McCarthy feels like he has hit somewhat of a ceiling of what he could do as a referee.

“I say this and I don’t want anyone to think I’m egotistical in this, but in the realm of refereeing, where could I go?” McCarthy said. “I was doing two to three to four shows a week and I was running my ass off all over the place. But I got to do the greatest fights there were. I could not complain about anything that I was given as a referee. And there’s only once place for me to go and that’s down. I always told myself I was gonna walk away from that situation before someone told me that I needed to walk away, because I wasn’t doing the right things. This was an opportunity that presented itself to me that excites me. It made me where I was like, you know what, that’s something that I can work at, that’s something that I can be good at.”

And that’s what McCarthy vows to do. He’s not going into commentary looking at it as an easy pay day, he said.

“There’s a ton of work that goes in,” McCarthy said. “That’s why Jimmy Smith was so good, that’s why Brian Stann was so good. They put in the work ahead of time to make themselves successful. And I’m smart enough that I follow smart people. If I see someone doing something that’s the reason they can be successful, I’m gonna grab onto what they’re doing and I’m gonna follow it. I’m gonna put in a ton of work to make myself successful, because I will not ever be ill prepared for standing in front of the camera or putting on a headset and telling people what’s going on in a fight. My promise is I will always work my ass off to be the best that I could be.”

One day in the future, McCarthy could be back inside the cage officiating a UFC heavyweight title fight. But for now, “Big John” is on a different path that still involves the sport he loves.

“It isn’t even part of my thought process right now,” McCarthy said of high-level MMA reffing. “My whole thought process is getting ready for Jan. 20 in Los Angeles, making sure that I have everything that I need to cover what the fighters are doing, how their styles match up and to put out good information to the fans, so they can enjoy the fights.”


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