UNCASVILLE, Conn. — ‘Big’ John McCarthy, quite possibly the most prominent referee in MMA history, shook up the sport’s world in early January when Bellator announced he would be retiring and joining its broadcast team. For more than 20 years, McCarthy was in the cage regulating bouts. Now he’ll be talking about them from outside of it? Fans and media alike could not believe such an integral part of their viewing experience was gone. It’ll take time to adjust.
McCarthy feels the same way.
“I will never not miss being a referee,” he told ESPN during Bellator 194 last Friday night. “Look, I’m getting older. I have a bad neck. I’m all messed up and it’s giving me problems. I didn’t want to do as many shows. I didn’t want to travel near as much as I was, so this let me slow things down.”
McCarthy, 55, estimates he was refereeing about 100 events every year. The only weeks he would take a break were Thanksgiving and Christmas, and the constant grind took a toll on his body. It also kept him away from his wife and grandchildren, “a big part of the consideration.”
He wasn’t intending to step away this early. Despite the aforementioned reasoning, there was no plan to transition into color commentary at this time. But when his friend Jimmy Smith left the promotion to do the same role at the UFC, McCarthy received a call just two days later from Bellator president Scott Coker asking if he would be interested in auditioning for the open spot. He was in Los Angeles later that week for the tryout and heard the good news not too long after.
The move was largely unprecedented, as nearly all MMA analysts are current or former fighters. Having competed in the cage, they know exactly what to look for when breaking down the action. McCarthy, while not physically facing someone else, has spent decades in nearly the same spot — just with a slightly different vantage point.
“My knowledge is different in the fact that I know the rules inside and out — I wrote them,” he says. “I know what the referee is supposed to do, what the fighter is supposed to do. A lot of fighters who are really good fighters, they don’t understand all of the rules.
“I’m going to look at the fights maybe a little bit different than they will because they are going off of what they like to do. And I don’t care what I like to do. I care what the fighters are doing. I’m going to talk about why they are being successful and what the other guy needs to do to stop that success.”
Friday night’s card at Mohegan Sun Arena featured Matt Mitrione vs. Roy Nelson as part of Bellator’s World Heavyweight Grand Prix. It was McCarthy’s third event with the promotion but his first not cageside. His role that night was to provide commentary from the desk in between bouts, looking back to what just happened and previewing upcoming matchups. New Bellator broadcaster (and Fox NFL reporter) Jay Glazer was by his side.
Preparation for this event, McCarthy says, began two weeks ago. He watched Mitrione and Nelson’s first fight together (in the UFC in 2012), all four Mitrione fights in Bellator and Nelson’s fights against Antonio “Big Foot” Silva and Alexander Volkov.
And that’s just for the main event. He spent countless hours watching other fighters’ histories to make sure he could point out small tells and tendencies.
McCarthy has always been a meticulous person, needing to get everything right all the time. It’s why he was acclaimed for his work as a referee, rarely making a mistake like ending a fight early or late. Consistency matters to him.
He has watched his two previous television performances multiple times to get a sense of where he can get better.
“I have to improve on everything,” McCarthy says. “It wasn’t easy to watch. I made mistakes. There are things where I go, ‘Oh, I called that wrong.’ It’s all part of trying to put information out fast. I need to slow it down and talk about what I’m seeing. If I make a mistake, fix the mistake and roll with it. The same as a referee.”
McCarthy admits the biggest challenges thus far have come from the production side. For instance, listening to a producer in his ear while talking on a broadcast. He knows every show is a learning experience and a chance to prove that he belongs.
“My goal is to be the very best that I can be at color commentary and to be able to educate fans so they truly know what should be going on in a fight,” McCarthy says. “Why a fighter is doing that, why a referee made a call. I want them to know the sport better.”