How to Become an MMA Referee?

How can you become an MMA referee

Though MMA is a regulated sport all across the world, finding information on how to become an MMA referee is not an easy task. Luckily, this article provides you with a detailed guide.

First, you have to be familiar with all the MMA rules, terminology, and procedures. Next, sign up for the public or private course where you can obtain an official license.

Start with smaller/local MMA shows where you will assist senior referees, and get a chance to prove yourself at one point. Work hard, stay dedicated, and after a couple of years, you might end up refereeing UFC matches.

In this article, we will provide you with a detailed guide on becoming an MMA referee and what you may expect in your journey. You will also find out who are the best MMA referees, their salaries, and other unique information.

How to become an MMA referee?

Becoming an MMA referee is not simple and it is a road full of ups and downs. Being a fan of the sport, and familiar with the rules is not enough. You have to give up a lot of your time, work very hard for little money, and accept the fact that not all referees make it to the top.

Following is a detailed step-by-step explanation of how you can make your dreams real, and become a certified referee.

You don’t need a martial art background

This may sound odd, but you don’t need to have a martial art background or be a former fighter to become an MMA referee. However, having some combat experience is a huge plus as it gives you a better understanding of the game.

Former fighters who turn referees are much ahead as they already know how the game works in detail. This enables them to learn at a much higher rate and succeed faster.

Learn MMA terminology and rules

A referee must be familiar with all the terms and know the rules like the back of their pocket. Being a hardcore fan and following the sport is a plus. But it doesn’t make you an expert, and in order to become a referee, you must know the sport inside out.

The referee must know the names of all of the legal and illegal techniques, and what fighters can or cannot do inside the cage. They must be familiar with all of the techniques, notably when it comes to submissions and positions on the ground. This enables you to have a clear vision of what is happening inside the cage and whether the fighter is in danger or not.

Next, the referee must know all the procedures before, during, and after the match. They also must cooperate with the ringside physicians, fighter’s coaches, and members of the athletic commissions. On top of that, you must work with the promoters, and members of the production team.

If you look at Big John’s COMMAND course, there are 115 different terms a referee must learn and have the ability to use in a conversation with instructors, fighters, and other officials.

Attend a course to obtain a license

This is the most important step as you can’t referee any legal MMA events without a license. You can obtain the license from a public commission or by attending a private course. Though both will teach you the same thing, private and public courses differ in certain areas.

MMA is legal in all states and each state has a governing body where you can apply to attend a course to become an MMA referee. The course usually lasts a couple of weeks and consists of both theoretical and practical work. Once you pass the initial tests, you will start attending local events with senior referees and work as an inspector.

You will not referee fights yet. But, you will assist by checking the fighters before they step into the cage, checking the cage, verify proper hand wraps, and observing what the referees are doing. Once you complete the course, you can obtain a license for around $100.

Another way is to sign up for a private course if one is available in your area. Private schools are usually more expensive and might cost you a couple of thousand. But the classes are more insightful and will provide you with better knowledge. Most private schools are owned by top UFC referees such as Herb Dean, and John McCarthy.

Some of the most respected courses are: 

  • Association of Boxing (ABC)
  • Herb Dean’s Referee Training Course
  • Goddard MMA Official Training
  • IMAAF Referee & Judges Licensing
  • O.M.M.A.N.D by Big John McCarthy

Start in small shows

Once you get the license, you can start looking for assignments in your area. The beginnings of every MMA referee are very similar to what fighters need to experience at the start of their journey.

In the beginning, you will referee amateur competitions to get some experience before going into the pro competition. Amateur matches are safer, do not include large crowds or media, and the results do not go into the fighters’ records, so overall the pressure is much lower.

This represents a proving ground for both fighters and referees, and do not expect to earn any “big” money. Most referees get up to $100 bucks for refereeing amateur and low-profile shows. But be sure to always evaluate your work, and look for ways to improve and grow as a referee.

The only way you can reach high levels is to work hard, build a strong reputation, improve, meet people, and make connections within the industry. If you have what it takes to judge events of the highest profile, you will eventually get a chance to prove your worth.

What Skills Does a Good MMA Referee Need to Have?

MMA is an intense combat sport that has the highest rate of injuries. This puts a lot of pressure on the referee and makes their job quite challenging. It is exciting, and at the same time, a stressful job that requires certain personal skills if you want to succeed. Here is a couple of you might recognize in yourself or should focus on improving.

Quick decision making

MMA is a sport where all happens in a blink of an eye. It takes less than a second for a fighter to go from winning a fight to laying on the ground unconscious. As a referee, you must be on high alert all the time, and be able to make quick and rational decisions in a second.

On one side, you don’t want to risk a fighter’s health by stopping the fight too late and letting them take too much damage. On the other, you don’t want to stop the fight too early and not give them a chance to recover and win a match. The margin for error is so small that you really need to think fast.

Ability to perform under pressure

Sharing a cage with two fighters trying to hurt each other as much as possible is a stressful situation to be in. On top of that, you have the coaches and crowd yelling, cameras filming, and thousands if not millions of people observing your work.

In order to do your job in the most efficient way, you must embrace it all, cope with the pressure, and stay calm. A referee must not get overwhelmed by pressure, not for a single second.

All of these distractions move your focus away from what’s happening inside the cage. It messes up your ability to make the right decisions, keep the athletes safe and match fair.

Communication skills

As an MMA referee, you have to talk with a wide variety of people and use verbal skills to deal with various situations. On top of that, fighters and their coaches are not the most rational people in the heat of the moment. Their mind is a cocktail of adrenalin, fear, and aggression and you have to know how to approach them the right way.

The most challenging situations are those where you have to deal with illegal techniques and penalties. You must use the appropriate language and tone to explain to a fighter what’s going on and give clear instructions. In some cases, you must use a calm approach, but in others, be decisive.

Martial art experience

MMA referees do not have to be martial artists or former cage fighters to qualify for the job. But, being a trained martial artist is a huge plus, not just in terms of qualifications, but an overall understanding of the referee role. And having an experience in competing is even better.

You will have a better understanding of the practical application of each technique. In some cases, you might see how things are going to play out two steps in advance, notably in the grappling department. This improves your ability to make good calls, and fighters’ safety.

Former fighters who turn referees are also better at spotting when a fighter is in danger, notably when they end up in a deep submission which may result in a broken bone.

Also, having previous martial art experience enables you to connect with the fighters, and understand the psychological aspect of the sport.

Difference Between MMA Referees and judges

MMA referees are the third person inside the octagon responsible for the safety of the fighters and to keep the match within the rules. MMA judges sit beside the cage and their job is to score the match using strict criteria and pick the winner.

Related: UFC Scoring System  

Difference Between MMA Referees and judges

MMA referees participate directly in the fight. Their main task is to keep both fighters safe, match fair, and within the rules. They have the right to stop or pause the fight whenever they feel the need to do so. They also issue verbal warnings, deduct points in case of severe rule violations, or disqualify one or both athletes. But if the match goes to distance, they can’t pick the winner, that’s the job of MMA judges.

Each MMA match includes three judges that sit in three separate corners of the cage. They are not allowed to talk with one another or influence each other’s decisions in any way. They pick the winner of each round utilizing strict criteria, and award points following a 10-point must system adopted from boxing. They have no interaction with the fighters.

While both MMA referees and judges play a big role in ensuring a fair fight, they have different responsibilities that require different skill sets.

How Much Do MMA Referees Make?

MMA referees are paid per fight, and their pay varies between the promotions and the location of the event. Referees can earn as little as $50, or up to $2.500 per fight. They are employed by the Athletic Commission of the state where the event takes place, not by a promotion such as the UFC or Bellator.

In general, MMA referees who are doing smaller shows earn anywhere between $50 and $200 per fight. Smaller shows usually include up to 10 fights on the card, and on average, each referee is assigned to three or four fights. This means that entry-level referees can make between $150 and $800 per event.

The numbers are much higher if you look at the UFC referees. The salary of the UFC referee is based on expertise, experience, reputation, and whether the event is PPV or a Fight Night.

On average, UFC referees are paid from $1000 to $2500 per fight. Most experienced referees, such as Herb Dean or Marc Goddard, also get a bonus for their services in PPV main events. These bonuses range from $5000 to $15000 on top of their base salary for each fight. So in total, UFC referees can earn as little as $2000, or as much as $20,000 when you include all the bonuses.

MMA refereeing is a part-time job for most people. However, there are a few full-time referees who make a living off of refereeing MMA fights. The top earners among referees are:

  • Herb Dean — $500,000 per year
  • Jason Herzog — $380,000 per year
  • Mark Smith — $380,000 per year
  • Marc Goddard — $300,000 per year

How Much Do MMA Referees Make

Who Are The Best MMA Referees?

Throughout the history of MMA, there have been many great referees who, like fighters, have reached global stardom. In some way, the following referees are an integral part of the sport and even the face of the UFC as a brand.

Herb Dean

Herb Dean is, perhaps, the most famous UFC referee who also has a strong reputation for being the most reliable. He is often assigned to do the biggest matches and represents the golden standard of refereeing.

Dean is also a former MMA fighter and he made his debut in 2001. However, he retired six years later with a record of 2 wins and 3 losses, to focus on the new role of becoming a referee. And since the sport was still developing at the time, it didn’t take long for Dean to reach the UFC.

Apart from traveling across the world, he also has his own academy where people can obtain a license to referee MMA fights.

John McCarthy

Big John McCarthy is not just one of the very first UFC referees. He is also a pioneer of the sport and a man who had a big role in the regulation of the sport in 2000. Before he became a referee, Big John worked in law enforcement, and he also trained in BJJ for many years.

Big John was refereeing at the top level for over two decades, and in his career, he won multiple “referee of the year” awards. He also has his own academy called “COMMAND” where people interested in becoming an MMA referee can learn from the best.

Marc Goddard

Marc Goddard is among the most respected UFC referees known for rarely making any mistakes. Goddard is also a former MMA fighter and his journey began way back in the early 90s. He went on to compete for the next 12 years and compile a record of 7 wins, 6 losses, and 1 draw.

But in 2004, he suffered a serious injury that ended his fighting career. Shortly after, he would attend an MMA event as a spectator, and by the strange sequence of events, end up inside the cage refereeing the fights.

Just a few hours before the event, the referees who were supposed to come canceled their arrival. Since Goddard was the only one with some fighting experience, he decided to step in and save the show. And the rest is history.

History of MMA Refereeing

MMA referees have been a part of the sport since the early beginnings and the UFC 1 event held in Denver, Colorado in 1993. However, their role was quite limited back in the early days and they had little to no impact on the matches.

Back in the early days, the UFC events were barbaric slugfests, and basically, legal street fighting events. There were no weight classes, time limits, or judges scoring the fights. These events were very dangerous and if it wasn’t for the referees, someone would have surely died as a consequence.

Are you interested in learning more about the UFC events including the shortest and longest ones? If so check out this article.

But the referees’ roles were quite limited during the early days simply because there were no codified rules. On paper, they didn’t have the right to stop the match on their own or disqualify the fighters. In fact, the fighters’ corner was supposed to give the referee a command to stop the match when they think their fighter is no longer able to continue. Scary.

But one incident would change it all. At UFC 1, Tuli was in a world of trouble after Gordeau blasted him with a powerful kick straight in the face. The referee Joao Barreto made his own decision to stop the match and literally save Tulis’s life.

From then on, the referees were given the right to stop the match whenever a fighter is no longer capable of defending.

How to Become a UFC Referee?

In order to reach the UFC level of refereeing, you must prove yourself in the lower and medium-level shows first. You have to build a strong reputation, make connections, and after years of hard work, maybe get a chance in the UFC.

Bear in mind that the referees are employed by the Athletic Commission overseeing the event, not the UFC. In fact, the referees’ job is independent of the UFC, and the promotion is not allowed to influence their work in any way.

But on the other side, the UFC is always putting a lot of pressure, notably through the media, on athletic commissions to assign only the most reliable referees.

In most cases, new referees get a chance when the UFC hosts an event in their state. For instance, let’s say you are a reliable referee with years of experience working for the Athletic Commission in Colorado. Once the UFC organizes a low-profile event in your state, such as Fight Night, the commission might put you to referee one of the preliminary matches.

According to Herb Dean, it may take a couple of years before you can start doing main events and high-profile matches.

Do UFC Referees Know How To Fight?

Some UFC referees are former MMA fighters and trained martial artists who surely know a thing or two about fighting. For example, Herb Dean is a former pro-fighter, as well as Marc Goddard who is also a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. This experience gives the referees a unique perspective of the game, and when is the time to stop the fight.

There are also situations in which a referee must put their martial art skills to work. The most common example is when they have to deal with an aggressive fighter who gets out of control. They might decide to continue striking the opponent after the referee had already stopped the fight, or even attack the referee. In this situation, the referee must act like any other person and give their best to subdue the fighter and stop them from hurting someone.


Becoming proficient in any field is hard and a lifelong journey for most people, and the same stands for MMA referees. It is challenging, and to some degree, a stressful job that certainly does not fit every profile. If you have firmly decided to pursue a career in refereeing, you must embrace all the struggles, work hard, keep yourself on the right track, and believe in your dreams.

The sport is still in its development phase, and the entire process of becoming a referee is going to see many changes in the future. Thus, if you make up your mind and start now, you have a good chance of succeeding in a couple of years.

Images by Jamison Hiner from flickr
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