Let's Get It On!: The Making of MMA and Its Ultimate Refereeby "Big" John McCarthy
An intimate profile of the legendary mixed martial arts (MMA) referee, this first full-length autobiography of pop culture icon “Big” John McCarthy details every aspect of his lifefrom his strong-handed Los Angeles upbringing to his involvement in the naming of the sport, his role in its regulation, and MMA’s rise in stature. The narrative
An intimate profile of the legendary mixed martial arts (MMA) referee, this first full-length autobiography of pop culture icon “Big” John McCarthy details every aspect of his lifefrom his strong-handed Los Angeles upbringing to his involvement in the naming of the sport, his role in its regulation, and MMA’s rise in stature. The narrative follows “Big” John through his 22-year career as a Los Angeles police officer, where he taught recruits arrest and control procedures as well as survival tactics, then his 15-year career as MMA’s premier official in the chain-linked cage. A fixture of the sport, “Big” John started refereeing at UFC 2 in 1994 when MMA was in its infancy and went on to officiate at every major UFC event but two until 2007. Following a one-year hiatus as a color commentator and on-camera analyst for MMA and boxing events, he returned to MMA refereeing in 2008. In his own words, "Big" John relates his insider’s perspective from the midst of many of the sport’s greatest momentsfrom Tito OrtizKen Shamrock I at UFC 40 in 2002 to Randy CoutureTim Sylvia at UFC 68 in March of 2007along with his account of the birth of the sport in America, its evolution, and MMA’s ongoing struggles for acceptance.
"Great storytelling, great insight, and a great history of the UFC’s rise. A subtle reminder that, much as we like the mano a mano of the sport, the third man in the arena can make all the difference." Jon Wertheim, Sports Illustrated senior writer, author, Blood in the Cage
"A no-nonsense, hands-on account of the blood and sweat that lifted MMA from the sports blacklist and turned it into a billion-dollar industry. McCarthy didn't just observe historyhe helped make it." Jake Rossen, ESPN.com
"'Big' John has been around from the UFC's very beginnings and has experienced this sport from a perspective few will ever know." Chuck Liddell, UFC champion and Hall of Famer
"'Big' John McCarthy has long been MMA’s best and most knowledgeable official. He's been in the most amazing seat from the beginning in every arena this sport has ever been inthe hot seat in the cage!" Randy Couture, UFC Hall of Famer and six-time champion
"One of the best books ever written about the sport ... Part history and part biography, both parts equally fascinating." SBNation.com
"The only thing bigger than his authoritative presence is his knowledge of the sport he helped build." - Mauro Ranallo, MMA commentator
"Compelling ... Many books have been written about MMA history, but the perspective from a primary figure in the sport sets this apart from previous efforts. At 418 pages, it's a hefty word, but fans will devour his stories and breeze through this highly entertaining tome." Chicago Sun-Times
"A testosterone-fueled, adrenaline pumping joy ride, and fans will surely be thrilled to meet the man they know so well from TV." Publishers Weekly
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Let's Get It On!
By "Big" John McCarthy
Medallion Press, Inc.Copyright © 2011 "Big" John McCarthy
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSon of the Gun
Tiger father begets tiger son. —Chinese proverb
His eyes tell me he's had enough. Not his midsection, bruised and tenderized by a round of short, sobering body shots and unmerciful knees. Not his legs, discolored and swelling from a steady attack of low kicks from his opponent. Not his broken nose or forehead, sliced open and dripping red from a perfectly placed elbow shot.
It's his eyes. I look into the fighter's eyes, and they tell me he's scared. He doesn't know how to get out of this predicament, but he continues because that's what a fighter does.
It's in this moment that I know the fight is over. I know he won't come back. This is when what I do counts most.
I am a mixed martial arts referee. The first of my kind in the United States, I started with the Ultimate Fighting Championship in 1994. Before MMA was even considered a sport, back when it was called no holds barred and Ultimate Fighting, I officiated the fights. A one-off pay-per-view spectacle evolved over eighteen years into something followed and cherished by millions of diehard fans worldwide, and I'm lucky to be able to say I was a part of it.
In its simplest definition, mixed martial arts is the execution of multiple combat sports' disciplines with the goal of knocking out, submitting, or outscoring an opponent before he does it to you. Fighters jab like boxers, kick like kickboxers, throw knees and elbows like muay Thai stylists, take down opponents like wrestlers, and contort and trap appendages in chokes and holds like jiu-jitsu practitioners. They can perform one or all of these elements in a matter of seconds to win, which makes the sport excitingly unpredictable. A bout can stay on the feet or go to the mat or even dabble in a little of both, wherever the greater athlete or tactician chooses to take it.
There are no guarantees in MMA other than that no two fights ever look the same. An experienced champion can get knocked out by an underdog's single punch. An overwhelming favorite can make a mistake, and his opponent will capitalize.
For me, MMA is competition. There's nothing like witnessing two well-trained fighters engaged in battle. There's an artistry to it. Like a choreographed ballet, when it's done right, with two well-matched partners, it's beautiful. It's poetry in motion, and I can't take my eyes off it. It's my sport.
Some people don't understand MMA. They say it's dangerous, brutal, and barbaric. They don't understand the motivation because they personally fear the thought of being in a fight, the rush of adrenaline that will make them shake uncontrollably, the possibility of pain or being dominated with no way to end it.
My job is to stop the competition at just the right moment, in that split second when a fighter becomes overwhelmed and can no longer protect himself. It can happen in the blink of an eye, with one punch, kick, tug, or squeeze. Sometimes I've called a fight right on the money. Other times I've missed that crucial moment, the one that decides whether a fighter will walk out of the cage on his own accord.
Thankfully, my life prepared me for these moments. I grew up around violence and made not one but two careers out of controlling it.
As a twenty-two-year LAPD veteran, I've stared down the barrel of a gun thinking my next move could either save or destroy a life. In situations like these, I've learned to think quickly. I push aside the nerves and distractions and just act.
It's the same in mixed martial arts. Making fast, clean decisions is paramount, and not everyone is cut out for that. It takes a certain temperament, an ability to stay focused in pressure-filled situations.
How did I learn this? I think it has everything to do with Ron McCarthy, my dad, the man who made me who I am. Ever since I can remember, he's been my idol. Through my young eyes, he was my Incredible Hulk, Bruce Lee, Spider-Man, and "Smokin'" Joe Frazier all rolled into one. He's the most fearless man I know, and he taught me how to go after life and live on my own terms.
That's how he did it from the hardest of beginnings. He was born in Missouri in 1937 and raised in Winslow, Arizona. Far from the quaint scene of Americana etched out in the Eagles' "Take It Easy," the dust bowl town greets visitors with a big "Welcome to Winslow" sign and then, after what feels like five feet, sends them off with a "Thank You for Visiting." Apparently those famous lyrics didn't apply to my dad either. His childhood was far from easy.
His father, my grandfather Joseph McCarthy, had a wife and five kids, whom he gave up to be with the woman who gave birth to his son, my dad. Supposedly she was very beautiful and had a penchant for marrying rich men, which my grandfather, the owner of a small-town car dealership, certainly was not. She soon left my grandfather, who returned to his wife and five kids with his two-year-old in tow.
Be it by accident or suicide, my grandfather killed himself, I'm told, while cleaning a gun that went off and shot him in the stomach.
My grandfather's wife cared for my dad until his biological mother came back for him when he was two and a half. The McCarthy family tried to stop the separation, and afterward they searched for him for years.
When my dad was four years old, his mother abandoned him in a local orphanage and nuns raised him for the next few years, until his maternal grandmother took him in to her Arizona home. He lived with her until he was eleven, when his grandmother died.
His mother returned to take him to Oregon, where she was getting remarried. Along with a new father, he now also had a new older stepbrother, Jack, who would hold him down and spit in his face or throw darts into his back.
My dad, miserable in his new home, ran away at age thirteen to manage on his own in Arizona, living in a boxcar in a local railroad yard and working at a gas station. He wouldn't see his mother for the next fifteen years.
To this day, I've never met my grandmother. I don't even know her name and have never asked for it. The last time I heard, she'd been married something like seventeen times. I wouldn't recognize her if I bumped into her on the street.
On his own, my dad couldn't work to support himself and go to school at the same time, so he dropped out until he met the Lacey family. When a classmate named Terry Lacey told his dad, Tom, about my dad's predicament, Tom allowed my dad to live with them on two conditions: my dad had to keep going to school and get good grades, and he had to play sports. The Lacey family's generosity allowed my dad the opportunity to go back for his junior and senior years.
Though he was wiry, my dad was nimble and could play football positions usually reserved for the bigger guys, including defensive end and nose guard. He'd prove himself on the basketball court as well. In both football and basketball, he earned all-state honors.
While Tom's son, Terry, was an all-state quarterback and earned a scholarship to Notre Dame, my dad won a scholarship to a local college. I suspect my dad was afraid he wasn't good enough to go to college, however, because he didn't follow through with it. After graduation, he moved right out of the Lacey's house. Maybe his overwhelming sense of independence got the better of him.
Hard as nails and not afraid to prove it, my dad decided to enlist with the Marines. When he arrived at the row of recruiting offices, an officer said, "Could you come back tomorrow to sign the paperwork?"
My dad agreed and, having nowhere else to go, slept on a park bench outside all night.
The next morning, a Navy recruiter greeted him. When he learned what my dad was doing, he said, "The Marines representative isn't coming in today."
Eyes bleary and stomach rumbling, my dad signed with the Navy instead. The Marines recruiter walked in shortly after with a stunned look on his face.
The military led my dad to my mom, Charlotte Gold, whom he met while he was stationed in Long Beach, California. Two years later, they married. My sister, Sheri, was born a year and a half after that. On October 12, 1962, I came into the world.
For the first few years of my life, my family settled in Lakewood, California. My father served in the Navy four years and then worked for the local gas company while he tested for a position with the Los Angeles Police Department.
Not only did he get a spot with the LAPD, but he went on to build one of the most distinguished careers in law enforcement. As he rose to the rank of sergeant II over the next twenty-five years, he earned the Medal of Valor for his actions in the 1974 shootout with the Symbionese Liberation Army, originated the modern-day Special Weapons and Tactical (SWAT) Unit, protected dignitaries and Presidents Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Bush Sr., and oversaw the terrorist-related precautions and response team during the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
Given so little in life, my dad accomplished much more than many ever do. Having to fight for everything, he learned to protect himself and to make decisions on his own. Right or wrong, my dad learned early on that fighting was a way to establish himself. He let people know he wasn't somebody to be messed with, and word traveled fast. Violence was a means to get what he needed or to keep what he had, and I can understand his attraction to it.
One of the most impressive things to me about my dad is that he never complained about his childhood. In fact, he's told me many times it was good for him. He doesn't dwell on the past. As I've grown into an adult, with a wife and three children of my own, I've learned to understand the patience and wisdom it takes to not allow past hardships to seep into your everyday life. Despite the difficult relationships he endured in his childhood, my dad was always affectionate toward his kids, giving hugs and kisses and telling us he loved us.
He's also always been strict and opinionated. In his mind, there's right and there's wrong. If you're on the right side, no matter what you do, you're all right. If you're on the wrong side, though, you're wrong.
I grew up under this system, and I don't think it was necessarily bad. In fact, as usually happens in families, many of my dad's principles became my own. Just ask my wife and kids: I can be set in my ways. I'm as bullheaded as a Minotaur and as stubborn as an ass most of the rest of the time. I have a deep sense of justice, so it's no wonder I eventually followed in my dad's footsteps and became a police officer.
I learned early from my dad that if somebody did something to me, I didn't cry or whine about it; I did something back. When I turned three, my parents bought me a shiny gold bike with training wheels. Wanting to be like all the big kids on my block, I asked my parents to take the training wheels off. My mom spent the day watching me crash, and by sunset I could ride that bike.
When my dad came home from work, he pulled his Volkswagen into the driveway. When he saw I could balance myself on the bike, he was so excited he nearly leapt out of the car while it was still moving.
Things took a turn when Chris, the six-year-old bully on our block, came by. Like any kid, when he saw me pedaling my bike, he wanted to ride it. When no one else was around, he pushed me off and slid onto the vinyl seat, then glided away as if that golden beauty had been his all along.
Wiping the tears from my cheeks, I walked into the garage, where my dad was tidying up the shelves. Between frantic breaths and gulps, I pleaded my case.
Now remember, my dad wasn't the type to say, "Let's go talk to his mommy and daddy." No, he told me plainly, "Go hurt him, and he won't take the bike again." Grabbing a yellow Wiffle Ball bat, he led me outside and told me what to do.
Following his instructions, I crouched behind the cool cinderblock wall, bat at the ready in my tiny, shaking hands.
"When he rides by, you hit him with it," my dad said, then went back to his tinkering in the garage.
Along came Chris, unaware that he was about to reenact a scene from Tom and Jerry with me. As the nose of my bike and the kid's smirking face appeared from behind the wall, I swung with all my might. Clunk! The bat made contact and clotheslined Chris right off the back. His head banged on the street, knocking the wind out of him. I'd never heard such wailing.
I picked up my bike, climbed on, and didn't stop to watch Chris run back to his house.
I'd learned one thing. The bat was my justice.
My dad's job was no ordinary nine-to-five. Most officers were assigned to a division, or precinct, under the four bureaus—West, South, Central, or Valley. Within those four bureaus, there were eighteen geographic divisions, and each officer was usually assigned to one. My dad was assigned to Metro Division, which worked the entire city and ran the K-9, Equestrian, and SWAT Units, the last of which he played a key role in revitalizing.
My dad's was a high-risk occupation, and there were days I worried about him. One of those days was May 17, 1974. At eleven years old, I watched the live televised events unfold as my dad's team converged on the residence at 1466 East 54th Street, where six members of the Symbionese Liberation Army were holed up and firing shots outside. With every angle change, I searched for my dad, but the TV cameras were in the front. He was in the backyard, where most of the bullets were flying. When he came home the next day, he didn't make a big deal about it at all.
The one day I thought I'd lost my dad came when he told me he'd be up in a helicopter, running training insertions and extractions with the rest of the SWAT team up in Saugus Canyon, about thirty miles north of Los Angeles. That afternoon, the news reported an LAPD helicopter crash in Saugus Canyon and the death of one SWAT member and horrible burn injuries for several more.
My mother, sister, and I anxiously waited in the living room for a phone call or some kind of word from my dad or his department. I was never as relieved at the sight of his unmarked police car as I was that day.
As fate would have it, a high-ranking commander had come up for the training and my dad had given him his seat in the helicopter. The commander was decapitated as the helicopter crashed just over a hill.
My dad raced toward the blaze of twisted metal and saw many of his colleagues on fire. He picked up SWAT member Rick Kelbaugh and placed him in the back of his car to drive him to the nearest hospital.
Rick was in shock. "You gotta cool me off," he mumbled from the backseat.
My dad stopped to search for a hose. When he trickled water over Rick's head, his skin started to roll off like crepe paper. Rick would spend many months in the Sherman Oaks Burn Center.
Sometimes my dad was called away for what seemed like days on end, which made the time we did have together more precious than anything.
There was a five-year span when we had season tickets for the Rams football games held at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Every home game, my dad and I could be found in our seats near tunnel twelve, aisle twelve, by the end zone. We've kept up our tradition. Today, we still meet and watch the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day every year.
When I was nine, the day before a deep-sea fishing trip with my dad, I broke my collarbone. Outside the school, my friend had been dragging me on my skateboard behind his dirt bike when I missed a turn and slammed into a wall. I didn't want anyone to find out about the accident because I'd need my arms to crank on the lines. I'd be damned if I let a little broken bone stop me.
So I sucked it up and hobbled home, trying not to let on to my mom that something wasn't right. But she noticed I was standing funny, and when she poked and prodded, I couldn't hold back my wincing and tears.
I was sent to the hospital and was put in a brace, but the next day I was with my dad on the Pacific Ocean, happily balancing my rod on the boat's rail and catching my fifteen-fish limit.
When my dad could, he'd bring me along on his job too. Yes, his occupation was taxing, but it also afforded me exciting opportunities.
When SWAT simulated hostage recovery scenarios in the Universal Studios back lots, I ran the streets that appear in so many Hollywood movies. As I got older, my dad allowed me to try some of the exercises there after his team had left. I rappelled off rooftops and rode on the helicopter's skid at 120 miles per hour over the terrain's hills and dips. I also got to try spy-rigging, latching onto a rope with harnesses and clasps to hang from the bottom of the helicopter in formation with the group. When the helicopter gained enough speed, the rope went horizontal and I'd extend my arms like Superman.
Excerpted from Let's Get It On! by "Big" John McCarthy Copyright © 2011 by "Big" John McCarthy. Excerpted by permission of Medallion Press, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
"Big" John McCarthy served as an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department for 22 years and is the world's preeminent mixed martial arts (MMA) referee. McCarthy has officiated over 1,500 bouts worldwide since his debut at UFC 2 in 1994 and is one of the original authors of the sport's rules and regulations in the United States.
Loretta Hunt is a journalist who has penned more than 3,000 articles on all aspects of mixed martial arts since 2001. She has written for ESPN.com, SI.com, and the Los Angeles Times. She is the coauthor of the New York Times best seller Becoming the Natural: My Life In and Out of the Cage, the memoir of UFC Hall of Famer Randy Couture.
Bas Rutten is a former MMA fighter known as El Guapo, an actor, an author, and a TV commentator. He is a former UFC heavyweight champion, the weekly cohost of HDNet’s Inside MMA, and the author of Bas Rutten’s Big Book of Combat, Volume 1 and Volume 2.
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