How Are UFC Referees Chosen (and How Do You Become One)?

Over the last couple of decades, mixed martial arts has arguably become the fastest-expanding sport on the planet. In the current day and age, this combat sport has become so popular that even referees are now earning great fame and recognition, especially those who make recurring appearances in the UFC.

However, officiating an MMA contest remains an uneasy task. After all, the referee is, first and foremost, entrusted with the fighters’ safety, which can never be taken for granted in cage fighting.

So Who employs referees in the UFC? Who are the most famous refs in MMA? And how do you become one?

It’s time to take a closer look at the third person inside the Octagon.

Does the UFC Employ the Referees?

The simple answer is no. UFC does not employ referees, at least not directly. The match officials are hired by the local state commission, like the Nevada Athletic Commission.

These bodies are entrusted with the task of sanctioning and overseeing MMA events held under their territorial authority. This also includes appointing referees and judges for every bout on the card.

While the UFC pays a round sum for the state commission for every event, the latter, in turn, remunerates the referees.

How to Become a UFC Referee

Becoming a UFC referee is far from being a simple task. The first step is to acquire a license either from a public commission or through private courses.

Earning a license is a process that requires time and effort. As famous MMA referee John McCarthy tells it, becoming a ref requires three aspects: First, you must gain sufficient MMA knowledge. Second, a referee must obviously master the rules. Third, a good official is someone who also knows how to judge and score fights, even if it’s primarily the task of an MMA judge.

After acquiring the necessary license, a referee would probably spend the next three-to-five years officiating amateur fights while gaining valuable experience. He might also be entrusted with fights on some unsung events.

After mustering a comprehensive amount of experience and proving his proficiency on the lower level of the echelon, a referee could finally earn a crack at the UFC, but only if the sanctioning committee deems him ready.

But even after making it to the UFC, you wouldn’t expect a new referee to be put in charge of a main event or any other crucial bout straight away. He’s more likely to start his stint with the company on the under-card before slowly climbing his way through the ranks – similar to a fighter’s career.

How Are UFC Referees Chose for Fights?

The local state athletic commission is the one that assigns referees for every UFC event held under its jurisprudence.

Every commission is contracted with a host of referees and judges. So before every event, it entrusts some of them to officiate and score the fights.

The commission also designates a referee for every bout. This is often conducted based on several aspects, including experience, competency and other regards. Therefore, you can always expect to see the most prominent referees taking charge of main events and other mega bouts, while their less-experienced colleagues officiate less prestigious fights.

On another note, nationality isn’t a factor to be taken under consideration, at least not officially. Hence, we often see an American ref officiating a fight between a compatriot of his and an opponent hailing from another country.

How Many Referees Are in the UFC?

In 2022, the number of referees who officiated at least one UFC fight is 27 as per MMAJunkie.

As we explained above, it’s the athletic commissions that appoint referees for every fight card. Therefore, determining the exact number of referees working for the UFC is almost impossible.

Every commission has a host of referees under contract, and the UFC requests the cream of the crop. Therefore, we often get recurring names like Herb Dean, Marc Goddard and Jason Herzog, especially for fights held in Las Vegas or nearby regions.

However, when the UFC organizes events in other countries, the third person in the Octagon could be a less familiar name for fight fans. This can also be the case in some American states ruled by less-prominent athletic commissions.

UFC Referee List

As we mentioned above, it’s implausible to determine the exact number of referees currently officiating in the UFC due to the nature of their roles, but we’ll enumerate some of the most prominent refs in the organization.

RefereeNationalityYear Active
Herb DeanAmerican2004-present
Jason HerzogAmerican2009-present
Mark SmithAmerican2015-present
Marc GoddardScottish2008-present
Dan MiragliottaAmerican2007-present
Keith PetersonCanadian2008-present
Gary CopelandAmerican2001-present
John McCarthyAmerican1993-2018
Last updated 27/8/2023

Most Popular UFC Referees

Now it’s time to take a closer look at four of the most recognizable referees in UFC history.

Herb Dean

Has there ever been a referee in any sport who occasionally receives louder pops and cheers than the competitors? Describing Herb Dean as the most popular UFC referee would be a major understatement, as the American might just be the most beloved official in all sports.

While his ice-cold stance and effortless mojo endeared him to the fans, Dean’s cat-like reflexes saved a host of fighters from additional beatdowns, prolonging their careers in the process. This is why he remains the best in the business in the eyes of many fans and observers, in addition to UFC president Dana White.

Marc Goddard

While Herb Dean remains the consensus best referee in the MMA, Marc Goddard is arguably the top contender. Unlike his stone-cold American colleague, the Scotsman is an outspoken and authoritative figure.

The Brit made a name for himself in the United Kingdom before becoming a global star in the sport.

Dan Miragliotta

Dan Miragliotta is one of the true veterans among UFC referees. He has been officiating fights for the global organization since 2007. While he isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, the American remains a respected ref who masters the rulebook.

On the other hand, Miragliotta caused a major uproar when serving as a judge in UFC on ESPN 43, leaving fans and observers bewildered by his scorecards.

John McCarthy

John McCarthy might be the most significant pioneer in MMA officiating. He was arguably the one who set the standards applied today. His UFC tenure dates back to the company’s second event (UFC 2) in 1993.

He eventually retired in 2018 and is now running his own training academy. Throughout his time in the Octagon, “Big John” was always calm, confident, strict and precise.

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Michel Sakr

A freelance sports writer from Beirut, Lebanon. A football fanatic and a Juventus supporter since childhood, but also keeps an eye on various sports around the globe. Currently contributes at Cultofcacio.com and Juvefc.com You can follow Michel on Twitter or Facebook.

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