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‘Big’ John McCarthy’s new book gives insider’s look at MMA

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Updated: September 1, 2011 4:51PM

Earlier this summer, at Strikeforce’s event in Hoffman Estates, one of the most spirited ovations of the night was not for a fighter, but for a referee, “Big” John McCarthy.

Not just loved in Chicago, McCarthy is a respected figure in the sport that’s been around since the beginning — he attended UFC 1 and started refereeing at UFC 2.

His new book “Let’s Get it On,” co-written with veteran MMA journalist Loretta Hunt ($24.95, Medallion), is a compelling behind-the-scenes look at his life and history of mixed martial arts. 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 work, but fans will devour his stories and breeze through this highly entertaining tome.

Coming on the heels of the UFC’s new network TV deal with Fox Sports, it’s truly remarkable to look back and see how it began, watch its struggle with legitimacy and then to flourish into an ever-growing sport worldwide.

The 1992 Los Angeles riots led to McCarthy’s unexpected involvement in what became the UFC. McCarthy was a Los Angeles police officer and the LAPD convened a Civilian Martial Arts Advisory Panel to discover new tactics to use in subduing suspects. It was here McCarthy met Rorion Gracie, who invited him to try Gracie Jiu-Jitsu at his Torrence, Calif. academy. Soon, McCarthy was hooked. When Gracie and advertising executive Art Davie came up with a concept of a tournament to discover which type of martial art was superior, McCarthy was there to assist the launch.

Gracie was unsatisfied with the referees at UFC 1, so McCarthy was enlisted to step in and referee. McCarthy used his background as a cop to help him keep order in the Octagon. He literally made up the job of a referee in a sport that didn’t exist and where the rules changed and evolved after each event.

At UFC 2, the referee didn’t have the ability to stop a fight. Only a fighter tapping out or his corner threw in the towel could end it. After convincing Gracie that a referee needed the ability to end a bout, he is one to come up with the concept of “intelligently defending himself.” If a fighter couldn’t do that, then the referee could step in and end the fight.

As the sport grew, he helped define what maneuvers were legal, institute weight classes, time limits for matches and judges to score the fights. He also worked as an ambassador for the sport, doing interviews with the media and working with athletic commissions to allay concerns and help create a unified set of rules for MMA.

McCarthy and Hunt do a great job hitting the highlights of a career that has seen him officiate more than 1,000 fights. They give the significance of matches and break out separate events with short anecdotes rather than give meaningless play-by-play.

After Zuffa purchased the UFC in 2001, he remained with the company. His relationship with UFC president Dana White and owners Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta remained strong until his retirement from refereeing in 2007.

The book details his estrangement from the UFC after he signed on to do commentary for the Canadian TV channel, The Fight Network. The network eventually flopped and McCarthy found he had alienated his former employer through TFN’s actions and his comments and interviews. McCarthy seems to have accepted the situation and gained perspective on the rift.

A true pioneer in the sport, McCarthy has returned to the cage to referee and now helps train a new generation of officials in his COMMAND (Certification of Officials for Mixed Martial Arts National Development) seminars. Thankfully with this book, his insights are shared with fans and not limited to students in his courses.

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