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'Big' John McCarthy Looks Back At The Early Days Of The UFC

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MMA referee John McCarthy is one of the sport's most famous figures. Co-author Loretta Hunt claims he's also the UFC's preeminent historian. Together, they prove it with the excellent memoir Let's Get It On. Jonathan Snowden talks to both about the book, the history of the UFC, and some of McCarthy's controversial moments.

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Big John McCarthy
Big John McCarthy

"Big" John McCarthy knows exactly what's going on around him at all times. Maybe it's a product of being the third man in the cage for thousands of mixed martial arts bouts. Perhaps it's his years of police work and his time spent training the next generation of law enforcement to have that six sense - the kind that keeps you alive. Or it could be John McCarthy has a Google search set up for his own name.

Whatever the case, John McCarthy knows that I've written some critical pieces about him over the years. And he wants me to know that he knows. As we discussed the controversy over potential conflicts of interest in the early days of the UFC, a time that would see McCarthy train with Royce Gracie just days before he would oversee his bouts in the cage. McCarthy acknowledges the criticisms, then points out that much of the controversy was generated by one reporter - Jonathan Snowden.

"I know you wrote something about that," McCarthy said. "You have. And you know what? It's okay. There is a conflict there and it's normal for somebody to look at it and say 'that isn't right.' There were a lot of things at the beginning of this, if you want to call it a sport. It was more of a spectacle, more of an infomercial (for Gracie Jiu Jitsu). There were a lot of things, obviously, that would not be done now that were done back then. Because there were no conflict of interest concerns back then. It was really about my integrity. And I know that it's hard for anyone to sit back and not say 'well, you can say that' and you're right. Anybody can sit there and say it. Yeah, I was a training partner with Royce Gracie. And then I was a referee for Royce Gracie. Does that look good? No. Was there someone for me to go say that to? No, there wasn't. The people that were hiring me (editor's note: Royce's brother Rorion Gracie) knew...To sit there and have somebody challenge my integrity. Anyone can challenge it. But I can point out things that show I didn't give him (Royce) any benefits. He didn't benefit from me in any way."

In the end, it was one awkward moment in an amazing conversation that spanned the history of the UFC. We talked for 45 minutes yesterday, joined on the phone by veteran MMA journalist Loretta Hunt. Together the two have produced one of the best books ever written about the sport, Let's Get It On. It's part history and part biography, both parts equally fascinating. McCarthy has been present for essentially every pivotal moment in the history of American mixed martial arts. For Hunt, who wrote a previous tome with UFC superstar Randy Couture, that made piecing a book together daunting - there were important decisions to make about what to include and what to leave in the margins.

"I knew in a lot of ways this was going to be a more difficult book to do. Because I felt like there were almost two narratives going on. There was John's story and then there was the story of the sport," Hunt said. "There was just so much information that we had to cover. I knew I had to keep the story interesting and flowing, and keep John's life weaving in and out of the history of the UFC...I always felt a great pressure and responsibility. It was a challenge to make sure I got all those great moments into the book."

The two decided early on to include as much as possible in the 418 page book. Stories that didn't fit in the main narrative were included in the book's margins. These aren't to be missed. There's some solid stuff included as McCarthy looks back at a career that started at UFC 2 and continues to this day.  In the end, every UFC McCarthy worked had a story attached to it. But there were still plenty of things left on the cutting room floor.

"It was John's decision what went in and what didn't go in the book," Hunt said, revealing that there was some concern about violating fighter's confidence. "He'd tell me a really funny story and then say 'but we can't put that in.' I think John was really, and you're going to hate me using this word John, very sensitive to other people. Especially the fighters. Because he does have that trust with the fighters and John didn't feel it was his right to divulge personal information, especially stuff that could embarrass the fighters.

"John had a great conscience going through this book and obviously I understood that. You want to write a great book, but there's also a responsibility when you write a book. You have to be careful about what you say... And we managed to get some great stuff in."

Hunt and McCarthy have an easy chemistry together. They are comfortable and it's that relationship that helps make the book work. In most autobiographies written in conjunction with a professional writer, you can sense the ghostwriter's presence a mile away. It sounds inauthentic, like a cash grab, and leads to athletes like Charles Barkley complaining about being misquoted in their own books. The two were cognizant of the potential pitfalls - and McCarthy made sure it was his voice that rang true.

"She would write things and then give them to me and I would rewrite them," McCarthy says with a laugh. "No, that's not what I meant. You're a guy that's written books and written really good books - you know what you mean to say when you're writing it. I knew what I was saying and she knows what she thinks she's hearing and I'm going 'No, that's not it!' But it was good. The whole process was really good in the end."

"I think John and I share so much in common," Hunt said. "We're both just so passionate about this sport. That definitely helped keep the project on track and kept it flowing and going."

It's safe to say there will never be another "Big" John McCarthy. The sport isn't set up anymore to accommodate a celebrity referee. In the old days, McCarthy could train side by side with the Gracies, could give matchmaking advice to Art Davie, and could represent the UFC, as an employee, in court.

"It was the traveling circus. That's what the UFC was at the time," McCarthy said. "We were a band that would get together six times a year and it was always back to the same craziness...but those were the things that made life special."

A lot has changed since then. Today the sport is governed by state athletic commissions; working directly for a promotion would be frowned upon. But to McCarthy, the ultimate goal is still the same - keeping fighters safe to compete another day.

"It's something that the average fan is never going to understand because the fan is looking for that unbelievably exciting, back and forth Rocky Balboa-Apollo Creed type of fight. That's what the fan is wanting," McCarthy said. "When the referee stops the fight because one fighter is beating on another they say 'Oh he could have done more, John should have let them fight.' And that's fine. That's what the fan is expecting and wants. But you can't always deliver it to them. I tell people all the time - my job is not to make the fan happy. My job is to make sure the fighter is safe and can come back and do this again if they so desire."