The popularity of MMA exploded in the last ten years, and the UFC is, undoubtedly, the frontrunner most deserving of that boom.
The first five competitors of each weight class typically turn into superstars and heroes of their states or cities. They get hundreds of new followers on social media every single day.
When you don’t notice the UFC referee throughout a fight, it means he’s doing a great job because nobody complains. But when the bout is remembered because of the ref, it leads to a bad reputation.
The third man inside the Octagon can turn famous or infamous, depending on his actions inside the ring. Both categories are popular. There are legends and the worst guys to ever ref the bout.
Here’s our list of the most famous UFC referees:
- Herb Dean
- Jason Herzog
- Marc Goddard
- Mark Smith
- “Big” John McCarthy
- Mike Beltran
- Steve Mazzagatti
- Dan Miragliotta
- Mario Yamasaki
- Leon Roberts
Herb Dean is the real diamond among UFC referees. In 2021, he was inside the Octagon at 111 bouts, which is a testament to his quality.
Herb usually warns fighters to fire back or change the position before bringing them to stand-up or calling for the end of the bout.
Unfortunately, the UFC 235 bout between Ben Askren and Robbie Lawler led to a huge controversy, as Robbie protested the stoppage, claiming that he was not out after Askren’s bulldog choke.
Also, Dean allowed unnecessary punishment of Jai Herbert against Francisco Trinaldo when the Brit was already knocked out cold. Even Dan Hardy and Paul Felder, two fantastic commentators, yelled to stop the contest.
But overall, Herb Dean is a top-notch judge. Aside from minor controversies, he has never made a major mistake that significantly changed the outcome of the fight.
Jason Herzog is a real rockstar on this list. He’s actively moving throughout the whole battle, crouches when the fighters fight on the ground or kneel when he sees transitions from the bottom or submission switch attempts.
On many occasions, Jason reacted amazingly to prevent further damage. For example, everybody praised his UFC Vegas 18 main event stoppage where he saved Alistair Overeem from unnecessary brain damage.
Yet, the bout between Glover Teixeira and Anthony Smith put Herzog in the headlines. Teixeira dropped Smith in the second round and badly battered him for ten minutes, earning back-to-back 10-8 rounds.
The ref finally waved off the contest in the fifth, but Smith ended the bout covered in blood and with severe injuries.
Marc Goddard is a human hawk-eye system on the list of current UFC referees. Unfortunately, he mostly refs Europe or Asia-based events nowadays due to pandemics, but he saved fighters many times from unnecessary punishment and significant injuries.
Marc loves activity in the battle, and fans love him. He caught the public attention only once because he stood Kamaru Usman and Tyron Woodley up in the fourth round.
When Usman asked for an explanation for his actions, Goddard said “it’s a fight”. It made the commentary team go wild in a semi-professional way.
Marc later apologized for his actions on social media. A referee’s job is to make decisions, but everybody can make a mistake.
Mark Smith is currently the second name on the list of the most trusted UFC refs. Last year, he officiated 90 fights, which just speaks about his quality.
Smith doesn’t stay too close to the fighters, but when the situation gets dramatic, he’s ready to explode in a split second and call for a foul or a technical timeout.
Yet, Dana White believed Smith let Haqparast take too many unnecessary shots before stopping his UFC 246 bout against Dober.
He was also heavily criticized by Anthony Smith for letting Aljamain Sterling decide whether he’d continue the 135-pound title fight against Petr Yan after an illegal knee in round four.
But it seems the UFC fighter doesn’t know the rule – you must give the fighter five minutes to recover and see how everything goes.
“Big” John McCarthy
John McCarthy used to be a policeman when he kicked off his referee career at UFC 2. The rules were different back then, and the ref was not allowed to stop the fight until the fighter gets knocked out cold or tapped out.
Patrick Smith took Scott Morris down and unloaded a violent barrage of elbows (YouTube video) on the grounded opponent. Morris was not firing back so McCarthy yelled at Morris’ corner to throw in the towel. Smith stopped striking and started to celebrate because he thought he won the fight.
The rule was changed later and the referees got more freedom to step in between the fighters. John McCarthy saved the fighter’s life.
“Big” John McCarthy got his nickname because of his size – 6’3″ (190 cm) tall, weighs around 260 lb (120 kg). He’s a three-time World MMA Referee of the Year Award winner. The achievement speaks for itself.
Mike Beltran is currently the most notable name on the list of UFC referees because of his extremely long mustache.
Mike is followed by 183+ thousand followers on Instagram thanks to his extraordinary look and great MMA knowledge.
He competed in MMA in the early stages of his career but later transitioned to a different role. He’s known for top-notch performance in the title fight between Jon Jones and Alexander Gustafsson at UFC 232 when he verbally warned both fighters once and held the fight under total control for three rounds.
Beltran turned his mustache into a mask to raise awareness of Covid-19 in April 2020.
But even the best and most famous names get media attention for the wrong reasons from time to time. Justin Gaethje ripped Beltran for not letting him recover after an eye poke in a bloody and battered war against Chandler.
If there’s one name on the list of the former UFC referees famous for bad calls and putting Dana White to the hospital due to rage-induced stroke, it’s Steve Mazzagatti.
It seems this man had a different vision of UFC rules. Steve did everything to irritate fans and UFC officials, from letting fighters decide when to stop the fight to disqualifying the greatest rising stars for the first foul of the night.
Jon Jones took Matt Hamill down and landed a lot of elbows in the co-main event of TUF: Heavyweights Finale. One of them might have been a prohibited 12-to-6, but instead of a verbal warning or point deduction, Steve instantly disqualified him.
Mazzagatti jeopardized the livelihood and safety of many fighters throughout his career. Steve awarded Kevin Burns with a win over Rumble Johnson after repeated eye pokes.
Brock Lesnar’s fans still hate him because he returned Brock to stand-up position against Frank Mir at UFC 100 despite both fighters being active on the ground.
Off-topic, but his worst call happened in the WSOF bout between Josh Burkman and Jon Fitch. Burkman dropped Jon with a flurry of punches, caught him into a guillotine choke, and let him unconscious after a few seconds but there was no call (YouTube video).
It made fans wonder “What the heck was Mazzagatti doing? Taking a break?”
If there’s one UFC ref on this list you don’t want to mess with, it’s gigantic Dan Miragliotta. The legendary referee could put even some of the best Octagon warriors to sleep. He weighs in around 295 lbs.
Dan is known for impulsive reactions, great and bad calls, and insulting behavior towards disrespectful fighters.
His vision might have been blurred in Josh Emmett vs. Jeremy Stephens UFC on Fox 28 bout, but how can you raise the wrong hand? I mean, turning a loser into a winner was the most epic moment of UFC 85!
Akihiro Gono ignored the bell at UFC 89 (maybe Japanese fighters don’t understand English), and Miragliotta pushed him to the fence.
Dan aggressively warned Anderson Silva at UFC 112 due to evading the fight. He also grabbed Paul Daley after Daley sucker-punched Josh Koscheck at UFC 113.
But when Jason MacDonald broke his foot against John Salter during a takedown attempt, John started to celebrate, but Dan screamed “Cut that sh*t out Salter or I’ll break your legs with my bare hands”.
Miragliotta was known as “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” among UFC referees, he could transition from perfectly calm to an extremely aggressive third man of the Octagon without notice.
A bit off-topic, but his beef with Michael Page put the whole of England on its feet. Page was disrespectful towards his rival, but Dan really went too far with his words and later apologized.
Mario Yamasaki was known as a tough old-school UFC referee, who was criticized many times for letting the fighters battle until the last dying breath.
In the bout between Valentina Shevchenko and Priscila Cachoeira, the hottest female UFC fighter unloaded 200+ shots from top position before Yamasaki waved off the contest, which made UFC head honcho furious.
He also disqualified Erick Silva at UFC 142 due to “an illegal shot to the back of the head”, and allowed Fabio Maldonado to continue at UFC 153 despite a brutal ground and pound beating.
You must listen to Leon Roberts or you might get choked out. I know this is a bit off-topic, but Leon locked Nathias Frederick into a rear-naked choke when he refused to stop hitting the grounded Ahmad Aswad in Cage Warriors.
Leon is one of the rare refs who put their BJJ skills on display.
He was under fire for letting Jose Aldo take too many unnecessary shots in the UFC 251 title bout against Petr Yan. According to Dana White, it was a horrible stoppage.
Keith Peterson is one of the current UFC referees with a perfect feeling for the fight stoppage. But he might have made a mistake for ending the title match between Cejudo and Cruz a few seconds before the end of round 2. This guy used to be a fighter, so it explains his great timing.
Josh Rosenthal has never made major mistakes inside the Octagon. Yet, his actions outside of the ring made him famous for the wrong reasons. He was sentenced to 3+ years in prison due to marijuana possession with intent to distribute.
Chris Tognoni is the current rising star in the world of UFC refs. You rarely get an opportunity to ref 86 matches in one year, but he was inside the cage 86 times in 2021, which means he earned the trust of the promotion.
Kevin MacDonald used to be one of the most respected names on the list of UFC referees. His feel for the fighter was outstanding, but the controversial Cutelaba vs. Ankalaev stoppage threw a shade at his great career. Dazed Cutelaba ate three high kicks to the head but he was firing back on his feet. Even a boxing or kickboxing judge wouldn’t have stopped the bout.
Yves Lavigne made a few mistakes throughout his career but he can’t be called the king of bad calls. Yet, the diehard fans have never forgiven him for his blunder in the bout between Mac Danzig and Matt Wiman. Lavigne was also hesitant when Matt Brown was brutally battering Pete Sell and raising arms in the sign of frustration.
Kim Winslow is a revolutionary person and the first famous woman on the list of UFC referees. But this brave innovator made so many huge mistakes. She declared John Albert’s grunt a verbal submission (strictly against UFC rules cause he wasn’t screaming in agony), plus she’s known for several late stoppages.
Dan Movahedi is one of the greatest British UFC officials. Despite many fans criticizing him for giving Modestas Bukauskas a questionable TKO win against Andreas Michalidis (YouTube video), Movahedi did his job very professionally. Modestas unloaded legal 10-4 elbows to the side of the opponent’s head. Listen to my interview with Modestas (YouTube video) where he talks about that.
Gary Copeland is a very authoritative referee who shows zero tolerance for fouls. He punished Darko Stosic by deducting two points in his bout against Kennedy Nzechukwu for repeated low blows, which led to a win for Nzechukwu.
Vyacheslav Kiselev is the most infamous UFC referee of all-time. He was removed from UFC 267 after letting Benoit St. Denis vs. Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos go the distance, despite St. Denis turning back twice in round 2, retreating to the fence, and doing nothing to cover up.
There are some other great UFC names that didn’t quit make the list. To briefly highlight a few, you should check out Helio Vigio, Jerin Valel, Cecil Peoples, Mark England, Kevin Mulhall, and other famous third men of the Octagon.
When nobody mentions the ref after the bout it means he did a wonderful job. But controversies happen from time to time, and shows are recorded. Even the most famous UFC referees make a wrong call, sooner or later. Who is your favorite UFC ref and why?