Photos by William McKee
Tony Reid – Many referees in MMA have their own unique way of getting the action started in the cage. Big John McCarthy made “Lets Get it on!” a piece of MMA history. Talk about how referees create their own unique way of getting the action started.
Bill Bookwalter – “I think unless you are John McCarthy there is not much left to say besides ‘fight’. Other than that, you seem like you may be trying too hard. I mean, I do a little fist shake with my hand balled up, just to kind of acknowledge the crowd that I am there but after that I mean what can I really say besides ‘fight’.”
TR – A common misconception by the general public or the casual fan is that referees in MMA are employed by the UFC, Bellator, or the promotion they are refereeing in at the time. You are employed by the state athletic commissions of the state you are working in. Aside from that particular question, what are some of the other misconceptions fans have about referees in MMA that you could clear up for us?
BB – “Many fans, because of some of the bad calls in the sport, are more educated thanks in part to people like Joe Rogan, Mike Goldberg or any other announcer for that matter being quick to point out during times of criticism that the official are in fact the AC employees. Fans rarely get it twisted who I work for. Another misconception is that officials do not have to answer for when we make bad or questionable calls. Sometimes a fan thinks we feel we are god and can just do whatever and will not have to discuss it privately when we make an error. Any good athletic commissioner will never let it be known publicly you talked but during times of a mistake we do indeed have to answer for it. Too many mistakes? You don’t get assigned as much, if at all.”
BB – “Whether it is 200 or 20,000 people in attendance I would never notice. Every fight is officiated exactly the same. Believe me, you are so focused on the fight you don’t even recognize the crowd.”
TR – We all know how much preparation fighters put in before a fight but you, the official, must be prepared going into a fight as well. Can you talk about what you do to prepare leading up to an event?
BB – “Well, I am a MMA nerd. I follow the athletes, ammy and pro, and I know who they are and what camps they are from. I generally look at the matchups online. One, from a fans point of view to see who is fighting. Leading up to a fight I use my knowledge of the specific fighter to go over anything I see that could be a point of confusion during the fight. I recently had a big fight where a fighter I have seen in the past has knocked someone down with a big shot then puts his hands up and walks away, thus basically he is saying the fight is over. The thing is, I say when the fight is over. This is MMA. Just because you knock a fighter down does not mean the fight is over. I reminded him to follow up if this happened and I would stop him. Let’s just say he listened to a T.”
TR – How fine of a line to you have to walk as to not create too close of a friendship with fighters that you will have to referee and oversee in an unbiased manner?
BB – “I am a little different than most refs. I was a pro in my own state up until recently, meaning that I have trained during my competitive days with camps or specific fighters who are still active. You get close with these guys and being on the local circuit you will have to eventually ref camps whom you have trained with or even people who were once teammates. I once had to ref Darnell Hayes vs. Joe Pacheco in Millersville, PA. Check my record online. I fought Darnell less than a year and a half prior and two years before that he was my training partner. I will never show a bias towards any fighter. I have too much respect for the sport. The guy who trained harder and fought better that night always deserves to win.”
TR – The MMA community is a tight knit circle. How close are you with other referees in the business? Do you travel together; hang out, share notes, etc.?
BB – “Hate to say it but as officials unless we are being cordial at a specific event there is no effort to meet outside of the event. We all come from different areas and have our separate lives as soon as the fights are over. I know not every ref has this situation but for me I have to get back to my life the day after an event.”
TR – With hundreds and hundreds of fights under your belt in major MMA promotions all over the world, what is your fondest memory of your time spent in the cage? What has been the most amazing aspect of the growth of mixed martial arts that you have witnessed in your time in the sport?
BB – “My most fond memory in the cage was my first Bellator event and first matches on National TV. It was Jessica Eye vs. Zoila (Frausto) Gurgel. My daughters were so excited to see me on TV. To a kid that means your dad made it and is something special. Unless of course he is wanted for a crime (laughs).
“The most amazing aspect of growth in the sport is the acceptance of the main stream media. Believe me they did not want to. They were absolutely forced into it. Over the years you heard so many times how MMA is evil and no one likes it, homosexual, skin heads, tattoos, racists, human cock fighting. Bob Arum and others should be ashamed of themselves for speaking on something they had no idea about and alienating a lot of people. Arum did it for financial reasons because MMA was taking over boxing.”
TR – As the sport grows and more and more eyes are focused on it referees and judges continue to receive a lot of heat for, seemingly, every single decision they make. How do you personally handle that criticism when it comes your way, whether it is from fighters, fans or the organization?
BB – “Criticism the first few times you read it you take it personally. The longer you do this, the less and less you care about what fans have to say. It might hold more water if fans complained about very important calls and real close things. Nowadays, fans complain about everything. Now, officials rarely give it a second thought. A lot of our sport is judgment calls; some will agree, some will disagree. Oh, wow a fan disagrees with a call? Shocker.”
TR – I hear that you are an MMA geek. Amaze me with some little known fact, piece of knowledge or story that sticks out in your mind…
BB – “Little known fact about MMA- Most people are familiar with the UFC from SPIKE TV and TUF 1. Many do not know the UFC was nothing more than an infomercial for Gracie Jiu Jitsu. Look up the Gracie challenge on Google. A series of years where the Gracies’ offered $5,000 to anyone who could beat them in a fight at their school. Show up and fight anytime any day they were open. One condition, the fight would be taped and the winner got to keep the tape. No one ever collected the money. So the Gracies’ brought it to America and did it on TV. The following years attendance at jiu jitsu gyms everywhere sky rocketed as jiu jitsu was seen as the dominant martial art by many to be used in a real fight.”
TR – How valuable it is to have the experience you have as a competitor/fighter when it comes to being the third man in the cage and an MMA official?
BB – “Having fought in the cage before is invaluable to me as a ref. I have been in a lot of positions before training and fighting that I see in the fight. It really helps me when knowing when something is close and a call should be made.”
TR – What is the one thing you would want the world to know about Bill Bookwalter, the third man in the cage?
BB – “The one thing I want the MMA world to know about me is that I am the most thorough ref when it comes to a pre-fight rules meeting. We go over damn near everything that could be a point of confusion in the fight. I rarely have trouble or get put into a position where I have to make a call that we did not go over in the pre fight rules meeting. There is so much more than just the old ‘obey my commands, protect yourself at all times’ verbiage. We go over it all – stand-ups, fouls, separations, stopping the fight, submissions. I like feeling we are all on the same page.”