There are several noteworthy referees in MMA, two of the most popular being Herb Dean, and ‘Big’ John McCarthy. These referees can be seen refereeing many big pay-per-view events, often reffing 3 or 4 fights in one night. You may have wondered how much referees in the UFC get paid, and how? Per event? On Salary? So in this post, I’m going to detail everything I can find in an attempt to answer any questions surrounding referee earnings.
So how much do UFC referees earn?
On average, a UFC referee will earn about $500 per match. For big profile fights, referees can earn up to about $2,000, such as Big John McCarthy’s purse of $1,900 for Aldo vs McGregor. It is more common for referees to earn only $300 per fight, as they can ref several matches in one night. Considering the average of $500 per match, multiplied by the 89 UFC and Bellator fights he refereed in 2017, Big John earned about $44,500 in 2017.
However, there are a lot of factors that go into referee pay and how much they can earn in a year. In the rest of the post, I’m going to cover the sources, official payouts, and estimates on the pay of referees in the UFC.
Official And Estimated Payouts
There are several sites online claiming to have sources for referee payouts. However, most of these sites do not link or even mention their sources, so I would take those with a grain of salt. Despite this, I did find official payout for one UFC event, and that was UFC 194.
For the UFC 194 main event match between Jose Aldo (left) and Conor McGregor (right), the NSAC released official payouts for referees Herb Dean and ‘Big’ John McCarthy (center).
According to MMAJunkie and referee ‘Big’ John McCarthy himself, the official payout by the Nevada State Athletic Commission was $1,900 for Jose Aldo vs Conor McGregor. Big John and Herb Dean each earned $1,900, with Herb Dean officiating the co-main event between Luke Rockhold and Chris Weidman for the Middleweight Championship.
I’m sure you guys knew this already, but in case you didn’t, UFC 194 was a HUGE event. The main event alone was a highly anticipated unification bout between the long-reigning champion in Aldo, and the fan-favorite interim champ in McGregor.
This gives us some insight as to what the average pay for a referee is, because the $1,900 for UFC 194 was likely the highest payout up to that point. On an episode of his podcast, Big John and Sean Wheelock discuss Big John’s pay for the event (at around 28:20). Big John himself confirms the pay is not anything spectacular, and says he mostly does it for the love of the sport.
On the same podcast, Big John stated that for amateur fights he gets paid anywhere from $100 to $400. We can assume this is the lower threshold for referee pay in the UFC, meaning the average is somewhere between $400 and $1,900.
Famous MMA referee Herb Dean, wearing the red patch of the Nevada State Athletic Commission.
It seems the state that sanctions the fight plays a role in referee pay, as John McCarthy stated: “Nevada pays more for a championship fight than any state pays any official so that $1,900 is the most you’re going to see. Thank you very much, Nevada. It’s very nice of you to give us that much. I appreciate it”.
Aside from Big John’s podcast, I found this website which shows some figures for referee earnings in MMA. However, the post is poorly written, does not cite the sources, and overall seems kind of vague and sketchy. I wouldn’t trust their numbers, as they seem arbitrary, but they are there if you want to take a look.
I also want to note that a referee’s pay usually increases with the size of the event and the attention it recieves. MMA is still a fairly new and growing sport, bringing in many new fans every year. This steady increase in viewership is likely to increase payouts for all the people involved in the events, including referees.
I also would think that a referee’s pay directly correlates to his tenure as a referee, as well as how well-known he is. You can check out our post on the Most UFC Famous Referees to get an idea of who the better-paid referees are.
Estimating An MMA Referee’s Salary
Now let’s estimate the salary of a high-profile referee such as Big John McCarthy. In order to do this, I looked at a page on Tapology which lists all the fights refereed by Big John McCarthy up to the end of 2017.
In 2017, Big John was the referee for three organizations, Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), Bellator, and the Russian promotion Absolute Championship Berkut (ACB). Bellator and ACB probably pay refs less than the UFC does due to their lower popularity, so I’ll keep that in mind when estimating Big John’s salary.
Because fights on The Ultimate Fighter TV series are different from UFC events, they are not included when considering referee pay.
I also want to note that the UFC has two other organizations under it Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series (DWTNCS), and The Ultimate Fighter Series (TUF), both of which Big John has refereed. The reason this matters is because I don’t know if the pay for these types of fights differs from fights under the actual UFC banner, so I won’t be including them in the average.
And lastly, I’m not even sure if the referees get paid per event, or per fight. I’m going to assume it is per fight, but take note that this may inflate the actual salary if they instead get paid per event.
Considering that Big John said amateur events pay anywhere from $100-$400, I’m going to assume $400 is the lowest that a pro fight will pay a ref. I will assume this is the average for all of the fights he refs, which makes this a pretty conservative estimate.
‘Big’ John McCarthy seen here officiating for Absolute Championship Berkut in Russia.
In 2017, Big John McCarthy refereed 45 UFC fights, 47 ACB fights, and 30 Bellator fights, which is 122 fights total. Assuming the $400 average per fight, that means John McCarthy earned an estimated $48,800 for refereeing in 2017.
Of course, there are a lot of assumptions made with this estimate, and you should take them into consideration. The two biggest assumptions are the average pay per fight ($400), and that refs are paid per fight vs per event.
Also, Big John noted on his podcast that a hotel is usually paid for by the commission. Travel is only covered if the ref has to travel by plane, and they must pay for their own transportation if they drive. Any other expenses are covered by the individual.
Why Do Boxing Referees Earn More?
During the Big John McCarthy’s podcast, him and Sean Wheelock discussed the pay Kenny Bayless received for officiating Manny Pacquiao vs Floyd Mayweather, which was a widely-anticipated boxing match.
Kenny Bayless reportedly made $25,000 for officiating that fight. There are several reasons why the payout in boxing is significantly higher than in MMA.
For one boxing overall is a much more popular sport. It has been around for centuries, and is watched by millions of people around the world. In contrast, the UFC has only been around since 1993, and is still growing and gaining popularity.
Referee Kenny Bayless, seen here officiating the fight between Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather.
Due to the difference in popularity, there is also a difference in revenue and earnings. Since boxing matches typically bring in more money than a UFC event, there is more money to pay the fighters, judges, and referees.
An interesting thing to note is that while the State’s Athletic Commission selects and pays the referees for MMA events, in boxing, the promoter is the one who selects and pays the referee. I don’t know if this has a direct impact on how much a referee earns, but I would assume that a promoter would pay good money to make sure their event is not messed up by a bad referee’s call.
Of course, it also depends on how good the referee in question is, and the size of the particular event they are chosen to referee.
In short, referees in MMA will earn about $500 per match on average. Highly-anticipated events will pay referees more, up to about $2,000 per fight. Based on a low average of $400, and assuming a referee officiates about 120 fights a year, one can expect to make about $48,000 as a referee for MMA. This depends on a lot of factors, such as size of the event, popularity of the referee, and the state where the fight takes place.
If you liked this post, feel free to check out the Martial Arts History page, where I answer more FAQ’s from fight fans. Thanks for reading!