Mark Woodard credits the growth of MMA in the UK


Photo: Mark Woodard is pictured centre at his last BAMMA event, wearing the Superdry t-shirt On Feb. 27, 2016, after a long and fulfilling career in mixed martial arts, UKMMAF Regulatory Affairs committee member Mark Woodard announced his retirement as an MMA referee to devote more time to his UKMMAF role. Woodard has been a key figure in British martial arts over the years and has witnessed the essential progress of the sport from its raw beginnings to the more regulated form it holds today. On Saturday night, Woodard stood inside the cage as the third man for the final time, refereeing the BAMMA Middleweight title fight between John Phillips and Chieck Kone in Dublin, Ireland. In front of 6,000 raving Irish fans, Woodard called the action for the last time and explained why he decided now was the right time to step away from refereeing. “There are so many people that want to referee now and we’ve got so many referees in this country,” said Woodard. “I’m 57 now and I’ve been refereeing for about 30 years I guess. It’s just about time I moved over and vacated some spaces for other people to come in. “It’s really hard to get onto good, established shows these days and also I didn’t want to be a guy who was refereeing small shows at 65 years old. I finished on a world title, John Phillips knocked out Cheick Kone and it was awesome, what a way to go really.” Being around the sport of MMA for such a long time, Woodard – who has refereed some of the biggest fights in the UK including premier promotion BAMMA – admitted the development of amateur and professional rule sets has helped legitimise the sport and provide an integral path of progression for all aspiring mixed martial artists. “I guess the major change that I’ve seen is the way that the promoters are embracing the two rule system. The amateur rules and the professional rules. We used to have A-class, B-class, C-class and it was just an absolute nightmare and I guess most of the major shows these days are either doing amateur or professional. Also the medical people are beginning to understand how important fighter safety is. “There was never a path of progression. If you watch football on a Saturday afternoon, it doesn’t matter if you go to watch Liverpool vs. Arsenal or you go to a non-league game, you understand what’s going on and the game is the same. It’s just the skill level that is different and why should a combat sport be any different? “There was very little parity between the amateur game and the professional game. Now because of the amateur rules, there isn’t a lot of difference and it gives the guys a path of progression. You’ve got amateur fighters now who are having 10, 15, even 20 fights before they are turning professional and they are really good and they are ready. Back in the day you had a choice, you either went pro or semi-pro where there were no head shots on the floor and there was no parity between that.” With national IMMAF affiliated governing bodies around the world now aiding the development of amateur MMA, Woodard explains how current UFC sensation, Featherweight champion Conor McGregor and Tristar Gym’s Tom Breese a leading examples for all fighters looking to make MMA their full time profession. “The amateur fighters are staying at amateur now because they realise that they need to get a good grinding. This game, this sport can change your life, and I will quote Conor McGregor. Conor McGregor was living at home with his mum and dad, and look at him now, in a very, very short space of time. He’s always been a talent and that’s never been in doubt but he never got the opportunity, then he gets that phone call and his life changed. His life has changed dramatically. Now guys are looking at that and saying ‘fair enough, I want that’. The only way for them to get good is by coming through the amateur ranks, not just jumping straight into pro or having two fights and stepping up. “Take Tom Breese, I refereed most of his fights in the UK, I think I only missed three or four and I watched him come through the amateur levels on shows then he turned pro and he went to BAMMA, then he slipped over to Cage Warriors then he went to the UFC. Now, look at him, now 10-0 as a pro. That was because he had a good solid amateur background.” The role of a referee inside the cage is a pivotal one, the adjudicator of combat, they must be completely reactive to whatever happens under their jurisdiction and Woodard admitted that it can be a ‘tough’ job when you are such an influential figure within a volatile sport. “Refereeing is a tough, tough business, I guess I’ve got a reputation for being straight talking. That is the way that it is. It’s a tough thing. You stop a fighter and that fighter has got something riding on it and I’ve refereed a couple of bouts where fighters have a lot riding on it. “You stop the fight and they blame you for that and that’s a hard thing to deal with and that is something that no amount of courses,  no amount of talking about is ever going to prepare you for. You do get some people who are really venomous but nine times out of ten they usually apologise the next time they see you.” Despite stepping away from refereeing, the vastly experienced Woodard will still play an active role with the continued evolution of the sport in the United Kingdom. Through his position at the UKMMAF, the official referee certification course will look to help further legitimise the officiating of martial arts for another 30 years. “The course is really good, it’s been written by some of the best officials in the UK, input from the likes of Leon Roberts, Neil Hall etc. It’s taken a long time to put together, it’s over two days. “The judge’s course is a completely separate course. Every course that we’ve ran, we’ve ran four now, has been completely different. The subject matter is always the same but the way that course members participate makes every course different.” Having witnessed how MMA has become more accepted over the past decade, Woodard believes the sport will only go from strength to strength and under the guidance of the UKMMAF and IMMAF he hopes that the regulation of MMA will only continue to grow. “I’ve enjoyed my time refereeing, I’ve enjoyed watching MMA grow into the sport that it is today and I have no doubt it’s going to keep growing and it’s going to keep evolving. It’s exciting times for everybody I guess and with the IMMAF coming on board, the UKMMAF coming on board, it’s going to hopefully start setting standards because that’s all that it is about.” Written by Andreas Georgiou

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