For our featured article this week we would like to highlight the role of a key contributor to Irish mixed martial arts, a person whose love for the sport has led him to a career in ensuring the safety and well-being of its competitors and who has proved himself to be an invaluable asset to not only Irish fighters but international fighters across the globe, IMMAA qualified MMA Judge and Referee Mr Derek Black. Derek will need no introduction to Irish MMA fans as he is undoubtedly one of the most familiar faces seen on Irish MMA shows across the country whether he is centre stage in the cage refereeing or watching meticulously from the sidelines judging.
We caught up with Derek to discuss how his involvement with The Irish Mixed Martial Arts Association has led to his admirable reputation amongst the MMA community and what being involved in MMA as an official of the sport means to him.
Funnily enough Derek claims that he never intended to make a career of reffing and judging and it was just by sheer luck that he happened to accidentally stumble into work as an IMMAA and IMMAF certified official. Having always been what he described as a “couch fan” of MMA, Derek had never ventured into a combat gym at the time but routinely followed the sport on television and at fight night events. Once while attending a fight night in Germany in 2015 he just so happened to bump into ex professional MMA fighter and UFC referee Marc Goddard – Mixed Martial Arts who was refereeing the event, Derek expressed his admiration of Marc’s work and asked if he would consider coming to Ireland, to which Marc responded that he would be travelling to Belfast the following month to teach a seminar and recommended that Derek sign up to attend. Excitedly Derek went home to research this event and found that in order to sign up to attend he needed an account on the My Next Match website, a popular website used by federations, promotions, officials, coaches and fighters to keep track of combat events, qualifications and fighter statistics. At the time he remembers the site stating that he needed to be endorsed by his local MMA federation, and not knowing what that meant he simply agreed to the terms and conditions, set up his account and applied to partake in the seminar. Derek states that the reason he wanted to participate in the course was simply to gain a better understanding of the rules of MMA as he had noticed that the rules often differed from commission to commission and never intended on acquiring any sort of employable qualifications. However on the day of the seminar when Marc Goddard had begun by asking each attendee to introduce themselves and list their officiating experience it quickly became abundantly clear to Derek that he was not qualified to attend and he states that he felt ‘like a fish out of water’ as he listened to each official list their vast experiences and qualifications within the sport while Derek simply admitted that he had no experience other than being a spectator of the sport. He was then pulled aside by an organiser of the seminar and it was explained to him that this was a course designed specifically for IMMAA officials only and there had been a mistake in the system which allowed his application to be accepted. He was offered a full refund which he politely refused as he stated that he still wished to observe and participate in the seminar as a fan of both the sport and Marc Goddard and did not require a certification.
Having sat through the theoretical element of the course it became time for Marc to evaluate each attendees practical examination. Derek watched each participant’s evaluation, expecting that he would not be permitted to join in but once all of the other candidates had finished Marc allowed Derek the opportunity to test his skills. Having resigned himself to believing that he was severely underqualified to even attend the course Derek had little faith that he would be capable of passing the examination but agreed to attempt it nonetheless. He recalls one particular moment after having completed his judging practical and walking out of the cage after carrying out his refereeing practical examination when Marc Goddard looked at his notes and asked him “Have you really never done this before?” to which Derek replied “No” and Marc looked impressed and simply claimed “F*ck me!” . It was at that moment that Derek for the first time started to believe in his own abilities as a potential official because if a world renowned top class expert in the area such as Marc Goddard could be impressed by his performance even when surrounded by such experienced and seasoned officials then perhaps he did stand a chance at beginning a career within the sport after all. As he was leaving the seminar that evening president of Ulster Amateur MMA AssociationDanny Corr stopped Derek and explained to him that Marc Goddard had expressed that he was very impressed with Derek’s work and that they had decided to confer with the IMMAA committee to see if there was a way that they could give him an opportunity to develop his skills. IMMAA president Coach John Kavanagh saw the benefit to having an official that was not affiliated to any club as it ensured that he remained impartial and unbiased towards any gyms. After careful consideration of the committee members and with highly recommended references from both Marc and Danny, Derek received a phone call from IMMAA secretary Deano Wade to inform him that the committee had come to a decision that Derek would be awarded the refereeing and judging qualifications to work on MMA shows.
Derek was elated to be given such an opportunity but soon learned that it was much more difficult to enter into working within the Irish fighting scene than he had previously thought as he wasn’t receiving many offers to work on Irish shows and therefore found it difficult to build experience. He then approached IMMAA secretary Deano Wade to ask if he could apply to work on international events in order to gain experience within the industry. He applied and was accepted to work on the IMMAF – International Mixed Martial Arts Federation European championships in Bulgaria as a judge in
2017 where he had the opportunity to work amongst and learn from some of the most seasoned and experienced officials within the sport. Having returned from Bulgaria he was still nervous about getting his foot in the door on Irish shows as he felt that he didn’t want to ‘ruffle any feathers’, luckily his fellow official Derek Hickey had recommended him to Liam-Og Griffin at IMMAA gym SBG Cork City, who had begun to host novice MMA tournaments, which he agreed to let Derek referee and judge. These novice events were extremely popular meaning each official present would often work upto 30 fights in one day which allowed Derek the opportunity to build his experience and grow his confidence in his abilities. The novice events were often more challenging than their amateur counterparts to officiate as the rule set was specified as ‘light contact’ which added an extra onus of responsibility on the referee to ensure no competitor was using their full striking force against the other.
Having now proved his competence at shows both at home and abroad Derek began to build a reputation amongst the MMA community and then began refereeing on Wimp 2 Warrior shows in both Dublin and Cork, before receiving permission from Marc to begin refereeing on shows such as Cage Legacy MMA and CAGE RING Championship, where he officiated at his first professional level fight.
In 2019 IMMAF introduced a new cadets division to its tournaments which offered 12-17 year old mixed martial artists the opportunity to compete for a world championship medal in MMA, but introduced a much more strict set of rules to abide by in order to ensure the safety of each competitor, which differed with each age group. Derek travelled to Rome to judge and referee in the first ever IMMAF cadet championship MMA tournament and is now one of the most experienced officials in Ireland within the underage ruleset. He has even been invited by the Bulgarian MMA federation to travel to Bulgaria later this year to brief the national team on the IMMAF cadet ruleset and to oversee their national qualifying tournament for the Bulgarian MMA team.
When questioned if he feels any pressure while working Derek stated that he fully comprehends the weight of the responsibilities he must bear as a referee as the final line of defense for the athletes. He claims that his philosophy when it comes to refereeing is to always ‘err on the side of caution’ as he would much rather take the blame for stopping the fight too early rather than be responsible for injuries sustained from allowing the fight to continue for too long. Admitting that he feels added pressure when the stakes are high such as in the World championship finals, he understands that you are never going to have ‘the perfect stoppage’ and admits that he has made mistakes along his journey but always learns from each fight and becomes increasingly confident in his decisions with each experience gained.
When asked if he finds it difficult to take control of the situation in the cage at times Derek said that when he is refereeing he goes into what he refers to as ‘Dad-mode’. As a father of two he is accustomed to being an authoritative figure but when athletes are experiencing the adrenaline rush of a fight they are often reluctant to follow direction and so he must remain assertive and firm at all times in order to demand cooperation and respect from the fighters. He also claims that he must remain confident in his abilities and stand by any decisions made as fighters can be quick to pick up on any hint of indecisiveness and so he must remain firm in his convictions.
He declares that fighter’s are fighters for a reason; they love danger, and sometimes they need to be saved from themselves as many fighters are so determined and driven that they would never choose to throw in the towel, even at the expense of their own safety so it is referees like Derek’s responsibility to save them from themselves by allowing them to apply their trade to the best of their ability while protecting each fighter from unnecessary damage or injuries. When questioned if he ever feels biased towards fighters he has built a relationship with Derek responded that he does not allow his friendships to affect his work and regardless of his feelings towards a particular person, he sees them only as fighters once they have entered the cage, referencing a quote by Conor McGregor he claims “ they’re just blank faces. Of course they’re people and I recognise them, but when I’m on duty, they just become blank faces.”
His passion for improving his skills as an official led him to pursue a more technical knowledge of the sport and so he enrolled in Arklow BJJ classes and kickboxing classes with IMMAA gym Legends MMA under IMMAA coach Stefan Moriarty. He felt that he needed first hand experience from training in order to gain a better understanding of the sport from a competitors point of view, although he has no intentions of competing himself he feels that it has enabled him to make better decisions as a referee and a judge.
Derek is a passionate advocate for SAFE MMA and claims that it’s introduction has been of huge benefit to Irish mixed martial arts as it has provided a top class framework for the sport and has ensured the abolition of the ‘cowboy culture’ approach to health and safety within the sport that preceded the standards implemented by Safe MMA. He believes that the work of Safe MMA is raising the safety standards for MMA worldwide and proves that we as a sport and a country have learned from our mistakes of the past and are actively going above and beyond to ensure the health and safety of each athlete is of the utmost priority.
Derek’s IMMAA certified qualifications as an official have led him to travel to such places as Romania, Rome, Bulgaria and Bahrain, he has judged over 1,000 fights and refereed over 250 but is still committed to continuing to grow his skills, experience and portfolio as an official. He states that his favourite aspect of being involved in MMA is the people he has met throughout his journey, from fighters to coaches, officials, promoters, supporters and everyone in between and is extremely grateful to the IMMAA committee members for allowing him to become a part of the MMA community and to participate and contribute to the sport in a defined role. In particular he would like to show his appreciation to Marc Goddard – UFC for taking a chance on him, Deano Wade for guiding him and giving him a crucial piece of advice before each show “Don’t f*ck up”, his fellow official Derek Hickey for being a constant source of honest advice and feedback, and to Liam-Og Griffin, Marlene Griffin Sbg and James P White at SBG Cork City n for providing him with great opportunities to develop his skills and grow his portfolio as an official.
The Irish Mixed Martial Arts Association are incredibly proud of Derek’s work and the progress he has achieved within the sport in such a short space of time. His passion and enthusiasm for MMA and fighter safety is undeniably evident to anybody who has seen his work and we look forward to working with him for many years to come.

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