This week the Irish Mixed Martial Arts Association would like to shine a light on the accomplishments of a seasoned MMA judge and referee and the 2019 IMMAF official of the year Mr Derek Hickey.
As a young boy Derek attempted martial arts classes from the age of 6 such as TaeKwonDo, Karate and Judo but never managed to commit to training long term. In his teen years he began to travel down a dangerous path. His newfound habits for causing trouble took his focus away from his training and his short temper and lack of self-control often led to him engaging in anti-social behaviour. He routinely found himself on the wrong side of the law, and as a result spent 7 years between the ages of 15-22 in and out of prison. He states “As soon as I was released I would be back up to my old tricks again in no time. The judge would give me bail conditions such as stay away from certain people or places but I would always break them and wind up locked up again, I just didn’t care. I had nothing else to focus my energy on, I was causing trouble just to cure boredom and pass the time.”
Finally at 22 years old Derek decided it was time to turn his life around for the better claiming “I reached a point where I had enough. I realised that my life was always going to be this way unless I made the decision to make a change and stick to it.”
Enrolling at the University of Limerick to study for a degree in Leisure and Recreation Derek began to immerse himself in his studies and work hard to break the troublesome habits of a lifetime. He began working as a personal trainer at local leisure centres and spent nights working in security for bars and clubs. When the recession caused Irish nightlife to decline rapidly Derek found himself out of work, but chose to use his new found free time as an opportunity to upskill and gain a new qualification. He completed a 3 year Higher National Diploma course at Colaiste Stiofain Naofa in Cork in Sports and Exercise Science.
As a keen sports fan Derek had followed the rise in popularity of MMA and enjoyed watching fighting events such as UFC on TV. Having noticed an ad online for the opening of a new MMA gym called K2C (now SBG Cork City) nearby he decided to try it out for himself. Derek claimed “I never had any intentions of becoming heavily involved in the sport but I didn’t want to be a stereotypical couch fan who doesn’t know what they’re talking about. I just wanted to learn some moves and rules so that when I was watching MMA fights I would have a better understanding of what was going on. I didn’t know the first thing about MMA but I made sure I looked the part by buying matching rashguards, shorts and gloves. Arriving to K2C for the first time was a strange experience to say the least. I don’t know what I expected to see at an MMA gym but it certainly wasn’t rows of wedding dresses, fairy costumes and a pool table at the side of the mats, that’s for sure! We had minimal equipment but I really enjoyed the training. It was a great source of stress relief to spar with the lads and hit the pads after a long day at work, and after class somebody would usually whip out a guitar and we would all sit around the mats singing and listening to the music, it was a great atmosphere and it got me hooked.”
For the following three years Derek continued to train sporadically at K2C, owned and run by IMMAA treasurer and Head Coach Liam-Og Griffin and his sister Marlene Griffin. As a devoted father of two young children in full time employment Derek felt he couldn’t commit himself to the amount of training time necessary to compete in MMA. In July 2014 Conor McGregor headlined UFC 46 at the 3 Arena in Dublin and Derek travelled to the event alongside his K2C teammates to support the Irish fighters and watch a pivotal moment in Irish MMA history. Marc Goddard was working at the event and Derek had become familiar with his work through following the UFC. After hearing that Marc planned to run a refereeing seminar at SBG HQ he jumped at the opportunity to meet and learn from such a well established professional within the sport, recalling “It was never really my intention to become a referee through the seminar. As an MMA fan I just wanted to meet Marc and learn a bit more about the sport.” Derek was one of 15 attendees at the seminar who learned about the scoring criteria of MMA from Marc and although it was not a recognised qualification he received a certification of completion.
Shortly afterwards Leonard Coughlan, founder of the Cork Martial Arts Promotions Awards decided to run the Cork Martial Arts Expo at Neptune stadium, offering martial artists from a wide range of styles and disciplines the opportunity to display their abilities at the event. SBG Cork Head Coach Liam-Og Griffin was in charge of running the MMA portion of the event and offered Derek his first opportunity to referee the fights that would take place. As the fights were for exhibition purposes, there were no headshots allowed and Derek spent the day refereeing 40 novice MMA bouts. In the following weeks SBG Cork City began to host novice interclub MMA leagues which Derek also refereed and in a very short amount of time he had accumulated the experience of refereeing over 80 fights. Derek stated “I was very fortunate to have a coach like Liam-Og who saw the potential in me and offered me such great opportunities to test out my skills as a referee. At first I was unsure as to whether or not I was ready but the more fights I reffed the more confident I grew in my abilities and I was surprised to find that I actually really enjoyed it. Even though I wasn’t in a position to commit myself to fighting it was great to still be involved in the sport on an integral level.”
As he continued in his pursuit of gaining experience in refereeing at multiple novice and amateur MMA events over the following years he was always on the lookout for more opportunities to learn and develop his skills and knowledge further. Upon hearing that IMMAF were launching a refereeing and officials course in Ireland Derek applied to take part but it was ultimately cancelled due to lack of interest. Instead he applied for the same course in England which was also cancelled and he finally got the chance to enroll in the course in Belfast in 2016 which was run by UAMMA President Danny Corr. Derek recalls feeling relatively inexperienced when he compared his officiating background within the sport to those of the other people in attendance but took advantage of the opportunity by networking and building relationships amongst the other attendees and listening to their advice on how to advance and grow as a referee.
In October 2016 Derek had his first amateur judging experience on Cage Legacy 1, the debut event of Ireland’s leading MMA promotion. Speaking of the event he stated “I felt more comfortable judging at that time as I felt I hadn’t built up enough experience or earned enough respect within the MMA community to referee on such a big show yet. It was quite daunting and I wouldn’t have felt confident enough to take on the roll just yet” He didn’t need to wait much longer for the opportunity to showcase his refereeing skills as he was offered the chance to ref on Cage Legacy 2 at the TLT Theatre in Drogheda in March of 2017. His first official experience refereeing an amateur MMA fight was the bout between CMAC fighter Nahom Wedi and Ronan Tomnay of MMA Cork. Mariusz Domasat was the head referee for the event. Eager to learn and improve Derek approached Mariusz after the fight to hear his assessment of his performance claiming “I really respected his opinion and took on board all of the feedback he gave me. That’s the only way to progress in this line of work, by listening to the feedback and constructive criticisms and learning from them.”
Making the transition from novice events to amateur fights including headshots was a big change to make and involved learning different rule sets and guidelines. Derek’s next amateur show was the Wimp2Warrior season 1 event run by SBG Cork City at Neptune Stadium in Cork. Derek recalls “The fights were going well and I was confident in all of my stoppages until towards the end of the night when I made the call to step in and put an end to a fight and the crowd made it clear that they didn’t agree with my decision. I was booed by an audience of 1600 spectators while standing under the spotlight in the centre of the cage. I’m usually not somebody who cares what others think but in that situation I began to question my own judgement as to whether I had made the right call. Knowing what I now know today I can stand by that decision and maintain that I made the correct call, but at the time I wasn’t as confident in my abilities as I am now. It was a tough pill to swallow but I couldn’t allow it to stop me from pursuing my interest in refereeing. I simply needed to learn what I could from it and move on. There is no such thing as the perfect stoppage, and the crowd may not always agree with my decision but I’m not in there to please the crowd or gain popularity, my duty is to put the safety of the fighters first and I can truthfully say that the fighters safety is, and always has been my priority.”
Deciding to take the opportunity to travel with his officiating skills Derek then applied to work at the 2017 IMMAF European MMA Championships in Bulgaria. Unfortunately upon delving into the reason as to why he was unsuccessful in his application, he realised he had failed to provide the correct paperwork and after learning from this mistake, he made sure to submit all of the appropriate documents later that same year when applying for the World MMA Championships in Bahrain. His application was successful and he judged 100 fights over a 5 day period.
Speaking of the pressures associated with officiating MMA fights Derek stated “MMA is an intense sport and emotions can run high for both fighters and coaches. In the heat of the moment sometimes they can become visibly upset and the referee or judges can be the easiest target to take their frustration out on. In times like those it’s important to keep the situation calm, under control and de-escalate any drama. 95% of those situations are usually resolved with a simple conversation, if they’re still unhappy with the outcome there is an appeals procedure they can choose to follow if they so wish. The crowd can’t always see what the Ref can. When I’m in the cage with the fighters I’m looking at their eyes and facial expressions. When a strike connects and makes a loud noise or the crowd reacts to it it’s important to watch how the athlete reacts and not over-assume that it was effective based on the reaction of the spectators. When it comes to calling stoppages my attitude is to let it continue as long as both fighters show me that they want to be there. As soon as I see someone cover up and turn away from their opponent that says to me ‘I don’t want to be here anymore’ and I’ll step in to stop it to protect the fighter and avoid any unnecessary injuries from occurring. But if I see someone who’s in a bad position actively fighting back, attempting escapes or answering my instructions I will allow them to continue for as long as it is safe to do so.”
During the course of the interview Derek spoke very highly of the individuals who had helped him throughout his officiating journey. “Marc Goddard has been a real inspiration and mentor to me from the start, he’s a pioneer of MMA officiating and has paved the way for my colleagues and I to follow in his footsteps. I really respect his opinion because he tells it like it is. He has no interest in feeding your ego but is always honest in his feedback and he helps you to work more independently and stand on your own two feet. He rewards hard work with added opportunities and responsibilities and it’s a great feeling to know that he sees the work you’ve put into improving your skills.”
IMMAA secretary and commissioner Deano Wade has also helped to guide Derek through his officiating journey and before each event would routinely give him his signature advice of “Don’t f*ck this up!”
Derek also claims that Dec Larkin, the Head Official for Brave FC has also played a part in his development “Dec has given me a lot of helpful advice and guidance over the years, including the importance of timing in making split second decisions and when in doubt it is always better to stop a fight too early rather than too late. I will always be grateful to my Head Coach Liam-Og and Marlene Griffin for believing in me and providing me with so many amazing opportunities to pursue my interests and ambitions. There have been many others who have helped me to improve including Pete Lafferty, Derek Black and so many more who have given me support, guidance and reassurance along the way.”
Throughout Derek’s refereeing and judging journey to date he has officiated at two IMMAF European Championships in Romania and Italy, three World Championships in Bahrain, the Asian Open Championships in Bangkok and the debut of the Cadets World Championships in Rome. He was also appointed as the cage leader for the Cadet and World Championships in 2019 which gave him the added responsibilities of organisation of fights and decision making along with resolving any issues involving fighters and coaches. He has also officiated on each active MMA show within Ireland and transitioned to refereeing professional fights on high level promotions such as Clan Wars and judged for Brave 13 in Belfast in June 2018 which he describes as his “first proper big show” . Although he has experienced MMA first hand at all levels he is continuously amazed at the incredibly high levels of fighting he has seen at the IMMAF Championships stating “I honestly believe that the standard of fights we see at IMMAF are so high that around 75% of the professional fighters out there wouldn’t medal at the IMMAF’s.”
In 2019 at the IMMAF Amateur MMA Awards ceremony in Bahrain Derek was awarded the prestigious accolade of IMMAF Official of the year. Describing the moment as the highlight of his career Derek stated “I was shocked to even be considered for the award, let alone win it. In my opinion there are so many other candidates out there who deserved that award just as much as I did, but I was still extremely honoured to be recognised for all of my hard work.”
Derek has previously stated on social media that he planned to retire from refereeing in order to focus on judging instead. When asked if he still intends to do so he claimed “I made that statement out of frustration from not being picked to officiate on some big shows. When I split my time between refereeing and judging I am only gaining half of the experience in one area as an official who is only focusing on one aspect. When the big shows come to town they tend to choose the officials with the most experience under their belt which was why I had the idea to drop refereeing, but I have since had a change of heart. I enjoy what I do and I am going to continue to do both aspects rather than focusing on trying to speed up the process of gaining experience in one after Daniel Mohavedi advised me that there are no shortcuts in this game and it’s far more important to enjoy the journey. I’m just going to continue putting in the work and I’m confident that I’ll get the opportunities I deserve when my time comes.”
When questioned as to what advice he would give to a person about to begin a career in refereeing or judging in MMA Derek stated “Learn to be confident in your abilities and take advantage of every opportunity to gain experience that you possibly can. Be sure to look for feedback and ask plenty of questions.”
Speaking of IMMAA’s objective to attain national recognition for MMA as a sport Derek stated “IMMAA was the only organization who truly stepped up to keep our sport alive when people lobbied for it to be banned. Along with SafeMMA they have set world class safety standards, ensured appropriate medical clearance and governance for the sport. There is no other organisation out there who can represent MMA the way IMMAA has and I have no doubt that they will be successful in achieving formal recognition for our sport and athletes.”
Derek is a shining example of how martial arts can provide people with the discipline needed in order to turn their lives around for the better. He has proven himself to be an invaluable asset to the Irish MMA community and the Irish Mixed Martial Arts Association would like to extend our sincerest gratitude to him for all of his contributions to MMA both on the domestic and international circuits.