The MMA community is a close one and everyone involved in the sport of MMA sticks together. One man who’s passion for the sport runs deep, is Leon Roberts. A well known face on the UK MMA scene but now developing around the world, as he is one of the referee’s in the UFC. Not an easy job to do for anybody but Leon has been known to be one of the best referee’s on the books.
His refereeing journey has taken him all around the world, including places like Australia, Brazil and the USA. It started in England. Everyone remembers the first time they saw the sport and how it got them hooked. For Leon it is no different but before he was even aware of MMA, he had a great passion for Martial Arts in general, which then led him to experiencing MMA.
“As a child I was always into martial arts movies. I loved all the old kung fu movies and like most people who enjoy these movies I was hooked on Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, etc. I however was always into rugby and boxing and so never did any martial arts training as a child. With regard to MMA I worked in a video store and we stocked the old UFC tournaments on vhs and as soon I saw them I was hooked and started to train. I have to admit though when I first saw them I was not into the whole gracie BJJ thing and was more taken by the pure violence of the no holds barred fighting. I know this comment goes against the grain, as most people were so taken by the BJJ aspect, but that was just me at the time”.
It shows how varied the sport is and how different people pick up on different aspects of it. So from all his experiences he was hooked on the sport and it led him to start training. From training it led him to gain more knowledge of the sport but take a different path in the gym, something which his years of training has helped him with:
“ I have trained MMA for almost 20 years with Mark Weir at his Range Fighting Academy. I reached a black belt instructor level and my path took me into teaching and coaching rather than fighting and I had the privilege of being part of a successful team with numerous world and British champions. I would say that I have helped coach and train over 30 professional and amateur fighters”.
That shows quite the dedication and knowledge gained in the world of MMA. To be involved daily with so many fighters, it can only take you to the next level. A lot of people take the fighting to coaching route but Leon has gathered so much knowledge from being involved daily with the sport. This lead him to becoming a referee in 2002. If you are helping fighters each day in the gym and training yourself you will pick up all the rules required. So how did he first done the latex gloves and step inside the cage?
“I was part of a management team looking after the interests of Mark Weir and the fighters from his school called XFUK. We decided to put on a promotion in 2002 called XFC and I was asked to referee this. So I had no time to cut my teeth with amateur bouts and was put in charge of a full professional fight card. I only planned on this being a one time thing but word got out and soon other promoters were contacting me and asking me to officiate their shows. I liked having the control of the cage and I felt that as I knew the MMA scene and had an interest in seeing the sport grow I would continue to ref and ensure that fighters were looked after when competing. I felt that I could do more for the sport in this role than that of a fighter”.
Being a referee is all about looking after the fighters and making sure the fight runs smoothly. However just like the fighters in the cage, the referee is the center of attention. With so much noise from the crowd and corner men, it can be a daunting task and be hard to block out everything around you. Fighters go into ‘fight mode’ and focus on only their opponent and their corner men. The referee’s only have themselves, but for Leon, this is something he is now used to and he has learnt to switch into ‘ref mode’.
“For me it does not matter where I am or how big the crowd is or who I am reffin, as soon as I step into the cage my body switches into autopilot. I can be nervous outside the cage and in awe of the crowds or what celebrities are cage side, but as soon as I place one foot into the cage its as if I switch and I am ready for anything. Once I am in there, you could have 100 gorgeous, naked, woman outside the cage or all my favourite sports starts and movie stars and I would not notice. My sole attention is on the two fighters in the cage. You might here the crowd comment or corner comment but it does not impact on my attention”.
This is how he has become known as one of the best referee’s in the sport today. First he did well on the local scene and it wasn’t long before the UFC took note and came knocking on his door.
“My first UFC show was UFC 89 Birmingham. I got a call from Dave Lewis at the Zuffa UK office and he asked me to attend an interview with him and Marshall Zelesnik in London. They told me they had seen me on you tube and liked my style. That was a massive compliment and several people in the industry had put my name forward as well and that too was a huge compliment. Like anything in life if you are noticed for being good at something you do, something you are passionate about it really does make all the time and effort you put in worth it. This was especially important for me as I stay under the radar, never promote myself, avoid media attention and just go about my business in a way that I hope is perceived as professional”.
Leon is definitely a professional in today’s world. Many people get the ‘celebrity’ bug and want the whole world to hear their story. He just does his job and makes sure it is done to the best of his ability. Hard-work and dedication pay off and when UFC 89 began, 18th October 2008, it was time to go to work and the first fight Leon got was the first one of the night.
“My first fight was Samy Shavo vs Per Eklund on UFC 89. As this was the very first fight of the night, I had the huge honour of being the very first British ref to officiate in the UFC. It was amazing to make my debut and I had so many messages of support etc. I was real nervous as it was the biggest thing in MMA I had done and I place a lot of pressure on myself”.
Placing a lot of pressure on yourself is something every one can relate to, but Leon did a great job and the UFC liked what he brought to the table. Since then he has gone on to referee many more UFC cards but also work on Strikeforce, Fight UK and more. Working on any show is a privilege but which one has been the best?
“Obviously the UFC has to come first as the show is run like a military operation and everyone knows exactly what they are doing and where they need to be. Burt Watson is the man, nobody runs a show backstage like this man. Everyone listens and respects Burt. Cage rage was the first big show I worked for, reffing some huge names in the sport but for me it is not so much the shows that stick in my mind it is the great fights that take place on those shows that make a promotion memorable”.
He has gone on to see some of the greatest fights in the sport and have the chance to ref some of the bigger names in the sport: Daniel Cormier, Allistar Overeem, Renan Barao, Brad Pickett, Josh Koscheck, Rampage Jackson, Fabricio Werdum and many more all around the world. Which are the best fights he has had the opportunity to referee?
“Wow…tough question to think back over all the bouts I have done. Off the top of my head, the first ever UFC flyweight bout between Demetrious Johnson and Ian McCall in Australia was a crazy fast paced fight, Rampage Jackson against Ryan Bader in Japan as Rampage was so big over there and the comeback from Tim Boetch against Yushin Okami in Japan was awesome. I am sure in time I could give you others that escape my mind at the moment”.
The names listed there are some of the top guys in the sport and the moment and having the chance to referee must have been an experience. Along with refereeing the great names in the sport, Leon also works along side other referee’s who are great at what they do. So who does he see as the toughest referee? Herb Dean has fought before and could be considered the toughest:
“(laughs) Herb Dean is a cool guy but way too relaxed for me to view as a tough guy. Big Dan Miragliotta however is the nicest guy you could want to meet but he could crush you like a grape and I guess Big John McCarthy with all his MMA and police training is a tough guy”.
Along with refereeing the sport, Leon is also a fan. It’s why we all get into the sport and want to help push it forward. Some people make it further, while others are happy to be a fan and discuss it with their friends. Whoever you are though if you take the time to watch the sport you are helping it grow and ultimately have your own personal favourite fighters who you love to watch and Leon is no different when it comes to choosing who he loves to see fight:
“Chuck Liddell, Randy couture and Wanderlei Silva in their prime. At present Joe Lauzon, Jim miller, Matt brown and Cain Velasquez”.
Being involved with MMA leads you to watch great fighters and be part of a special community. For Leon MMA is not all about refereeing on the big stage and seeing big name stars week in, week out. His favourite part of the MMA community will last forever.
“Without a doubt the people I have met, many of who are my closest of friends now”.
One of the best things about life is having your friends around you and having them to guide you throughout life. Something that recently Leon has needed. In October 2012 Leon was diagnosed with testicular cancer. With the right treatment, support and guidance he has recovered. Getting back in the cage at UFC on Fuel TV: Barao vs McDonald, in Wembley this past February. The support he received from everyone connected with the sport will always mean a lot to him:
“I was totally, humbled, overwhelmed and shocked by the response to my illness. I guess cancer is something that we all have been affected by as I am sure we all know people who have been ill with it and so support is often given in a heartfelt way, as it was to me and my family. It also shows what an amazing community the MMA community is. People often don’t understand MMA and perceive us all as animals involved in a brutal sport. What my illness showed was what a caring and supportive bunch of people are involved in the sport”.
“Relaxing for me is time with my wife and kids or chilling with close fiends and their kids. As for the future I will constantly strive to be the best ref i can be, taking care of the fighters under my watch and trying my best to promote the sport I love”.
MMA is constantly growing and everybody involved in the community tries their best to push the sport forward. With people involved like Leon Roberts, we are safe in the knowledge that the future of our great sport will continue and will always have the best looking after the fighters when the cage door shuts and it’s time to fight.
Photo Credit: Chris Boulton - https://www.facebook.com/ChrisBoultonPhotographer
Photo Credit: Leon Roberts
I would also like to take this opportunity to thank Leon for taking the time out to answer my questions and giving me the opportunity to write this article.