TXMMA – Texas Mixed Martial Arts

Texas MMA Perspective: In-Depth Interview with Michelle Drake Browning – The First Female Referee in Texas

SAN ANTONIO, TX, July 11, 2011 – Stop if you’ve heard this statement before in MMA. “Why in the world did that referee stop the fight so early?” or “What was that judge thinking? There’s NO WAY that fight was 30-28!”

In the sport of Mixed Martial Arts, we here statements like those above voiced all the time and not often expressed in such civil words. From your average to hardcore fan here in Texas to the upper reaches of the sport with personalities such as UFC president Dana White, officiating in MMA remains a hot button topic yet few people have heard the viewpoints of the officials themselves unless its’ one defending against a firestorm of controversy.

Today we aim to change all that as we share this conversation with Michelle Drake Browning.

Chances are you will be unfamiliar with Michelle but she is quite the trailblazer as the very first female referee in the entire state of Texas and only the fourth female referee in the entire country.

Speaking to TXMMA.com in between assignments for the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, Michelle gives a vantage point rarely shared in our Texas MMA scene. We hope you enjoy her insight.

Michelle, thanks for taking this interview with TXMMA.com. How did you get into the world of MMA? Have you always been a fan of the sport?

Michelle with UFC 136 (Houston) Participant Chael Sonnen

You know what, no? I’ve been in martial arts for almost a decade but honestly, the very first MMA fight I saw was back when Tapout had their reality series. This one kid had another kid in an armbar and everyone was yelling, “Break off his arm! Chop it off!” and I was absolutely disgusted by it. I thought I wanted nothing to do with the sport until I saw Dan Henderson coaching against Michael Bisping on Season 5 of TUF. It piqued my interest so I started watching and it was my daughter that pointed out that this was the sport I originally didn’t like to watch. I learned more about it and I’ve been hooked ever since. I’ve become a student of MMA and it just kind of evolved from there.

What drew you to want to participate in it as more than just a fan?

I guess it’s my normal competitive spirit. I don’t like sitting on the sidelines and I hate just watching. I wanted to be involved and be a part of the action but I’m too old and too broken to be a fighter so I just decided to do the next best thing and get into judges and being a referee.

I’m told you are the first female referee in the state of Texas. How did that come about?

Actually, at first I wanted to be a cutman. For whatever reason, it just didn’t work out. For a long-time, I’ve been a certified referee with the USA Taekwondo Association so I loved refereeing and judging but I wasn’t sure if I could do it because I saw were the dudes in there, like Big John, Yves Lavigne, and those guys. But one day, I was watching a WEC fight and I saw Kim Winslow (1st female referee in the history of the UFC). Seeing her in there, I thought, “If there’s already a chick in there doing it, there’s no way I can’t,” so I contacted her about a year-and-a-half ago. She guided me on what to do and who to contact. I actually didn’t even know I was the first female ref in Texas until about two weeks ago.

Has there been any pushback or negative sentiments from fighters or anyone else regarding having a female official in the cage from what you’ve seen so far?

Actually, there’s hasn’t been anything negative at all. Granted I’ve only been doing this for a short time but from what I’ve experienced, the fighters have been very receptive to having a woman in there. I haven’t been exposed to or experienced any sexist comments or anything like that.

What do you think it takes to be a good referee?

Michelle's First Event as a Referee

You have to know what is going in there. You absolutely cannot lack in your knowledge. You have to know the standup game and you really need to know the intricacies of the ground game. That is 99% of the factor of being a good referee and also being a good judge. The rest of it is that you have to know the rules frontwards and backwards. Of course, there is a whole litany of other variables as well. You have to be able to think on your feet and you have to maintain good critical thinking skills. You also have to be able to see what is happening at the moment and kind of foresee what might happen next. Otherwise, the main thing of it is that you have to know what you are looking at and seeing.

Do you have any memorable moments as an official?

Besides getting blood splattered on my face? <laughs>

Who are some of the biggest names you’ve worked with or look forward to working with in this industry?

As far as officials, I’d have to say Herb Dean. He’s my mentor and I went to his referee school and got my certification through him. I’ve actually worked with him twice since he’s the head official for King of the Cage. I’ve been to a few of those events with him. Cecil Peoples is another gentleman that’s kind of taken me under his wing a little bit with his trivia and trying to keep me on my toes. He’s a great help. Doc Hamilton, I spent some time training with him also. As far as my main #1 person I want to work with… it’s Kim Winslow. We email each other all the time but I definitely would love to work with her. I give her the credit for me being here.

What would you like to see as your future in the sport and the future of MMA in general?

For the future of MMA in general, we have to get more qualified referees and judges out there. That’s the big buzz/catchphrase that’s going on right now and it could not be any truer. Some of the referees and judges that we have right now come from a boxing-based knowledge which is great for the standup but as soon as it goes to the ground, they don’t know what they’re watching and the intricacies of what’s going on. We really have to focus on getting more individuals into this side of the sport that know what they’re looking at and what they’re seeing so they know what’s happening.

As far as my own future in the sport, I want to get as much experience as I can wherever I can get it. I’m not picky; I just want to get in there. If I never see the inside of the UFC octagon, that’s fine. Of course I’d love to get in there, who wouldn’t want to be a UFC PPV as an official, but I just want to be there learning and growing and helping the sport. Hopefully one day, after I get at least five years of experience, I’d like to open up my own referee school to help push this aspect of the sport even further forward.

Anybody you’d like to acknowledge that’s helped you on your journey so far?

L-R: Herb Dean, Michelle Drake Browning, Cecil Peoples

Absolutely. If it wasn’t for Kim Winslow, I absolutely would not be here. If I hadn’t seen her on TV, I wouldn’t have even considered this path. And had she not told me where to do and what I needed to do, I certainly wouldn’t have a path to take. And then of course Herb Dean for teaching me how to be a good referee and Doc Hamilton for his teachings as well.

Any last thoughts for our readers and MMA fans out there?

I guess just to cut us some slack. Believe it or not, sometimes we know what we’re doing! <laughs> I say that facetiously. I know sometimes bad decisions are made and bad calls are made but at the end of the day, we have a vantage point that the fans don’t have. Sometimes, the fans or even the people two or three feet away from the cage don’t necessarily see what we see so just keep that in mind. As far as the fans, I think this sport is wonderful. Across the sport, MMA has the best fans in the world. If a hockey or baseball team loses, there’s rioting in the streets. If somebody’s favorite fighter loses, I don’t see any of that. The majority of MMA fans are martial artists in spirit so that’s what is so awesome about this sport.

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