MMA referee Joe Coca talks to FightBookMMA about being a ref here in the Land of Enchantment

FightBookMMA CEO Roberto Villa here. I had the pleasure to sit down and talk to one of my favorite refs here in New Mexico and I have a few favorites which I will talk to soon. As many of you know FightBookMMA is based out of Albuquerque, NM the “fight town” where a lot of fighters come and train.

We’ve covered a lot of events and interviewed a lot of fighters in the New Mexico and El Paso, TX area. Today I was able to talk to ex-MMA fighter and now referee Joe “Bazookka” Coca. Check out the interview below. 

Roberto: Joe thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. Tell us a bit about yourself?

Joe: I was born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I’m 28 years old. I’ve been involved in combat sports since I was 15. I was a professional fighter from the time that I was 17 until I was 21. I have been a licensed referee and judge for mixed martial arts for 6 years now with two athletic commissions here in New Mexico. I have a master’s degree in accounting and I am a financial advisor full-time when I’m not breaking up fist fights.

Roberto: So what made you decide to become a ref?

Joe: I didn’t really decide. I was taking a class with Tom King at UNM when I was about 22 years old. He was the chairman of the athletic commission at the time. He knew about my past in fighting and that I was retired and asked if I would like a job as a judge. A few months after judging he comes to me and says “Hey you told me you never wanted to ref right?” I told him “Hell no I never told you that.” The rest is history.

Roberto: That’s awesome. So where do you currently train at?

Joe: FIT NHB will always be a second home to me. I don’t currently train because I have a torn retina in my right eye that I need to get repaired before I can take any impact to the head.

Roberto: FIT NHB have some killers and up-in-comers. And I hope you get that eye taken care of soon. What is the best and worst part about being a ref?

Joe: The best part about being a ref is that you have the best seat in the house. MMA has been a huge part of my life for such a long time and reffing keeps me involved in the scene without having to get beat up. It’s a very cool job and I would do it for free. I would say the worst part is the pressure. Reffing is like fighting to me in the sense that before I ref a higher profile fight I think of all of the different outcomes and naturally think of all the different ways I could Fuck this fight up. When a judge makes a bad call no one in the crowd sees that judge. When a ref makes a bad call he is front and center to the booing.

Roberto: Yeah man I can totally see that, I hear the booing all the time when I cover events or even on TV but you always have to respect the refs decision. What’s the type of training you need to become a ref?

Joe: I have gone through several different trainings to become a ref but the best credentialed refs have a certification from the Association of Boxing Commissions. Aside from that the best training that prepared me for reffing was fighting as a professional for several years.

Roberto: Right on. What’s the worst injury you’ve seen?

Joe: Awe man that’s a tough one. But THE worst one I have seen was at a King of the Cage event. I was the second ref and this happened to not be my fight so I was watching cage side. (Brace yourself this is gonna be a long one). These two fighters, couldn’t have been any bigger than 125ers get into the cage and square off and are hyped and ready to rip each other’s heads off. The fight probably only lasted 2 minutes but it was 2 minutes of these guys beating the crap out of each other. One of them gets hit with a vicious knee square in the face and begins pouring blood from his nose. The ref calls a stop to the action which looks funny from the outside because you wouldn’t normally stop a fight for a bloody nose. The ref calls in the doctor to take a look at the fighter with the injury and from the outside it looks like the fighter sprays the doctor’s shirt with blood. Well what happened was the knee was so vicious that it had put a hole in the fighter’s nose and when he blew his nose next to the doctor blood was actually spraying out of the hole in the bridge of his nose. These guys were amateurs.

Roberto: Damn that would’ve been awesome to see. What’s your most memorable fight you’ve reffed in?

Joe: The one that stands out to me was Ray Borg vs. Nick Urso in the Legacy Fighting Championship. I have so much respect and a good rapport with both of these fighters. This one stands out because there was so much local hype behind this fight. Both fighters fought with such ferocity in the fight because they knew what the implications of the fight could mean as a step toward the bigger show. This was Ray Borg’s last fight before signing with the UFC and climbing the ranks to eventually fight for the title.

Roberto: Yeah I remember that fight. What’s the biggest event that you reffed?

Joe: I reffed the Bellator a few times. That was probably the biggest. I got the privilege of reffing Legacy which was another notable one. Still waiting on the UFC.

Roberto: Bellator and Legacy right on two of many of my favorite promotions to follow. Alright Joe I’m going to ask you three rapid questions I always do during my interviews.

1.) What’s your favorite food?

Mom’s spaghetti

2.) Who’s your Celebrity or MMA crush?

Paige VanZant

3.) Favorite type of music.

Literally anything but country.

Roberto: Yeah I’m with you on the no country. I noticed that you have a record of 7-1 in MMA, do you ever get the itch to come back and fight again?

Joe: Yes and no. I think I’d have a bigger itch if I wasn’t a ref. Reffing allows me to play a huge role without the toll that it takes on the body. I still have injuries that I deal with from fighting and I didn’t have an extensive career. Plus, I work a white-collar job now and talking with little old ladies with a black eye is frowned upon in the office.

Roberto: Yeah I had to stop fighting because I hurt my knee and my back so I know the feeling. And that’s funny I don’t think they will see you as serious as they should. So how did you get the nickname “Bazookka”

Joe: Lafayette Barela was a teammate of mine at FIT. He called me Bazookka Joe one day at practice and it stuck.

Roberto: Nice. So during a fight, what do you look for when the fight is going on as far making the decision to stop the fight and when to reset the fight?

Joe: This is the toughest part. I think there’s a fine line between stopping a fight too early and stopping a fight too late. This is why I think the best refs in the fight game have had experience training in combat sports. There are key subtleties that will tell you whether a fighter is out cold or if they just had a flash knockdown. Those that can tell the difference consistently are the “good refs.” As far as resetting a fight, I warn my fighters in the rules meeting and let them know that I am big on action. Again, a ref who has had formal fight training knows the difference between lay and pray and significant damage or submission attempts.

Roberto: Does it make a difference if it’s a title fight or the main event?

Joe: I would say it does make a difference. As a ref you recognize that the fighters in a title fight or the main event are there for a reason. They more than likely have a larger skill set and are more equipped to escape from a shitty situation than a less skilled fighter. This is where that fine line becomes even thinner.

Roberto: So how do you manage being both a referee and a fan?

Joe: Calling me a fan is an understatement. I am truly passionate about this sport and poured my blood, sweat and tears into it. There are fighters that I ref who I love to watch fight. But the safety and remaining objective 100% of the time is my sole purpose in the cage. If I were anything otherwise it would be a disservice to the sport.

Roberto: Are there any promotions you would like to ref in the near future?

Joe: The UFC…call me.

Roberto: That would be awesome to see you reffing in a UFC card. Are there any refs that you look up to either in MMA or in other combat sports?

Joe: If you’ve made it to the UFC you’re a badass ref in my opinion. I respect all of those guys so much and I love watching them and taking bits of their styles when I like what I see.

Roberto: Any fighters you follow close here in the local scene or have a favorite fighter?

Joe: This is another tough one. But from the first time I reffed Harvey Park out of Clovis, NM I’ve been telling people to look out for this guy.

Roberto: I had the pleasure interviewing Harvey and watch him fight and yeah he’s a badass. Any goals you want to accomplish before the end of year?

Joe: To get into the UFC cage…call me.

Roberto: Joe thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me its been a pleasure and I hope before the end of year the UFC calls you. Do you have any sponsors or anyone you would like to shout out the floor is yours.

Joe: My mom is my hero so thanks mom. Thank you to my brother Lorenzo Coca for getting me involved in combat sports. Thank you to Tom and Arlene Vaughn at FIT NHB, they were second parents of mine for years. Thank you New Mexico State Athletic Commission and Pueblo of Pojoaque Athletic Commission for allowing me to ref and thanks to FightBookMMA for having me.