A CORK man has just set a new milestone in Irish Mixed Martial Arts.
Derek Hickey, from Cork city, has become the first Irish person to officiate at a Bellator MMA event.
Bellator is one of the biggest and most prestigious fight promotions in the world, and it rolled into the 3Arena in Dublin on Saturday, February 25. The internationally-televised card featured the championship title clash of Yaroslav Amosov and Logan Storley. Audiences on the BBC iPlayer in the UK, Showtime in the US plus Virgin Media here in Ireland also watched a stacked card featuring rising and established Irish talent including Peter Queally, Sinead Kavanagh, Ciaran Clarke and more.
“I had been invited to two previous Bellator Dublin events last year by the [commissioning authority] Mohegan Tribe president Mike Mazzuli. During those events we spoke about my career to date as an official, and I was given an opportunity to work as a judge for this Bellator event in Dublin."
The road to top-level officiating stretches back almost a decade for the Irish man. He took part in his first judging and refereeing seminar in 2014 with internationally-renowned referee Marc Goddard - a familiar face to many fans of the UFC. He has since judged and reffed at hundreds of MMA events, both professional and amateur, from small venues in Ireland to huge international shows across the world.
He was chosen to judge on the first-ever MMA event in France, the MMA Grand Prix, in Paris, in October 2020; and his refereeing journey has so far seen him take to the cage in the UK, Bahrain, Bulgaria, Luxembourg, Prague, Abu Dhabi, Romania, Thailand, Tajikistan and Italy. His involvement in MMA started 13 years ago at SBG Cork City, under head coach Liam Óg Griffin. He started training because he was a big fan of MMA, which was relatively new at the time and got involved in officiating to learn more about the sport.
He started refereeing novice bouts with MMA Leagues, before completing an international officials course in Belfast in 2016 under the auspices of the International Mixed Martial Arts Federation, the international governing body for the fast-growing sport.
“My journey as a referee was never planned, it was something I learned just to educate myself on the rules, and then I began reffing the MMA Leagues to help out. The journey just spiralled from there to where I am now."
What has turned out to be a long-serving role as an IMMAF official kicked off in 2017, and Derek has judged and reffed at some 17 of their tournaments across the globe, including five world championships - the most completed by any official.
Back in Ireland, Hickey now serves as the head official at the Irish Mixed Martial Arts Association. He is the person ultimately in charge of ensuring fair fights are officiated by a well-trained panel of judges and referees in this country, ranging from youth amateur bouts for national titles to high-level amateur and professional bouts at regional promotions such as Premier Fighting Championship and Cage Legacy.
What is the most important part of his job in the cage?
"We don’t have multiple camera angles, slow motion or replay facilities. We rely on our instinct, knowledge and experience to make decisions in the best interest of the fighters.”
MMA is one of the fastest-growing sports in Ireland, and IMMAA is working hard on a path to official government recognition for it.
This explosion in popularity means Hickey has spent many long days travelling to venues the length and breadth of Ireland, as he has refereed on every domestic promotion, both in Northern Ireland and in the Republic, over the last seven years.
In 2019 he scooped the IMMAF Referee of the Year award from Marc Goddard, who serves as the director of regulatory affairs; and last year he became the first ever Irish official to be awarded a National A license by the IMMAA board.
The step up to top-flight officiating at Bellator last week is just the latest milestone. He will next take charge of the cage at the IMMAA National Championships, which take place in Dublin later this month.
He has also just signed as a judge with the Professional Fighters League (PFL) Europe, which begins in Newcastle on March 25th, with events in Germany, France and the finals in the 3Arena, Dublin, on December 8.
Derek will also be in the official's chair when Bellator returns to Dublin in September.
“It has been great to finally see the last nine years of work be recognised, and show that I am good enough to work at the top level of this sport with some of the best officials on the planet."