The public’s perception of mixed martial arts is largely that it’s a man’s sport. Certainly those who follow the sport more closely know that’s anything but the case.

While there are plenty of female fighters out there trying to make their mark in the cage and reach the same level as Gina Carano or Ronda Rousey, many do not realize that there are also women involved in other aspects of the sport.

One of these women is Michelle Drake-Browning, a veteran martial artist who serves as both a judge and referee for the sport. For those that have followed along with the upstart all-women’s promotion Invicta Fighting Championships, Drake-Browning is a familiar face, having officiated the first three events.

“I was honored and glad to be part of the first three events,” Drake-Browning told The MMA Corner in an exclusive interview. “I would love to keep working with them. The all-female stage is phenomenal.”

Drake-Browning (R) (Invicta)

Having worked in multiple states and officiated at nearly every level of competition, Drake-Browning has witnessed her fair share of issues with how fights are judged and refereed.

“There are inconsistencies because people bring their own point of view into the judging and how they assess each round,” she explained. “If you’re not familiar with the ground game—jiu-jitsu and wrestling—it’s hard to see who has the real advantage. All you are looking at is two guys rolling around on the ground.

“Or even being able to recognize the difference between double underhooks and over/under, and who has the advantage. Otherwise you’re just looking at two guys hugging.”

Although she recognizes the sport is still young and that with time things may improve, the Indiana-based official has a strong viewpoint on how things can be fixed.

“I think another huge problem we have is the qualification of judges,” declared Drake-Browning. “Certain states don’t require certification or training for their officials. There are certain states that mandate that people have to be ABC certified, but for the most part, states just don’t care. They’re just happy to have their events covered. I think there needs to be some sort of mandate to make sure the officials are qualified.

“In order to be a good official, it takes more than just going to training seminar.”

Even with her experience both as a martial artist and as an official, Drake-Browning is human, and as such, mistakes happen. It’s how those mistakes are handled that separates the best from the rest.

“Of course I’m not perfect,” she said with a laugh. “When I make what the crowd perceives as a mistake during the event, I have to blow it off. I can’t think about or dwell on it, otherwise I’m going to overcompensate for it in the next fight. I could call something too soon or too late because I’ve carried it over.

“After the fights or the next day, it bothers me, and I will go back to review the footage and learn from it. There have been several times where I’ve sent footage to Rob Hinds or Herb Dean and asked them to walk through it with me and see what they think I could’ve done differently. I can’t let it upset me; I have to learn from it. At that moment in time, I made the right call.”

Ironically, for a position that is just as evident to the fans as the fighters themselves, Drake-Browning prefers that when an event ends, no one even knows she was in the cage.

“I’ve always said that if I do an event and nobody knows my name afterwards, then I did a good job. If the crowd remembers my name, I must have messed up somewhere and that’s not good,” she joked.

One thing that many fans, fighters and media often forget is the amount of pressure that officials are under while in the cage. It’s easy to sit back and play armchair referee or judge, but Drake-Browning points out that any time the human factor is involved, perfection is impossible.

“What fighters and fans perceive as being screwed, in that moment in the cage, the judges and the referees have their reasons for doing what they do; they are judgment calls,” she proclaimed. “We are sole arbiters, and we have a split-second to make a judgment call. Sometimes it’s the wrong call. Sometimes we look back on the film and say, ‘shit, I missed that.’

“[But] we’re put in the cage to make those split-second decisions. Every referee or judge has the best interest of the fighters at heart. Making a mistake is completely different than screwing a fighter over. At the end of the day, if we are really bad, the commission’s not going to use us. Human error is going to happen. It happens in the NFL. Those referees go through about 20 years of training. And there are a ton of them on the field. With only one person in the cage in a sport this young, of course you’re going to have mistakes.

Drake-Browning (L) (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

“As long as I’m working, the fighters under my care walk out of the cage safely and no fouls were committed under my watch, then I’m happy.”

If her choice of profession weren’t stressful enough as it is, Drake-Browning finds herself as one of the few prominent females in the industry. As such, many of her actions are criticized under a magnifying glass.

“I can say from personal experience that I’ve had to make some very tough calls, and the flack and feedback that I’ve received was simply because I’m female,” she admitted. “The fans will resort to some very mean, sexist comments. We stand out because we are female; we are bigger targets.

“Our criticism is a lot harsher than the males because there are so many of them. We absorb a lot more than our counterparts. The male [referees] might tell you a different story, but until they walk in my shoes and sports bra, they can’t possibly say that we don’t endure more than they do.”

Despite the criticism from being in the public eye, Drake-Browning is forging a path for others in the sport. It may not be her top priority, but she’s not blind to the unique position she’s in.

“As far as being a female and a role model, it’s not something that I take lightly,” she acknowledged. “[But] it’s not something that I go into the cage thinking about. I go into the cage thinking about being a quality official. It just so happens that I’m a female.

“It’s just an added bonus that someday other females may look to me and say, ‘oh, I can do that too.’

Top Photo: Michelle Drake-Browning (center) (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

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The MMA Corner Staff

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  • Jefe

    She is good at her job! And recently moved to Indiana..

  • Robby C.

    “I’ve always said that if I do an event and nobody knows my name afterwards, then I did a good job. If the crowd remembers my name, I must have messed up somewhere and that’s not good.”

    Great quote!