Dear Roxy – ‘What exactly do refs tell you in the back before a fight?’

Roxanne Modafferi is back in the hot seat for another edition of Dear Roxy, the advice column where the ‘Happy Warrior’ goes toe-to-toe-with questions…

By: Roxanne Modafferi | 12 months ago
Dear Roxy – ‘What exactly do refs tell you in the back before a fight?’
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

Roxanne Modafferi is back in the hot seat for another edition of Dear Roxy, the advice column where the ‘Happy Warrior’ goes toe-to-toe-with questions about fighting, training, and life in general.

Last week we talked about the future of women’s MMA and the new waves of athletes looking to make their name in the sport. We also talked fighting without the aid of glasses or contacts and why that may not be the biggest deal in the world. The column wrapped up with a detailed look at the kind of fight week prep that fans don’t get to see, beyond the saunas and the salt baths.

This time around, Roxy is diving in on the stresses of being a competitive fighter and how they do (and don’t) set someone up to better handle the stress of day-to-day life. We’ve also got questions about unique training experiences overseas and what referees are really going through with their pre-fight instruction. And we’re wrapping the whole thing up with some more details about corner instruction and interactions between fighters and their coaches.

Dear Roxy,

“How do the stresses of being a fighter compare to the normal stresses of living that everyone experiences? Does trying to beat the s*** out of people while they try to do the same to you make it easier to not feel as affected by things like your car breaking down or having to do chores?” — From OutsideMammoth

Dear Outside Mammoth,

Doing martial arts gives you fast problem solving skills, and the ability to find creative solutions. We have to make split-moment decisions on actions to not get beat up, choked out, or joint locked. With that in mind, I find myself able to readily and calmly handle issues that come up in my life. In regards to stress level, each life problem brings it’s own individual stress. Getting punched is just physical pain. Having a job interview or first date has totally different significances in our lives, and I feel totally nervous for them. Having my car break down SUCKS just as much as the next person, but I won’t sit and mope about it. I’ll efficiently take steps to begin the repair process without even making a mental effort.

I will say that leading up to my wedding, people are asking me if I’m nervous. I tell them, “No way! In this major event, I do not have to fight another woman for my man’s hand in marriage. I’m guaranteed a win! It’s the best!”

Dear Roxy,

“What was your most unique experience training in a foreign country?” — Guacamolito

Mizugaki scans the room for signs of equine life.
Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Dear Guacamolito,

Here’s one funny story off the top of my head. I love vegetables and I include them when I pack a lunch. My mom likes to munch down raw, peeled carrots, and I follow the same habit. Japanese carrots are way more delicious than American ones! They are also really short and fat, with skin that’s thin, not bitter, and doesn’t need to be peeled.

Why am I talking about carrots? Because one day after pro practice in GroundSlam Japan in 2012, I took out my Tupperware filled with my lunch of chicken and rice, followed by my large raw carrot. Japanese teammates were was sitting around, stretching and chilling. Then, *crunch crunch chomp chomp.* I was pretty loud. Everyone kinda slowly looked over at me. A teammate, former UFC bantamweight Takeya Mizugaki in particular stared at me.

“Wow! Wow!” he exclaimed. “What?” I said with my mouth full of carrot. “You look like a horse!” he exclaimed, taking out his phone. “Can I take a picture?”

I laughed, nearly spraying carrot bits everywhere. A horse? It wasn’t even insulting because it was true. I was munching away, although Americans probably would have said “rabbit.” I let him take a picture and post it on Instagram. The caption read, “The American Roxanne eating a raw carrot after practice!” Apparently that’s odd in Japan.

Dear Roxy,

“What exactly do refs tell you in the back before a fight? Is it a totally canned speech, or does it vary depending on who you/your opponent/the ref are?” — golmgirlAl

Dear golmgirlAl,

Fighters all know the rules—except sometimes minor things are different depending on the states. The referees are required to remind us about certain aspects of the Unified Rules which may have been changed recently, or are often confused.

Referee Jason Herzog came in to do a briefing and snapped a pic of me talking to my cornermen, gently poking fun at my gestures. Jan 2020
Jason Herzog

For example, the definition of a “downed” fighter was different depending on the state for a while. Previously, if you were touching the ground with one hand, whether it be your fingers or entire hand, you were considered “grounded” due to more than just your feet being on the ground. No kicks or knees to the head were allowed. Then, the rule got changed to your entire palm having to be flat on the floor in order for you to be considered grounded. Otherwise, if you brushed your fingertip on the mat, your opponent could legally knee you in the head because you were ‘playing games’ with the rules.

Refs always explained that, demonstrated, and also described what counted as the back of the head, ensuring fighters didn’t get disqualified due to the illegal shot. The refs asked us if we had any questions, giving us the opportunity to speak. They made sure we had a translator if the fighter didn’t speak English.

Dear Roxy,

I rarely see fighters come back to a corner in between rounds and say ‘I’m having trouble with these 2 or 3 things how can we solve them?’ It seems it is usually, but not always, a one way street from coach to fighter. How come more fighters don’t give input when they come back to the corner? — ColinMartyr

Roxanne Modafferi listens to her corner between rounds.
Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Dear ColinMartyr,

That’s because our mind is reeling from the violence of the fight and we are trying to catch our breath. Lots of fighters are too busy trying to physically recover to have an actual conversation. Normally, the coach has experience with the fighter and knows what they can say and how to say it to best help. We fighters expect our cornerman to be analyzing the match and give us new tips when we get back to the corner. I shouldn’t need to say, “Hey, this isn’t working” because they can see that.

However, you are onto something there. It would be helpful if fighters told their cornerman that they are injured so the coach can adapt the gameplan. Except if they admit it, the fight could be stopped.

For me, I don’t like strategy and wordy advice in my corner. I want my coach to say what combinations I should try next and leave it at that. I get confused if they try to have a conversation with me. It’s like being underwater and having someone above mutter down at me. I’ve run into cornering problems in the past so I make sure that I tell my coaches beforehand what I need.

One time during my career I came back to the stool and listened to paragraphs of advice. I managed to interrupt him. “Shout more combos!” I gasped. He looked at me funny, and I immediately felt embarrassed. I shouldn’t need him to shout combos. I’m supposed to know how to fight. I’m pathetic. Later, after I lost the fight, I thought, “No, I was correct to say that. My mind went blank, and it’s literally his job to help me.’”

Everyone’s mind works differently.

If you’d like to submit your own questions for ‘Dear Roxy’ feel free to email me at, with the subject line “Dear Roxy”, or reach out on twitter @RoxyFighter with the hashtag #DearRoxy. Or simply leave your questions in a comment below on Bloody Elbow. Look forward to hearing from you all soon.

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About the author
Roxanne Modafferi
Roxanne Modafferi

Roxanne Modafferi is a former UFC fighter with 19 years of MMA experience. She’s fought for titles in the UFC, Strikeforce, and Invicta. A jiujitsu blackbelt, she teaches jiujitsu at the gym, and English in the classroom. Roxanne has self-published three books in addition to contributing articles for this site. In her free time, she watches anime and plays video games (Twisted Metal, Skyrim, etc).

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