When it comes to rule of law, there is one person within GAMMA’s core team of referees imminently qualified to enforce it – Tommy Santana.
The 34-year-old native of the Dominican Republic is not only well schooled in the rules of MMA, he’s also a practicing lawyer.
“I specialize in international law, immigration and civil law. Not much translation between the two [legal profession and officiating],” Santana says. “But my vocation for the rule of law and legality did influence my desire to become a professional referee.”
Santana has been refereeing at the amateur and professional levels since 2017, initially cutting his teeth in the nascent MMA scene in his home country. He’s worked extremely hard at his craft in the ensuing years, going on to become a GAMMA Certified Referee & Judge, UWMMA Certified Referee & Judge and ABC Trained Referee & Judge. Since 2018 he has also held the position of Executive Director of the MMA Officials Corps. Of Dominican Republic, Vice Chairman of GAMMA’s Referee & Judges Committee since 2019, and various licenses across the United States.
Not bad for a guy who only got into MMA halfway through law school, although he is no stranger to martial arts disciplines, having practiced kickboxing since he was a teenager and earned a brown belt in tae-jiu-ken jiu-jitsu.
“An unfortunate part of my childhood was being bullied and street fighting, and I turned to training kickboxing to vent and to better defend myself at the same time,” he says. “Martial arts came when I was a little older and more economically stable, as I could not afford it growing up and even if I did, my parents did not approve or see the value in it.”
It’s safe to say they would approve of their son’s involvement in MMA now, seeing how far he has come in such a short period. In 2018 he became the first Dominican referee to officiate MMA internationally and in the United States. Testament to his continued rise up the ranks, Santana has officiated in nine countries across four continents with highlight performances at the GAMMA 2019 World Championships, One Championship’s One Hero Series, Titan FC, Fighting Force, GAMMA 2021 European Championships and Combate Global, where he is the premiere referee.
His MMA officiating is all the more impressive considering that he comes from a country not known as a hotbed of martial arts, with far fewer opportunities for someone looking to advance in the profession than in any of the more traditional MMA regions. But Santana is a firm believer that where there’s a will, there’s a way.
“The MMA industry is a very relationship and reference-based business,” he says. “Being from and starting out in Dominican Republic where MMA is still emerging was very challenging as far as getting quality and sanctioned experience. Therefore, branching out, acquiring opportunities and training were very limited. But when you are passionate about something, one always finds a way.”
Asked what advice he would give anyone looking to follow in his footsteps, be it in the Dominican Republic or elsewhere around the globe, Santana suggests starting at square one and then soaking up as much about the sport as possible.
“Be obsessed with the basics, know and trust yourself, seek and take advantage of every opportunity,” he says. “Talk to and pick the brain of every referee more experienced than you as possible, and everything else will fall in place.” That advice stands for women as well as men, whether aiming to become an MMA referee or athlete.
“The emancipation of women is paramount in our new world and sports are not an exception,” he says. “Women are half of the world’s population, and the other half comes from them, so for women to be a part of any movement only elevates the quantity of people involved and interested in our sport, which is desired.”
Having officiated both amateur and professional bouts over the last four years, Santana sees a marked difference in the approach that referees have to take in the ring depending on the skill levels of the athletes.
Above all, Santana says, the amateur level is where competitors require the space to learn the discipline, the sport, and the industry. They require a platform that will foment professionalism and culture and allow them to determine if the sport is for them or not. As the governing body for amateur MMA worldwide, GAMMA works tirelessly on a daily basis to provide all athletes exactly these opportunities.
The growth of MMA over the last couple of decades has been astronomical, and Santana sees the role of GAMMA in developing the amateur side of MMA and being a conduit for young talent as they progress from amateur to professional competition as absolutely critical for the sport.
“Not only is it important, it is crucial in order to best provide the up-and-coming generation of professional athletes to not only have a platform to showcase their abilities, but to filter the ills of the industry to limit its progression and fallout in the following generation as the sport grows,” Santana says.
“MMA is still an infant combat sport as far as time and impact in culture, therefore it is crucial that GAMMA continues to play its role in showcasing the values it instills on how we administer MMA with hopes of it becoming the industry standard.”