MMA: Refereeing in the UFC, what's good and what's bad?

Herb Dean, one of the most respected referees, has made some dubious calls of late

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Herb Dean, one of MMA’s most notorious referees has been the subject of much discussion over the last two months. Dean is regarded as the best in the business and someone that rarely makes mistakes, yet in the eyes of many he has faltered twice recently; both times in UFC Championship bouts. Dean then refereed last night’s UFC main event in Brazil which saw Dan “Hendo” Henderson take on Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, in a rematch of one of the greatest fights in history. Would the recent criticism effect Dean’s judgement inside the Octagon?

At the beginning of February, fan favourite Urijah Faber took part in a rematch against Renan Barao for the UFC Bantamweight title. This was not an immediate rematch. Since their first rematch a year and a half prior, the veteran Faber had gone on a four fight winning streak to earn another shot at the belt. Critics had thought Faber’s best was behind him, but were systematically proven to be incorrect. At 34-years-old, this was maybe Faber’s last shot at the one belt in his career that had thus far eluded him. 

Barao started strong, and on top of Faber seemed to land punch after punch. Herb Dean was refereeing the bout and asked Urijah Faber to “show me something”. Urijah, defending his face with one hand, gave Dean thee thumbs up sign with his other. Dean didn’t see it and decided he’d seen enough. Faber protested. Dean hadn’t seen his signal. 

Weeks later in the Women’s Bantamweight title fight, Dean refereed Ronda Rousey’s title defence against fellow Olympian, Sara McMann. Rousey landed a shot to the liver of McMann, who in term dropped to the mat, holding her abdomen in pain. Her face now unprotected, Rousey began landing, and Dean stepped in. Those that know fight sports know that a liver shot can be paralysing, but only for a split second. McMann would have been less than a second from potentially recovering and continuing with the fight. Was Dean again too fast with his intrusion?

Last night when Dean stepped into the Octagon with two veterans of the sport, he knew his judgement would again be tested. Hendo and Shogun have both been in many wars over the years and sustained damage. At 43 and 32-years-old respectively, and having both been in the sport for well over a decade, would this too play on Dean’s mind? They both however also have reputations for being able to survive difficult situations and their last fight was an all out classic brawl. 

There were certainly situations in rounds one and two where dean could have stopped last night’s fight. Shogun knocked Hendo down twice with punches, once in each round and was dominating the fight. Somehow Hendo survived, thanks in large part to Dean not stopping the fight. In round three, Hendo landed a hard over hand right and put Shogun to sleep. Hendo had showed with one shot why a fight should not be stopped until it absolutely has to be with it never being over until it’s over.

Herb Dean’s performance, in my opinion, had definitely been affected by the last few weeks’ scrutiny. Though he is still the best one of the best referees in all of combat sports, he has shown some fragility and his confidence has undoubtedly taken a knock. 

As a fight fan, I am guilty, along with other of often becoming too emotionally involved in particular bouts. I want the fairest result, with each fighter being given a chance to leave everything they have in the ring/Octagon. It is, after all, not just MMA where refereeing stoppages have been contested recently, but also after the amazing first boxing bout between George Groves and Carl Froch. 

I am one of those who believes in the underdog. I believe Groves would have gone on to win that fight, and that Froch was using up the last of his energy reserves. I believe that Faber would have found a way to figure out Barao and win the fight in the later rounds. Ronda would have, in my opinion, been too good for McMann, but I also believe that it was a good stoppage from Dean as a fighter must always protect their head. 

The truth is that a referee is in an impossible situation. Nobody would argue against the fact that the most important thing is for both fighters to walk away after a fight in good health. Dean and Howard Foster (in the case of Froch Vs. Groves), certainly assured that would be the case. There is another argument though that fighter’s careers and livelihoods are at stake. Fighters devote their lives to their craft and as such should be given every opportunity to excel come fight time. 

It’s an age old question that I don’t have an answer to. As a fan and somebody who knows fighters personally and sees the work they put in, I want fights to continue until it absolutely has to stop. As a human being who is friendly with fighters and their families, I often wish fights were stopped earlier. Only in years to come, will we know the exact significance of letting a fight go on longer than it maybe should. For now, with all of the attention Traumatic Brain Injuries are receiving, it is safe to say that referees, if in doubt, should err on the side of caution. 

Last night Hendo pulled off a miracle win. I hope that in 30 years time, he is able to reflect on it happily and healthily. Fighters enter their field with a knowledge of the risks involved. To an extent, they acknowledge those risks and take them on as part and parcel of their career, and passion. Sometimes, we must make a stand and stop the action before it becomes too harmful. I wish I always knew when that time was. What I do know is that Herb Dean usually does, and I’m glad that  the UFC have him.