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When asked who the best referee in mixed martial arts is, fans and media usually name one of three different men.
“Big” John McCarthy is the most famous, long-tenured, outspoken referee in the game. He also has the most high-profile certification course for MMA officials and is the most willing to answer Twitter questions about how the sport’s rules work. Hell, he’s even stepped up to help a fighter get one of his bad calls overturned. Yes, McCarthy rubs some people the wrong way, and he’s made some strangely contradictory calls, but he’s more of a presence than anyone else and is the first person fans will think of among referees, much less pick the best one.
A lot of the most hardcore fans and media members, especially those who relish watching overseas cards on UFC Fight Pass, may pick Marc Goddard. He’s authoritative and his style of talking to the fighters very loudly is easy to notice on TV, so he jumps out in a way that other don’t. On top of that, he’s so respected that there was widespread outrage when the Nevada Athletic Commission treated him as some random nobody applying for a license when he applied to work in the state last year.
As good (and loud) as Goddard is, though, and as recognizable as McCarthy is, the default answer is Herb Dean. Dean is, in fact, a great referee. His case with fans is helped by the long period where McCarthy was exiled from both the Ultimate Fighting Championship and Nevada, which coincided with much of the UFC’s growth. As a result, he was the most visibly solid referee in the sport. Even Dana White has heaped praise upon him, including calling him “the best referee ever in mixed martial arts,” in a 2010 video interview.
In 2016, though? It’s little more than just conventional wisdom.
There have been complaints about Dean before, but he had one of his strangest calls at UFC Fight Night: Whitaker vs. Brunson this past weekend, where he was the only non-Australian referee flown in. We’ve become conditioned to expect weird and outright bad refereeing in the Land Down Under and Dean didn’t disappoint in that sense. As the clock was ticking down at the close of the third round of Daniel Kelly vs. Chris Camozzi, Kelly had Camozzi in back side control and was throwing unanswered punches. Kelly, the announcers, and the fans (both at home and at Rod Laver Arena) didn’t hear the horn. Dean stepped in and waved his arms as if calling the fight off by TKO. The crowd exploded and it looked like Kelly had finished Camozzi at the last second.
Then Fox Sports 1 came back from commercial. The time was up, even though Dean signaled for a TKO instead of just separating the fighters, and Kelly clearly thought he had just gotten a finish. Thankfully, he won the decision, because it would have been really awkward if he hadn’t.
Even if Dean didn’t actually call a TKO only to change his mind (and realistically, he probably didn’t), that’s part of the problem. He stepped in by using the universal signal for a stoppage instead of just separating the fighters when time was up. It’s the type of thing that has become a pattern for Dean, a mix of indecisiveness and a seeming lack of awareness of how fighters perceive his actions.
One of the most infamous instances of this came earlier this year when Michael Bisping lost his mouthpiece during his fight with Anderson Silva. Dean was aware of what was happening and did the right thing, waiting for a break in the action before he would consider stepping in. From there, you probably remember what happened: Bisping lost his focus and got dropped with a flying knee as the round ended. And while Bisping should have kept his cool, it’s understandable to a point why he got distracted: Instead of just telling him to keep fighting, Dean started moving towards him, creating the impression he was about to step in. Usually, referees stay put when they give the “keep fighting!” type of instruction to fighters who are expecting a timeout.
Dean’s consistent inconsistency can probably be traced back to the main event of UFC 166’s Cain Velasquez vs. Junior dos Santos 3. While Dos Santos occasionally landed some hard shots, he was brutalized for most of the fight, especially in the clinch. It became clear he wasn’t going to win the fight, but there was no real “stoppage” moment until shortly after a knockdown in the third round. Dean stepped in, put his hand on Velasquez, whose corner started celebrating, and then...nothing. Dean and pulled back, changing his mind. Velasquez later said he didn’t even notice.
It was at that point that Herb Dean’s most defining trait became that he didn’t appear to have a clear dividing line of what he felt warranted a stoppage. It was most visible at back-to-back UFC pay-per-views, UFC 169 (Renan Barao vs. Urijah Faber II) and UFC 170 (Ronda Rousey vs Sara McMann), where he was criticized for stopping the main events too early. While both were defensible stoppages in their own way, it was problematic that the undercard of UFC 170 saw one of the worst late stoppages of his career, when Mike Pyle spent what felt like several minutes bludgeoning a barely conscious T.J. Waldburger with elbows from full mount. One of the talking points coming out of the card was if Dean was quick on the main event stoppage because he felt guilty about what happened to Waldburger.
This isn’t all to say that Dean is a bad referee. Hell, both McCarthy and Goddard each have some pretty egregious late stoppages in the last couple years. But neither of them have, for example, tried to defend a late stoppage by saying they thought the round had less time remaining than it actually did (as he had for Luke Rockhold’s win over Chris Weidman). They don’t flip-flop on what’s worthy of waving off a fight as often as he does. And they certainly don’t confuse fighters with weird body language as often as he does.
Herb Dean really is a good referee. But it’s been a long time since he’s been the best.