The Big Picture: Refereeing the Referees

By Eric Stinton Jul 30, 2020


Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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When Tanner Boser knocked out Raphael Pessoa in the second round at UFC on ESPN 14, it was weird.

Boser crumpled his opponent with a solid left hook to the orbital and proceeded to land 10 unimpeded follow-up shots while Pessoa was on the floor in the fetal position. Commentators Paul Felder and Dan Hardy became less excited and more concerned with each extraneous punch, shouting “Boser’s going to get the finish!” one moment and “It’s over, ref!” the next. A brief silence emanated from both men once referee Herb Dean finally intervened. In retrospect, it sounded a lot like two fighters biting their tongues.

They would extend no such courtesy when Francisco Trinaldo knocked out Jai Herbert four fights later. Less than two minutes into the third round, Trinaldo sent Herbert to the mat with a huge overhand. The fight appeared to be over right then and there, and Dean looked as if he was about to intervene. Trinaldo hesitated, but when he realized the fight was not getting stopped, he whipped a few extra shots directly to Herbert’s head before the fight was stopped. Hardy immediately erupted at the veteran official. Dean defended the stoppage, saying Herbert was actively and intelligently defending himself. Hardy acknowledged that he made a mistake as a commentator by involving himself in a fight’s officiating, but he maintained that the safety of the fighters trumps whatever professional faux pas he may have committed.

Both make valid points. It’s easy to see how a commentator influencing a referee is problematic, especially with so many current and former fighters in the commentating booth. It’s messy enough that they may call fights involving people they know and people with whom they have trained, to say nothing of their undue sway on how viewers perceive fights. Dean was right to point out the confusion that could potentially occur if he or any ref mistook a commentator saying “stop the fight” for a cornerman or a doctor—a risk compounded by the audio clarity of crowd-less fights.

Yet in either of the two instances that upset Hardy, would it really have been so bad if Dean did think a fighter’s corner was trying to stop the fight? If the slippery slope ultimately concludes with the losing fighter taking less damage, maybe it’s worth re-evaluating the exact problem.

Clutching pearls about professionalism in a prize fight is a strange response to what were clearly bad back-to-back decisions from Dean. It’s like thinking the problem with accidentally drone striking a farming village instead of an enemy military base is wrong only if you didn’t file the correct paperwork. Either of Dean’s late stoppages would have been worthy of criticism on their own, but two happening on the same night is pretty indefensible. Dean is one of the most experienced and active high-level referees in the sport; he’s bound to make mistakes sometimes. However, referees, like fighters, are only as good as their recent performances, and some positions are just too important and some mistakes are too consequential to tolerate.

What’s the right response? You could accept that combat sports are inherently dangerous and fighters willingly accept the risks baked into the sport and simply go about your day. You could also brush it off as an innocent error—that’s why pencils have erasers. You could always appeal to a higher authority, like promotional brass or athletic commissions, but we all know how those stories end. Really, the only option is to do something to make the guilty party feel bad. Crowds can boo, but in the absence of fans, there aren’t many people who wield the responsibility to righteously shame someone.

I’m not suggesting that Dean needs to be banned from refereeing altogether or be subjected to some Dantean reciprocal punishment. I’ve written before that referees do thankless work that only gets noticed when it’s done poorly, and nothing has changed about the importance and impossibility of the job. Yet it doesn’t feel right to allow someone in such a critical role to simply get away with a night of incompetence. Hardy is right: These kinds of mistakes can result in serious, life-altering damage.

There needs to be accountability for everyone involved in a fight, from the corners to the referees to the judges. It seems like only the fighters are held to account, and they should be given the most leeway of all. If a fighter misses weight, he forfeits a chunk of his salary to the opponent; maybe if a ref misses the mark, a small chunk of his salary can be siphoned over to the recipient of his bad judgment. That might be extreme and ill-conceived—rarely am I in favor of authorities putting their hands in people’s pockets—but it’s still a whole lot better than shrugging off unnecessary brain damage as something we just have to learn to live with.

Eric Stinton is a writer from Kailua, Hawaii. His fiction, nonfiction and journalism have appeared in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat, Medium and Vice Sports, among others. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint, or find his work at ericstinton.com. Advertisement

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