Opinion: Herb Dean’s Consistent Inconsistency
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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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Dean really is a good referee. But it’s been a long time since
he’s been the best.
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