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- THANKLESS, THE LIFE OF AN MMA REFEREE

Posted on by MMAWeekly.com Staff

An Editorial by Matt Hill – MMAWeekly.com
(Photo courtesy of April Pishna – PishnaPhotoGallery.com)

Referee extraordinaire Herb Dean has known many titles since becoming involved in the MMA scene. Dean is not only an MMA fighter, but he is also a highly revered referee who has worked for organizations such as: UFC, Pride, and King Of The Cage. Strangely enough, though, Herb may be best known for his controversial stoppages in some of the biggest fights of his officiating career.

Herb has known the most controversy in two particular fights as a referee: The first being Sylvia/Mir, and the second, Shamrock/Ortiz II.

Tim Sylvia contested after his match up with Frank Mir that his terribly shattered arm was fine, and Ken Shamrock said that Dean stepped in before he had a chance to actually “fight” Tito. Ken contested that taking Tito’s elbows was simply a part of his game plan, and that he was relaxing and “letting the bully come.”

With hindsight always being a perfect 20/20, though, many of these debatable stoppages have been found to be legit ones. On more than one occasion, Herb’s stoppages were critical ones in terms of fighters’ safety. The average fan may not see the backstage “thank you” that referees occasionally receive, but believe me, they happen.

Herb’s understanding of MMA from both a training and fighting background help him pick up subtle nuances during a fight that many fans and UFC brass alike overlook.

Dean believes that his actual training in MMA is what affords him to be a more well-rounded referee, in contrast to one that is solely erudite. In an interview with MMAWeekly’s SoundOff Radio, Dean said of his training, “I think it does in a sense…it’s helpful to me. Not the fact that I fight helps me, but the fact that I train [in MMA] helps me…it gives me a sense for feeling out the setups…for standing a fight up or stopping the action. I think that training kind of keeps me up-to-date with what’s gonna go on, you know?”

One of the eagle-eyed stoppages by Dean came at UFC 48, on June 19, 2004. That night, two warriors stepped into the Octagon for the co-main-event with a heavyweight belt up for grabs. These two men were, of course, Tim Sylvia and Frank Mir. A mere 30 seconds into the fight that night, Mir caught Sylvia in a beautiful armbar from his own guard. As Sylvia fought to lessen the pressure from his now bowing arm, his arm suddenly snapped from the tension of the submission hold. Herb immediately bounded in between the two fighters and said to Tim Sylvia, “The fight is over, the fight is over…it’s f*** broke!” Even Dean, a fairly experienced referee couldn’t contain his reaction to hearing Sylvia’s arm snap.

The crowd was stunned, the announcers speechless. UFC management was visibly horrified to think that their co-main-event fight had been stopped prematurely.

It hadn’t been. Fortunately for ‘The Maine-iac,’ Herb Dean doesn’t need hindsight vision; he sees things quite well in real time. As fans booed and Sylvia and his corner protested in disbelief, Dean stood by his call and Mir was awarded the belt as the new heavyweight champion. Fans later came to find out that Sylvia’s arm was indeed broken…in three places, and it took surgery and titanium plates to put Tim’s arm back together.

Dean saved Sylvia’s career that night and he was ridiculed. Nobody ever said that being a referee was easy. Herb one, critics zero.

The other big instance of an apparent ‘early’ stoppage by Dean came when ‘Bitter Rivals’ Ken Shamrock and Tito Ortiz met for a rematch of their UFC 40 bout. Ken vowed to avenge his loss to Ortiz, and Ortiz promised “a beating” was in store for his nemesis Ken Shamrock.

After Dean started the fight, Shamrock rushed across the ring in an attempt to surprise Ortiz with a barrage of punches. Nothing really landed and Shamrock was stuck where he didn’t want to be…in a clinch with Ortiz. After a couple of knees from Ortiz while in the Thai clinch, Tito secured his hold on Shamrock and lifted Ken off of the ground and slammed him onto the Octagon floor. Ortiz worked Ken against the fence and began to unleash fierce elbows. One, two, three, four, five, six unanswered elbows to Ken Shamrock’s face was all Herb Dean needed to see to step in and stop the fight.

But you guessed it. The controversy had only begun.

Shamrock jumped up with his hands raised high as if to say, “What just happened…why did you stop the fight?” Dean said that he felt that Ken couldn’t properly defend himself, and that it was his job to protect the fighters, so he stepped in. Even Hall-of-Famer Randy Couture, color-commentator for the night, said of the stoppage, “I’m not sure why Herb stepped in so quick.”

Herb saw something that wasn’t right with Shamrock so he did his job, he stopped the fight…it’s better that a fight be stopped too early than too late.

This fight doesn’t have the hard evidence ending like in the case of Sylvia’s broken arm, but Shamrock did concede after his third fight with Ortiz that the ending of their second match up likely wouldn’t have changed if the fight had gone on.

It’s a statement by Ken that seems to justify Dean’s stoppage…without Ken actually admitting that it was a good one. In this fight, there was no “thank you” for Herb post-fight, only speculation and frustration. When it came out that there would indeed be a Shamrock/Ortiz III, Ken insisted that the referee be ‘Big’ John McCarthy, a man with more history with Ken Shamrock and more overall UFC experience than Dean. Shamrock was confident that McCarthy wouldn’t stop the bout early, and he didn’t, but after a couple of minutes in the Octagon with Ortiz, Ken didn’t even know when the bout had ended…he was unconscious on the Octagon floor, lying in the same position he was at the end of his and Ortiz’s second fight. Herb two, critics zero.

So what is the moral of this long editorial you may ask?

First of all, being a referee is oftentimes a thankless and difficult job. Secondly, despite what some fans and fighters alike choose to believe, referees are non-partisan and have all fighters’ best interests in mind. And finally, fighters will always have to allow room for human error in a referee…that is, unless your referee is Herb Dean.

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