When I first started watching the UFC obsessively a few years ago, I didn’t know the history, personalities, or politics. I didn’t know that Herb Dean had been one of the most respected referees for years, and widely considered the best in the sport. I just knew that when he was in the cage, I felt like everything would be fine.
Herb just has a calm that is so heavy, it spreads and covers everyone around, even people watching on TV. He looks like he can handle anything, like he can protect the fighters from each other and from themselves.
Herb has been refereeing MMA for 15 years, beginning with King of the Cage in 1999. He reffed his first UFC match in 2004. “Before I started reffing in the UFC,” he said, “I had probably reffed more than anyone I know. I was an MMA nerd. I was willing to drive all day to get to a match.”
I talked to Herb by phone, and I opened the conversation by letting him know that I’d like for him to be my dad (though he is only a year older than I am). He took that as calmly as he takes everything else, and, fortunately, he kept talking to me.
Fightland: You are very popular, and despite some calls recently that had people asking questions, you still seem to have more defenders than detractors. Why do you think you’re so popular?
Herb Dean: I have no idea. This is the only sport where people pay that much attention to the referees. We have a huge influence on what happens in the matches, and there’s just one of us in each match. There’s not that many of us who do high-level matches, so they get used to us. People feel like they know us.
You have gotten some criticism lately for a few calls. Do you ever take it personally?
I’m here to do the best job I can, as my conscience dictates. I believe that this job is a sacred trust. You’re balancing people’s dreams and hopes and aspirations and all the sacrifice they’ve made to get to this point with their safety. There are some severe consequences with injuries in this sport, so I have to be able to sleep with the decisions I make. Comparing that to what people say on a keyboard just doesn’t mean much.
You seem extremely calm in the cage. Did you always feel this way?
I had an initial learning period where I was nervous, where each decision I made, it was my first time making it. I took on the job at first without really thinking all the way through what I was taking on. I think I'm a calm person by nature, but the fact of having made a lot of these decisions, or similar decisions—that makes it easier to be calm now.
There’s always something new, though. I haven’t made my last mistake, but I’ve definitely done a lot of matches. I get together with other referees, and we talk about it, about calls we’ve made or new things we’ve seen.
I heard your explanation of the Barao/Faber stoppage and the Rousey/McMann stoppage. It sounds like you go through a long checklist in your mind to decide whether to stop a fight.
You do have a checklist that you’re working from, and it sounds like a long checklist for a spur-of-the-moment decision. But when you do it a lot, you get used to seeing all these things at once.
The bottom line is, you don’t know what somebody is going through. Both of those decisions were stoppages where they were face down, and that’s more difficult. People go unconscious in those positions. You can’t see their faces. You can’t touch them, or you’d be stopping the fight. People may go out face down still holding a leg and they’re unconscious. You’re trying to look at their whole body because that gives you clues. They’re still holding on to the other guy’s leg, but what is their leg doing. Is there a slight sag? You see one little hint like that, and you have to make a decision.
What do you look for? Is it the same for every fighter? Do you vary it depending on a fighter’s history or do you base it solely on what you’re seeing right then?
We try to do the same thing for every single fighter. And what you’ve seen that person do before, they may not be that person when they step in that day. They may have a cold, or they may have gotten knocked out in training. You can’t base it on what you’ve seen before.
Does it make a difference if it’s a title fight?
In a title fight, in the first round and sometimes in the second round, I give them a little more space to play their game. In the other fights that are only three rounds, I try to speed them up a little, make them stay active.
Does it matter whether there are only 5 seconds left when a fighter is in trouble? Do you try to let a fighter get to the end of the round?
Yeah, the time is something that you want to know. If there’s two seconds left, and you know somebody’s in trouble, they might make it to the end of the round. But if it’s time to stop the fight and there’s one second left, then there’s one second left and you stop the fight.
One example is Kimbo Slice and Big Country. First round, Big Country had him in a crucifix and was giving him lots of punches and they weren’t knocking him out, but it was at the end of the round. Now at the beginning of the next round, he’s gotten him down again, and there are lots of minutes left, so at that point the fight is over.
Has a fighter ever threatened to kick your ass for a call?
Oh, all the time, especially in the beginning. Guys were looking for you in the parking lot after those small fights. I have been attacked in the cage a couple of times in the early days by people who didn’t like that I stopped their fight. And other times by fighters who were unconscious and didn’t realize they aren’t still fighting, that I’m the ref and I’m trying to help them. At one of the King of Cages, one guy shot on me and I had to show him that I have a little bit of guard game.
Most MMA referees make some kind of gesture when they’re introduced. How did you choose your two-fingered salute?
Mine came from years ago. One of the inspectors, his daughter was fighting brain cancer when the sport first got taken over by the athletic commission here in California. She asked me if I would touch my head where her tumor was.
How do you manage being both a referee and a fan?
You can’t just geek out and start cheering. Even sometimes when I’m sitting cage-side, it’s difficult not to cheer when you see something cool happen. You don’t want to look like you’re cheering for one fighter over another. With big matches, if I get to work the match, I’m happy because I get to be part of something really cool happening, be part of history.
But when I get a day off from a big fight, I like that almost as much as working the fight. I get to cheer as much as I want, be with my friends, have a beer.
Who are some of the refs you talk over your job with?
Big John. We’re going to meet today. I’m going to talk to him about judging and refereeing, making sure we’re on the same page, that our referee and judging courses teach the same stuff. We decided we should start working together a bit more. For scoring guidelines on what’s a 10-8 or a 10-9 round, we should use the same video, so we can give people some standards.
Also, there’s definitely a movement. We need a more exact measurement. Every round can’t be 10-9. You could squeak by and get a 10-9. You could totally dominate somebody and get a 10-9. Especially with only three-round fights, you need more variation in there so people get credit for what they’re actually doing. So if we can’t do the half-point system, you might see the scale slide a little bit, you might see a lot more 10-8 rounds.
This is a big sport. We’re not going to this on our own. We have to talk to the state commissions. We’re going to try to get everybody on the same page as far as how to use the scoring system now, but something needs to happen.We’re already working with the California commission. Our commissioner in California, Andy Foster, is already on the MMA board of the ABC that includes people from all over the country and some from around the world.
Refereeing seems like a thankless job. Does if wear on you that if there’s so much public comment about your work? People seem to be very quick to point out anything they think you did wrong.
Not right now. First of all, I think that MMA has the best fans on earth. It’s the best sport, and we have the best fans. We do have some of those other fans, too. But we still have the best.
I think that refereeing usually is a thankless job, but it’s not in this sport, because people do pay attention to when you do a good job. Even when people have had something bad to say about my other stoppages, people are still watching me, and they reach out and tell me that they appreciate the job I did. I think that’s unique. It’s not a thankless job in this sport.
Do you have kids? What do you do when you’re not reffing or judging or training or teaching about MMA?
I have two daughters and a son. My son is 20. My daughters are in high school. I got really lucky. My kids are a lot better than I was. They do what they’re supposed to do. We have a good life here together. We have a lot of fun, spend a lot of time together.
We all like to play guitar, so we’ll sit and jam together. I play whatever, for my enjoyment. Whether it’s jazz, R&B, or rock. I like learning songs.
I like to cook. I like to eat. Right now I’ve been changing how I eat. I used to eat meat every day and then more meat. I’d eat carne asada every day, sometimes more than once a day. Now I only eat fish, and a lot of days I have vegetarian days. I feel good. I feel a lot cleaner. I’ve been enjoying cooking a lot for that—it’s been opening my palate up.
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