It probably doesn’t surprise either of my regular readers that I’ve pretty much been a martial arts fanatic for most of my life. First came professional wrestling (which, choreographed or not, still seems like a pretty dynamic fight to a six-year-old), followed soon thereafter by the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and movies like Sidekicks, 3 Ninjas and Magic Kid. I then discovered irony right about the same time my parents started letting me watch R-rated movies, the result of which was a lengthy stretch where I watched every Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme film I could find at my local Hollywood Video.

Included on the video store shelves among the ’90s “classics” like Out for Justice and Double Impact were copies of old UFC events. Bear in mind that this was probably around the year 2000, so the UFC and no-holds-barred fighting in general were still fairly recent—and still widely reviled—additions to America’s sporting landscape, so the company was still relying on the brutality of its product to draw in fans. Knowing next to nothing from a practical standpoint about martial arts and expecting the sort of unbridled fisticuffs commonly seen in martial-arts cinema, I decided to see what this UFC thing was all about.

While those early cards did offer their fair share of violence, I was intrigued when the most successful person in the UFC’s first handful of tournaments ended up being this smallish guy wearing a gi who would tackle his opponents, roll around for a few minutes and then somehow, without using the sort of devastating strikes common in the movies I had been watching, coax a submission from the man struggling helplessly underneath him. Of course, that smallish guy wearing a gi was Royce Gracie, the embodiment of the sea change that would soon transform martial arts and eventually give rise to a new, TV-ready spectator sport.

As high school went on, my focus began to shift away from all things combative, and so the attention I paid to the newly branded sport of mixed martial arts was kept to a minimum. My next significant exposure didn’t come until the summer of 2005, a period of time when MMA was just beginning to gain more mainstream exposure as a result of the success of The Ultimate Fighter (and, specifically, the barnburner that was Forrest Griffin vs. Stephan Bonnar). Laying on my couch one humid July night, I saw an ad on television for some DVD collection of regional fight highlights. The fight clips essentially boiled down to five-second excerpts of fighters executing head stomps and soccer kicks on one another to the cheesy accompaniment of Adam West-era Batman sound effects and *THWACK* graphics added for emphasis.

Needless to say, this did not endear me to MMA, despite my history of martial arts fandom.

It wasn’t until one day a few months later that a friend of mine introduced me to Pride Fighting Championships. The conversation started like many I’ve since had with MMA neophytes:

Him: Are you into mixed martial arts at all?

Me: Is that the thing where dudes just stomp on each other until one of them gives up?

Him: Sort of. It’s more like this…

My friend then went on to explain the rules that had long since been adopted by the UFC, Pride FC and other MMA organizations of the era. Specifically, he explained that along with knockouts and submissions, the referees in MMA bouts are tasked with stopping a fight as soon as one fighter is not intelligently defending himself.

This concept of “intelligent defense” was new to me, and probably remains somewhat foreign to fans who don’t know much about MMA. The way my friend explained it, once a fighter is basically just taking undefended punches and kicks, it falls to the referee to step in and prevent any further damage from being done. He then showed me a bunch of different clips from Pride FC to illustrate his point, with the venerable Yuji Shimada serving as the exemplar. Armed with the knowledge that the world’s premier MMA promotions were not simply allowing their fighters to beat one another into bloody pulps, I allowed the suppressed martial arts fanatic in me spring to life once more and dove head-first into the world of MMA.

In the years that followed, I learned that the strongest puncher doesn’t necessarily equate to the best fighter, and an increased understanding of the mechanics of jiu-jitsu cleared up any confusion regarding Gracie’s early UFC success. In the hundreds of fights I’ve watched in since 2006, I’ve also seen MMA referees correctly stop fights about 95 percent of the time it became necessary for them to do so. In each of those instances, the aggressor had landed a number of direct, unanswered blows to his opponent, rendering the opponent unable to defend himself and necessitating the referee’s intervention.

Of course, there’s also the five percent of referee interventions that go wrong. Either the referee will stop a fight too quickly and face the protestations of a defeated athlete still in fight mode or the referee will allow a fight to go a bit too long, leaving a defenseless fighter helpless against the damaging shots thrown by his victorious opponent. Unfortunately, the main card of UFC 170 this past Saturday not only saw both varieties of questionable stoppage scenarios, but saw them both from the same referee.

While there have been a number of different referees assigned to manage UFC fights since the promotion’s inception in 1993, Herb Dean is generally considered to be among the two or three best. Dean has routinely been tasked with officiating the UFC’s biggest fights and has developed a reputation as a referee with a high degree of both knowledge and integrity. In fact, Dean has been recognized by the World MMA Awards as MMA’s “Referee of the Year” every year since the award was introduced in 2010. In other words, when Dean is in the middle of the cage, fans can generally expect a clean bout from an officiating standpoint.

Dean’s performance on Saturday night was a bit of a departure from this air of reliability he had spent years cultivating. First, during the third round of a welterweight contest between Mike Pyle and TJ Waldburger, Dean hesitated to stop the fight even as Pyle was landing vicious punches and elbows to Waldburger’s head. Although Waldburger wasn’t completely unconscious and did attempt some small measure of escape, it was clear he wasn’t going anywhere except possibly to the hospital. At the end there, I found myself saying “stop the fight” over and over as Dean allowed Waldburger to absorb a handful of probably unnecessary strikes from Pyle. It was the sort of late stoppage you wouldn’t want to show someone who was new to MMA, lest that person should be proven right in their opinion of the sport’s barbarism.

Dean was also the assigned referee for the women’s bantamweight title fight serving as UFC 170’s main event. In that fight, champion Ronda Rousey landed a perfect knee to opponent Sara McMann’s liver, sending McMann directly to the canvas. Instead of allowing the fight to continue as he had with Pyle and Waldburger, Dean raced in to stop the fight almost as soon as McMann went down. Again, it didn’t seem like McMann was completely out of the fight, but it was one of those situations where Rousey could have likely ended it with a few more strikes. These sorts of stoppages are also problematic, not because one athlete is exposed to needless physical damage, but because early stoppages take away from the finality of a fight. When someone is knocked cold or taps out, there is that element of definitive closure. One fighter was demonstrably superior, and proved it by making the other fighter quit, voluntarily or not. Early referee stoppages leave open the possibility that the defeated fighter could maybe have come back somehow and changed the result of the fight.

Therein lies the biggest difficulty in MMA officiating: knowing when a defeated fighter has taken just enough punishment to warrant a stoppage and being able to react accordingly. In boxing (probably the closest frame of reference most folks have when it comes to MMA), the signifiers of intelligent defense are fairly black-and-white. Specifically, if a fighter leaves his feet, the fight is either stopped or paused so the referee can administer the standard knockdown count. Occasionally a boxing referee will stop a fight in the absence of a knockdown, generally due to one participant’s demonstrated failure. MMA’s more open striking rules offer no such obvious indicators, beyond a complete knockout, that referees should act.

If a MMA fighter is knocked completely out, referees can react because, well, the fighter is no longer conscious. Even then, though, a fighter in this situation is often exposed to one or two additional hard shots simply due to the time it takes for a referee to physically stop the fight. If a MMA fighter taps out, referees can react because the losing fighter has given up. If neither of these occur, though, the referee must then use his best judgement to determine when a fighter has had enough. While a knockdown in the absence of a knockout would trigger an automatic eight-count in boxing, the same situation in MMA would just result in a change of technique for the fighters, leaving it completely up to the referee to allow the fight to continue.

Given the subjective nature of many stoppages in MMA, then, it’s only logical that referees are going to make decisions that not everyone agrees with from time to time. What MMA fans must consider in the presence of this fact, therefore, is whether the sport should err on the side of definitive, if also more violent, ends to fights or on the side of fighter safety, which would perhaps include more rapid stoppages. It’s a question that would likely split fans into two groups if actually considered on a regulatory level.

In one group would be the sport’s more grizzled fans, those who have been watching MMA since its more freewheeling heyday and have grown used to the level of violence that accompanies the sport. The other group would likely consist mainly of fans who have discovered MMA after the UFC’s efforts to make the sport more appealing to a wide audience. (I hesitate to use the word “sterilize” because, after all, MMA is still plenty violent.) The first group would argue that the specter of a rapid stoppage would delegitimize a fighter’s victory and make their successes seem cheapened. Speaking specifically about UFC 170, this group would argue that greater restraint by Dean would have erased all doubt that Rousey was the superior fighter on Saturday. The second group would argue that MMA has evolved beyond the brutal bloodsport it was advertised to be in its early iterations and that late stoppages will only retard the progress MMA has made in emerging as a mainstream entertainment attraction. Again, there are a lot of fights one could share with friends in an effort to get them into MMA. Pyle/Waldburger would not be one of them, and one of the big reasons is the brutality leveled upon Waldburger due to the perceived late stoppage by Dean.

Of these two crappy choices (and, again, we’re probably talking about five percent of UFC fights here), the one that’s better for the future of the sport is the early stoppage. Even though McMann was clearly disappointed with the fight’s rapid conclusion, its controversial nature leaves the door open for a rematch if McMann remains successful. In fact, it would stand to reason that the rematch might even be more of an attraction than the original fight, and that would certainly be due in some part to the first fight’s quick stoppage. Beyond that, though, mainstream America will stand for a quick stoppage (especially in the name of fighter safety) much more readily than it would for lengthy, bloody if also doubtlessly conclusive finishes to UFC contests.

Herb Dean would probably rather forget UFC 170, but he has exercised enough good judgement in the past that Saturday shouldn’t impact his career as a big-time MMA referee. No one likes to see mistimed stoppages, and it’s actually pretty extraordinary that it happens so infrequently when you consider the miniscule window of time in which an appropriate stoppage exists. Unfortunately, sometimes the referees become as big a story as the fighters themselves, and it’s almost never a good thing when they do.