This past weekend we saw a somewhat controversial ending to the main event of UFC 169, whereby Renan Barao claimed a victory over a Urijah Faber who, as it was being stopped, was signaling to the referee that he was fine to continue. In the immediate aftermath, there were many suggesting that referee Herb Dean should have let the fight continue until a definitive winner was produced.

First, let it be said that Dean, along with John McCarthy, is a name synonymous with officiating mixed martial arts bouts. Dean has been in charge for some of the highest-profile fights in recent years. If anything, he has been the most prominent referee in the sport recently, given the conflicts that McCarthy has had with the Nevada State Athletic Commission and which resulted in his exclusion from events taking place there.

However, it would seem to be universally accepted that Dean jumped the gun on this one. Whilst Faber was not bitter in defeat, it most certainly robbed him of the opportunity to fight to the bitter end.

When the referee brings two fighters to the center of the cage at the start of a fight, the last instruction usually uttered is to “protect yourself at all times.” In this instance, we saw Faber covering up with one hand and giving the referee a thumbs up with the other whilst simultaneously looking to reverse the position with a single-leg takedown. So, from a literal point of view, Faber was indeed protecting himself at all times during the fight, despite the fact he was dazed several times during an incredible flurry from Barao.

Upon inspection of the unified rules of MMA, it should be noted that when it comes to judging, a fighter is to get credit for “effective defense,” which is said to mean “avoiding being struck, taken down or reversed whilst countering with offensive attacks.” On this front it would seem that, given the fact that Faber was clearly hooking Barao’s leg to look for a takedown, his efforts would satisfy the criteria. In terms of scoring, he would not only be considered to be still in the fight, but also creditworthy for looking to mount offense.

Overall, it is easy to look at the fight in hindsight and suggest one of the best referees in the business got the call wrong—which he did—but in truth, Dean’s job inside the cage is to ensure fighter safety. In stopping the fight when he did, he kept that promise.

In complete contrast, Faber’s post-fight statement indicated that he believes the test for whether a fighter is fit to continue should hinge on the fighter’s body going limp. This is clearly a statement borne out of pure determination to win and not a mindset that any competent referee should have. The two jobs are clearly separate in their frame of mind—one should keep concern for safety above all else, whilst the other should be set on winning at all costs.

In the recent past, there has been an abundance of criticism leveled at MMA judging. But on the whole, the referees have been given some leeway. This is perhaps due to the fact that everyone understands the difficult position they are in. This understanding on the part of MMA fans is uncharacteristic of sports fans in general.

In soccer, you will see criticism of referees as a regular feature on weekly review shows and newspapers around the world viciously attacking one particular bad call. In some instances, there have even been death threats to referees who made a decision which later turned out to be incorrect, often with the added benefit of multiple replays shown at super slow motion.

In MMA, the burden placed upon referees is so much greater than in practically any other sport because of the increased sense of danger. The burden in MMA is probably even greater than that required in boxing.

The reason for this added responsibility is simple: unpredictability. During the Al Iaquinta fight with Kevin Lee at UFC 169, we saw Iaquinta switch from a striking position to a heel hook position in the blink of an eye. If the referee is not vigilant to this possibility and the technique was locked up fully, Lee could have suffered significant injury without there being any real warning sign.

Overall, boxing has equal, if not greater, amounts of danger due to the repeated punches landed to the head, whereas, in MMA, there remains a greater sense of unpredictability.

For instance, in the aftermath of the George Groves and Carl Froch fight last year, the boxing public was in an uproar at what was perceived as an early stoppage (and rightly so). In that fight, the referee opted to jump in to save Groves any more punishment than necessary despite the fact that within a second of the fight being stopped, Groves had seemingly fully recovered and was clearly displaying his ability to defend punches.

In MMA, the ability to defend techniques such as a leg lock or armbar need to be immediate and constant throughout the fight. If a fighter stops being able to defend either of these, even if only for a second, the consequences can be shattering (literally). As such, it seems fair that the MMA public has gained a quiet acceptance of a bad referee stoppage every now and then, because of a true understanding of just how dangerous the sport can be.

The problem that we have is the size of the opportunity with which Faber was presented. In 2013, Faber worked his way through the division and earned a title shot that few thought he might ever get again. In just over a month since his last win against Michael McDonald, Faber is now out of the foreseeable title picture and may need to produce a similar string of victories towards the end of 2014, simply in order to put himself back in the position he found himself in prior to taking the Barao fight.

Faber would be expected to take time off given his busy schedule and may well make a great comeback fight (should a comeback finally materialize) for former champion Dominick Cruz. The two were slated to fight at the conclusion of The Ultimate Fighter: Live before the injury problems began for Cruz, and now we may finally have come full circle to the point where this fight makes sense for all concerned.

About The Author

Greg Byron
Staff Writer

Greg Byron started training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu after his brother introduced him to a local MMA fighter/coach when he was just 16 years old. Greg has trained for nearly a decade in both BJJ and MMA, competing in several grappling events within the UK. In addition to MMA, Greg possesses a law degree and works for a firm in northern part of England.