Mixed martial arts referees have one of the toughest, most thankless jobs in the sport. They are tasked with knowing every intricacy of the unified rule book, keeping the fighters in the cage safe, while operating within the letter of the rules to uphold the highest standard of order inside the cage, sometimes in front of tens of thousands of fans in attendance and millions more watching at home. Mistakes come with the job, but sometimes officials presiding over the action are forced to make tough, unenviable decisions at a split-second’s notice, many of which are ripe for criticism no matter the choice that is ultimately made.
No decision or judgment call gets by the sport’s hardcore fanbase on social media. Nowadays, fans and handicappers are keen to inquire on who the officials are ahead of an event, having picked up on tendencies based on previous information. Check out the latest UFC betting odds, which will surely change slightly as the official assignments are announced for this weekend’s events.
Here are five times UFC referees were unfairly criticized, and in some instances destroyed on social media for tough calls made in high-pressure situations.
Herb Dean: Jai Herbert vs. Francisco Trinaldo
Depending on the point of view, Herb Dean is either considered to be the greatest referee in the history of the sport or one of the worst. For what it’s worth, Dean is active in training the aspiring referees of tomorrow, instructing courses on mixed martial arts officiating and judging. Former UFC commentator Dan Hardy might be considered among Dean’s detractors, however, if his blow-up at UFC Fight Night 174 is any indication.
— Spinnin Backfist (@SpinninBackfist) July 26, 2020
Jai Herbert had been soundly beating UFC veteran Francisco Trinaldo on the feet for the majority of their fight heading into the third and final round. Seemingly out of nowhere, Trinaldo caught Herbert with an overhand left that sent him crashing to the floor. Dean, however, had not yet seen enough to stop the fight, as Herbert had turtled up on the ground, possibly in anticipation of any follow-up strikes from his opponent. Trinaldo went on to land four more lefts on the ground before Dean waved it off. Fans were outraged by the late stoppage, but nobody was seemingly as irate as Hardy, who left the commentary desk after the fight to berate Dean for the stoppage. There have been plenty worse stoppages in the sport, so for this to be the one that made a commentator as heated as Hardy got, the instant reaction seemed a bit over the top. Many assumed Hardy and Herbert had some sort of personal relationship that prompted Hardy’s response, though according to the MMA pundit, that was not the case. To Hardy’s credit he was apologetic for his handling of the situation, but ultimately stood by his comments.
Marc Goddard: Kamaru Usman vs. Colby Covington
Colby Covington created a narrative on social media immediately following his first fight with Kamaru Usman that Marc Goddard screwed him out of the UFC welterweight championship with an early stoppage at UFC 268. According to Covington, he believes Goddard had it out for him, demanding that he never referee a fight of his again.
Goddard is perhaps one of the top three officials in the sport, but Usman vs. Covington was not his best night at the office. However, the stoppage had nothing to do with that, rather there were several instances of Usman seemingly embellishing fouls, such as an eye poke and low blow that would set the stage for Covington’s post-fight outburst. As far as the stoppage was concerned, however, Goddard was in the right, as Usman had legitimately broken Covington’s jaw. If anything, he saved Covington from taking more damage in a round that was clearly going south for him, but the amount of fans questioning Goddard’s ability coming off the fight was probably overkill.
💬 Colby Covington reflecting on his loss to Kamaru Usman:
“Marc Goddard should never referee a UFC fight in his entire life again.”
Good to see he’s took it well. 😅 pic.twitter.com/pZmFDPDRgM
— Oddschanger (@Oddschanger) February 4, 2020
Jason Herzog: Anthony Smith vs. Glover Teixeira
One of the first main-event fights in the UFC’s pandemic era, Jason Herzog gave Anthony Smith every opportunity to continue in a fight against now-UFC light heavyweight champion Glover Teixeira in a fight that had gotten away from him. For some, Herzog gave Smith too many opportunities to continue, and the resulting aftermath created quite a stir on social media, forcing the MMA media to have to ask some tough questions coming off of it, not only to Herzog, but to Smith and his corner as well.
Herzog, who is considered one of the most sure-handed officials in the sport, was apologetic after the fact, claiming he learned a harsh lesson and took full responsibility for the late stoppage. This did not stop fans from dragging him, however, though the media was much less kind to Smith, who called Herzog’s apology a “coward move.” The Teixeira-Smith fight Jacksonville serves as a classic example that sometimes, referees are damned if they do and damned if they don’t, highlighting the thankless nature of the job.
Herb Dean: Ben Askren vs. Robbie Lawler
Dean, who has previously been recognized by UFC President Dana White as the most reliable big-fight referee in the sport, has come under increased scrutiny as of late, perhaps as the sport has begun to reach a wider audience over the last five years. Unfortunately, Dean presided over the Robbie Lawler–Ben Askren fight which came to a premature and unfortunate end in the minds of many after Dean thought he saw Lawler’s arm go limp from a bulldog choke from the former Bellator and ONE FC champion. Lawler, however, immediately protested the stoppage much to the ire of MMA fans around the world who roasted Dean on social media after the fact for botching the call.
Dean eventually gave his side on an episode of the Joe Rogan Experience, and backed by his experience in the world of jiu-jitsu, cited how no chances can be taken with a submission like a bulldog choke and that he needed to err on the side of caution. After all, the number one job of an MMA referee is to keep the fighters safe, so Dean’s stoppage was well-intentioned and one in which he deserves some sympathy for, since it did appear as though Lawler may have went out when viewing the fight from the angle Dean had on the submission.
Herb Dean on his Askren vs Lawler stoppage during the JRE podcast….Honestly would love to hear from the Refs more often pic.twitter.com/4Ei6Bzbjn4
— Mike (@TragicBronsxn) April 10, 2019
John McCarthy: Kazushi Sakuraba vs. Marcus Silveira
The finish to Kazushi Sakuraba vs. Marcus Silveira from UFC Japan in 1997 stands the test of time as one of the most controversial finishes in MMA history, and “Big” John McCarthy, the man who had an instrumental role in creating the unified rules of MMA was the referee on hand. As Sakuraba shot for a takedown towards the start of the fight, he ate a crisp combination from Silveira on his way down, leading McCarthy to believe he had been knocked out, ruling the fight as such — initially.
Upon video review, McCarthy reversed his own decision and restarted the fight later in the evening. With MMA regulations being on the light side of things in Japan during this timeframe, McCarthy did what he needed to do, and both fighters came back out later in the night to finish their unsettled business. The decision to restart the fight ended up being a good one, as Sakuraba would win by armbar, but given McCarthy’s controversial nature these days, there is no question he would have been chided on social media by fans of the sport had this occurred in 2022, though he did take some heat on the underground forums. On the other hand, one can also say McCarthy’s decision to restart the fight was a progressive one, as video review has since begun to be implemented in the United States.