Las Vegas Sun

September 16, 2019

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No. 6: The Ref: Dean relishes role, making right calls



UFC referee Herb Dean, center, gives instructions to UFC welterweight champ George St. Pierre before a recent fight.

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UFC referee Herb Dean takes a look at the action between Chuck Liddell and Rashad Evans at UFC 88 last September in Atlanta. Evans won the fight with a brutal knockout of "The Iceman."

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Editor's Note: The Ultimate Fighting Championship is celebrating its 100th show on July 11 at the Mandalay Bay Events Center. In the days leading up to this historic night, the Las Vegas Sun is presenting a Top 10 list of key personalities and points that have helped propel the sport into the forefront of the world's fighting conscience.

His fame might not quite be in Ed Hochuli's league just yet, but if the UFC’s rapid growth continues at its current pace Herb Dean may just track down the NFL veteran official in terms of popularity.

“It’s kind of strange, I always thought refereeing would be a thankless job that people wouldn’t really pay attention to unless you messed up,” said the 38-year-old Dean, a Pasadena, Calif. native who has been refereeing mixed martial arts fights for more than a decade.

“But I think that has something to say for MMA fans. The sport is so intense that they realize how important an official’s involvement is. They seem to appreciate what I do. The popularity is not something I expected, but it’s really gratifying.”

So too are some of the key moments that Dean — whose recognizability is aided by his long, stylized dreadlocks — has witnessed courtesy of the best view in the Octagon.

Dean was there for the big rematch between Tito Ortiz and Ken Shamrock at UFC 61, when Shamrock had to be ushered out of the cage after protesting Dean’s stoppage of the contest in the first round when he took several unanswered blows to the head.

He saw firsthand Gabriel Gonzaga’s stunning head kick that quickly ended Mirko "Cro cop" Filipović’s night at UFC 70.

One of his most famous moment’s came when Dean officiated Las Vegas’ own Frank Mir’s title fight against Tim Sylvia at UFC 48 in June 2004.

Less than a minute into round one, Dean had to halt the match when he and the audience inside the Mandalay Bay Events Center visibly watched Mir break Sylvia’s forearm with an armbar.

“That was an intense event right there,” chuckled Dean, recalling Sylvia’s argument against the stoppage before later admitting he knew his arm was indeed broke.

Dean was also the man in charge of what UFC president Dana White calls the "most important fight in UFC history" between Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar in the finale to the first season of Spike TV’s popular reality show, “The Ultimate Fighter.”

“I’d probably have to agree with Dana on terms of the importance of that night,” Dean said. “It was just real exciting to watch those two and their back-and-forth war. You gotta remember these are two light heavyweights just going at it like lightweights the whole time.

“It was a big, big fight. But they’re all big to me.”

Indeed Dean, who has fought professionally five times and a disciple of karate and kickboxing for many years, intimately understands the sacrifices fighters have made when they step into the Octagon.

“It’s a responsibility that I keep sacred. These guys are putting their safety and careers in my hands,” Dean said.

“I know what it’s like to make those sacrifices away from your family, to train and the risks you’re taking. I know how much preparation goes into each match. That’s why I take it so seriously and want to do the absolute best job that I can.”

But in a sport often decided by split-second decisions, sometimes the right call is a tough one to make.

“It can be extremely hard to make those calls, judging whether or not a fighter is covering up or down because these guys are doing that on an instinct level at that moment,” said Dean, who stays on top of his officiating game by watching tons of fights, big or small, and rehashing scenarios with his friends in various state athletic commissions.

“A fight can come down to a split second or a matter of inches, but that’s what we’re in there to decide.”

Dean says he hates to see instances where referees are called out for making wrong calls like White had to do for a couple of officiating gaffes that occurred at UFC 96 in Columbus, Ohio in March, but admitted it’s part of the process for the ever-evolving sport.

He said he also sees technology advances, such as instant replay, becoming a major benefit to MMA — perhaps helping to rectify situations like the one Mostapha Al Turk suffered at UFC 99, when an inadvertent eye poke left him losing in a flurry to Filipovic.

No matter which direction the officiating game goes, Dean plans to be around to help out — and possibly continue working on that whole image thing.

“I love my job and am involved in a sport that’s my passion,” Dean said. “I guess you could say I’m living an MMA dream.”

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