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The Nevada Athletic Commission on Wednesday firmed up its officiating assignments for UFC 197, and Daniel Cormier spoke up and objected to Herb Dean refereeing his April 23 light heavyweight championship rematch with Jon Jones. The NAC noted his complaint but ultimately stuck to its guns and kept Dean appointed as the third man in the cage.
Cormier’s complaint was unsuccessful, but it wasn’t a failure. A fighter exercising his agency as an athlete ought to be applauded, and frankly, Cormier’s contemporaries should be eager to take a chapter out of his book.
“DC” claims that in the latter stages of his January 2015 bout with Jones, Dean allowed the then-champion Jones to stall and didn’t heed Cormier’s prefight warnings to watch for some of Jones’ questionable tactics. Cormier didn’t make a particularly compelling case; rhetorically, in the interest of persuasion, he would have been better off demonizing Jones as an unrepentant eye-poking cheat, arguing that Dean repeatedly missed these fouls and that as an athlete, he was profoundly uncomfortable with Dean’s assignment. Instead, he based it on the largely specious idea of Jones stalling, and the NAC denied him; and rightly so, at least in this situation. Like I said, Cormier doesn’t have a great case here, but exercising your fundamental right to protest an official in another particular instance may be fruitful, perhaps even the difference between winning and losing.
Styles make fights, we all know this, but an official’s interpretation -- whether he or she is a referee or judge -- of those styles matters. Would Lyoto Machida or a similar fighter want their referee to be one with a reputation for penalizing passivity on the feet? If you’re Jake Shields, do you want a ref with a penchant for breaking clinches and calling for stand-ups? Speaking of Shields, if you’re facing a known rule bender-slash-breaker, like a Yoel Romero, Michael Bisping or gee, I dunno, Rousimar Palhares, would you rather have your fight overseen by a career-long bystander like Steve Mazzagatti or would you rather have Marc Goddard doing his tough cop routine? If Shields had the benefit of the latter rather than the former in the cage for his World Series of Fighting bout with “Toquinho,” he might not have gotten his eyes gouged out. He might have even won.
Speaking of Mazzagatti, he’s an important figure in this discussion, as the only notable precedent for this style of complaint in MMA is Brock Lesnar's longstanding objection to “The Maz.” In Lesnar’s Octagon debut against Frank Mir at UFC 81 in February 2008, he was docked a point with no warning less than 30 seconds into the bout for essentially grazing the back of Mir’s head with punch on the ground. Upon the restart, Mir kneebarred Lesnar. Later that year, Lesnar successfully petitioned the NAC to remove Mazzagatti as the referee for his UFC heavyweight title challenge against Randy Couture. Mazzagatti was replaced with the marginally more competent Mario Yamasaki, Lesnar decked Couture and took Ultimate Fighting Championship gold. The rest is history.
Officials, especially referees, tend to be viewed in the good-bad binary, but that’s not an especially helpful tool, doubly so in MMA. It’s far more instructive and valuable to consider their tendencies, their strengths, weaknesses and foibles. In the case of Dean, I would say that the MMA collective, right down to UFC President Dana White of all people, has a sober, thoughtful grasp on him as an official. He is alternatingly praised as the sport’s best ref or one of its best; and while “best ref” is nearly impossible to quantify, I would certainly co-sign on him being amongst the very best.
There are essentially two questions people ask evaluating an MMA referee. You may argue that the prioritization of the questions is backwards, but in order of importance, they are: “How righteous and close to split-second perfect are your stoppages?” and “How well do you actually know and enforce the rules?” Again, the priorities may seem inverted, but MMA is an incredibly dangerous and dynamic sport, where physical peril is introduced in the blink of an eye and officials must make split-second judgments based on the inexact science of visual cues. They must do this despite the fact they are officiating a fight and the very expectation is that one combatant will be physically vanquished. As a result, how palatable and appropriate people find your stoppages is always going to be the top criteria in assessment.
When Dean’s performance is criticized, this is how, where and why. When it comes to actual competence -- knowing the rules and protocol, recognizing and penalizing fouls, letting fighters work from whatever position they see fit -- Dean is exceptional. However, you can look through his history and find wildly uneven and inconsistent standards for stoppages in a variety of major fights and some non-major fights. He got skewered for his lame stoppages of Ronda Rousey-Sara McMann and Renan Barao-Urijah Faber 2 -- and rightly so. He got less of a beating for his halt of Conor McGregor-Chad Mendes, but still took flak. Yet, Dean stood by while Joe Lauzon nearly liquefied a prone Takanori Gomi’s brain, let Luke Rockhold sit on Chris Weidman’s chest and bash in his face for an eternity and allowed Cain Velasquez to take years off Junior dos Santos’ life in their 23-minute rubber match from hell.
Within those examples, you see the tendency emerge. Dean has had several incidents in which a fighter is getting smashed on and he just about jumps in, only to have the injured party recover and Dean duck out and quickly correct himself on the fly. Anderson Silva’s near-knockout in round three of his fight with Bisping appeared to occur as a direct result of Dean wanting to jump in to replace Bisping’s mouthpiece. Consider what those aforementioned fights looked like: Dean is quick to jump in when a fighter gets dropped on the feet, but is usually OK with allowing fighters to take damage if they’re trapped on the bottom. If dos Santos had just keeled over earlier in his third fight with Velasquez, he might have saved some brain cells.
Consider UFC 157. On the undercard, Dennis Bermudez won a bloody, grueling split decision over Matt Grice during which the featherweights combined for 202 significant strikes landed. In round one, before the carnage really erupted, Grice dropped Bermudez and Dean almost jumped in and stopped the fight right there. Fast forward 10 minutes to early in round three. Bermudez floored Grice with an uppercut which looked like it might force Dean into action. Yet after it was on the mat, Dean allowed Grice to fight through horrific ground-and-pound beating. When Grice got to his feet, he took an even worse shellacking and it seemed like Dean was just waiting for him to fall over to “seal it.” He didn’t, so we went the cards.
A few hours later when the main card started, current welterweight champion Robbie Lawler got his resurgence started with his upset stoppage of Josh Koscheck. Now, this is why I said Dean is “usually OK” with fighters taking damage on bottom and goes to the heart of arguments about his fight-stopping inconsistency: Lawler lands one big hard punch on a turtled Koscheck, forces him to his back, lands five punches and Dean steps in. Koscheck protested immediately, although it’s Koscheck, so he might have found a way to complain even if unconscious. Dean was forthcoming in explaining himself to the media, but nonetheless, the inconsistency from literally one hour to the next on the same card was shocking.
Dean isn’t flawless, but he also referees an astonishing amount of MMA all over the globe, plus a huge crop of the sport’s biggest and most important bouts. He’s statistically more liable to goof up based on the giant sample size alone. Plus, there’s the indelible memory of when a major fight has some hinky refereeing. This is the maddening nature of inconsistency. Even if we analyze a referee’s tendencies to draw conclusions, by nature, inconsistency is in direct opposition to those tendencies. Since Dean is more often than not an outstanding official, it creates a Rumsfeldian-type situation, where his inconsistency itself inconsistent. That’s a confusing, frustrating and alienating feeling with which to grapple as a viewer or fan, so it makes some sense that when Dean does catch heat, it’s a hot, hot heat.
Now, does any of this make Dean a poor fit for Cormier’s competitive interests against Jones? Not especially. Given the two men involved, particularly Jones and his penchant for sudden, breathtaking offense, it’s possible we get a spontaneous, crushing knockdown that puts Dean’s twitchiness to the test, but both men rock solid chins which they each tested out in their first bout. If there is some hardcore offense, it’s still more likely to be on the ground, where Dean is willing to let violence happen -- unless you’re Koscheck.
In fact, the irony here is that outside of the first Jones encounter, Dean’s refereeing has been generally beneficial to the American Kickboxing Academy team captain in their other two fights together. Against Frank Mir, Dean let Cormier put the former heavyweight champ on the fence, pin him there and beat him up at a leisurely pace for 15 minutes. Against Alexander Gustafsson in October, Dean resisted the urge to jump in late in round three when Gustafsson absolutely nuked Cormier with a clinch knee. He then let Cormier dictate the clinch in the last 10 minutes of the fight, allowing “DC” to fight in the style necessary to preserve himself, take less damage and ultimately win a close contest.
Again, this is not an essay about how Cormier is a desperate paranoiac or how Dean is a poor official. As I’ve said, it’s just the opposite on both accords. Cormier’s kvetching is really quite shrewd: While Dean is still going to referee the bout, Cormier’s squeaky wheel will still get a little grease. The situation he has architected means Cormier’s concerns as an athlete must be taken seriously, lest the NAC and Dean come off as negligent.
Jones might be the best fighter to ever grace his sport, but there’s no denying he plays fast and loose with the rules, both in and out of the cage. With Cormier voicing his concerns in this sort of public fashion, there can’t be any screwing around if Jones starts fouling him. In a sport where fouls so often go unseen or unpunished, Cormier has found some minor recourse. If Cormier spends the next four weeks talking about Jones cheating and fouling him, when UFC 197 comes around, Dean will go to the locker room to discuss rules and expectations, and Cormier will reiterate that he’s worried Jones is going to gouge his eyes or whatever else. It forces a unique-if-bizarre form of accountability.
There’s no reason for Dean to be removed as referee of Jones-Cormier 2, but Cormier still had all the reason in the world to speak up on his own behalf. This is prizefighting in a cage, and any sort of advantage you can carve out for yourself is an asset. Cormier may not be at total zen peace with Dean getting the assignment, but his objection at least assures that any fishiness from “Jonny Bones” must be dealt with immediately and firmly, which is still an unfortunate rarity in MMA and more particularly Jones fights.
Better than that, maybe Cormier’s antics will embolden other fighters. As mentioned, MMA’s experience with this situation is largely confined to Lesnar beefing with Mazzagatti, and it’s easy to imagine that most fighters wouldn’t expect to have the political swing of a superstar like Lesnar. Cormier offers a more realistic, relatable inspiration for fighters to exercise some control over their circumstances.
If fighters can articulate a legitimate, cogent case as to why a referee is ill-suited to oversee their bouts -- whether it’s a sketchy personal history between the two or just provable incompetence -- and can present actual evidence on their behalf, they should. As Cormier has shown us, the worst-case scenario is a simple “no” but with the added bonus of tacitly forcing those officials to be extra accountable for their decisions in a sport that’s endlessly desperate for any accountability at all.