Fighter safety is of the utmost importance. Saving fighters, most of whom are too tough for their own good, from themselves is one of the primary functions of a referee.
Jason Herzog thinks about that every time he steps into a cage. He also thinks about other things, like the responsibility he has to give an athlete a fighting chance.
"Did I give whomever every chance to fight?" Herzog said. ... "That's their livelihood. That's their record. At a lower level, that's their chance to get into Bellator or UFC. 'I lost this fight, now I can't get into UFC or I can't get into Bellator.' Or they're in one of the big organizations and this was their shot for a title. They don't put an asterisk on that later on and say 'ref stopped it early.' They just say loss. And [the fighters] say, 'I have half the money I would have made, because you screwed up.'"
When to stop a fight is an incredibly inexact science. The language of the official rule says that a bout should continue unless one of the fighters stops "intelligently" defending himself or herself. That is not always apparent to the viewer watching at home or from the crowd, at least not as apparent as it is for the referee a few feet away.
Last week, two stoppages on competing cards came under scrutiny. Many said Cris Cyborg's finish of Leslie Smith at UFC 198 in Brazil was too early. The finish of another Cyborg -- Evangelista "Cyborg" Santos -- by Saad Awad at Bellator 154 in San Jose was pegged as too late.
Herzog was the referee for the Awad-Santos fight. And his decision to let Santos take dozens of unanswered blows to the face centers around that "intelligent defense" rule. In Herzog's interpretation, Santos was following instructions when told to move. He was working to better his position and latch onto Awad's leg for a submission.
"I feel like I'm looking at it from an uneducated standpoint on what it takes to finish or to get a sweep from there," said Herzog, who is a brown belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. "I see Cyborg's hips are elevated, he's pressuring off of one leg and this is how I would elevate an opponent if I have half guard in and I'm trying to pull him over and re-attack a heel hook."
Just because Herzog did not necessarily agree with Santos' choice to eat punches while attempting that submission does not mean the fight should be over, in the referee's estimation. The fact that Santos still had the druthers to make such a decision -- right or wrong -- told Herzog that he was still in the fight.
"You're moving," Herzog said. "You're not moving in a way that I think universally people would agree is a good way for you to move, by stopping this punch with your face. But you have 30-plus fights and this is your fight to have. I can't fight this fight for you. I have to let you fight your fight, even if that goes into this spiral that ultimately becomes your detriment."
When referee Eduardo Herdy stopped the fight between Cyborg and Smith in Brazil, he determined that Smith was not making an "intelligent" choice to defend, rather a desperation one. Was he right? Smith vehemently disagreed.
"The fights that were allowed to keep going in the same cage on the same night show that my fight was total bull," Smith wrote on social media a few hours later.
Smith certainly has a point and Herdy has a history of questionable stoppages. Remember that time he said Drew Dober tapped to a guillotine when the choke wasn't even close and Dober was just working for position?
Herzog noted that just because a fighter is working doesn't mean it's coherent movements. How many times have we seen a fighter accidentally try to take down the referee after a TKO finish? It's muscle memory.
Mistakes definitely happen and this is hard stuff -- split-second decisions in a sport with an incredible amount of nuance and threat of serious injury. This is not deciding whether a ball is fair or foul. Referees' conclusions can shape careers.
There is also a debate about whether refs should bring outside information into a bout. Santos has been fighting professionally for almost 20 years and has nearly 40 fights. Should he be given more leeway than someone without his level of experience?
Herzog said he heard Dan Henderson say in an interview recently that referees have been stopping his fights early because he is older in age (45 years old to be exact). Henderson has also seemed susceptible to knockouts lately with three in his last four losses.
"I was thinking to myself, 'If I was refereeing Dan Henderson's fight, why wouldn't I use all the information that I had available to me to do the best job that I could?'" Herzog said. ... "Why wouldn't I use that information to be in the best position? When a fighter is displaying characteristics more frequently then they had in the past -- i.e., being rocked or getting knocked out sooner or submitted often or having less cardiovascular ability -- why wouldn't I use that to my advantage to the best job I could for you?"
It's an interesting debate. Should a fight be refereed in a vacuum or should other factors be at play? Perhaps a balance is necessary there as well. And if it means a referee doing a better job and keeping the fighter safer, then it's obviously a positive.
How much information is too much, though? Cyborg was a huge favorite over Smith. Should a referee apply that knowledge in a situation like the one Herdy found himself in? Probably not. Knowledge is power, but not if it can make an official prejudiced.
No ref has been free from criticism in this still evolving stage of MMA. Even Herb Dean, who is regarded as one of a handful of elite referees in the sport, has been criticized for stoppages. Many believe Dean let the UFC middleweight title fight between Luke Rockhold and Chris Weidman at UFC 194 in December go far too long. Rockhold finished the third round in mount, dropping blow after blow to Weidman's face. Dean let it go until the bell. Rockhold eventually won by TKO in the fourth.
Then there was the non-stoppage in the fight between Hector Lombard and Neil Magny in March. Referee Steve Perceval let Lombard take a nearly unprecedented amount of punishment -- more than 100 unanswered blows -- in the second round. Magny ended up finishing by TKO in the third.
There are going to be errors made. Sometimes big ones like Magny vs. Lombard. The only things fighters and fans can ask for is accountability and improvement.
UFC vice president of regulatory affairs Marc Ratner was honest about his assessment of Perceval's performance afterward on The MMA Hour with Ariel Helwani.
"I've gotta be straight and honest about that," Ratner said. "My wife asked me, ‘Why are you yelling at TV?' I said ‘I want this referee to stop the fight.' It's a tough sport to referee, unlike most sports, this one the judgment is really, really tough. I just thought there were too many punches there."
California State Athletic Commission executive officer Andy Foster told MMA Fighting that he felt like Awad vs. Santos went on "too long." Foster said he had a conversation with Herzog about it afterward and expressed his thoughts.
"I just think it's important that we're all truthful about this stuff and we're all transparent about it, so we all get better," Foster said. ... "I think [Herzog] learns from that one and I really don't think you'll see that from him again. It's a fine line. You're at a high level. You're not at a club show. That's a high-level fight and you want to give the guy any and every opportunity. But that was too long."
Herzog is one of the better MMA referees out there. So is Dean. No one is infallible.
The NBA has taken to reporting on the accuracy of officiating in the final two minutes of games after the fact. We're not quite there yet in mixed martial arts, not with disjointed regulation. But hopefully we'll get close someday, since a fighter's long-term health is more important than whether or not Russell Westbrook committed a traveling violation.
An early stoppage is sometimes more palatable than a late one. That doesn't mean it's correct, though. A fighter deserves every chance within the rules to stay in a fight. He or she also must, in some cases, be saved from themselves, whether they like it or not.
It's a difficult line to walk. That's worth keeping in mind when we're at home watching on TV and the hardest decision we have to make is pizza or Chinese food.