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Referee Herb Dean didn’t do C.B. Dollaway any favors out there in Moscow

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MMA: UFC Fight Night Phoenix-Poirier vs Gaethje Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

C.B. Dollaway was in his fight with Khalid Murtazaliev up until the moment he wasn’t. He was controlling some of the action, scoring with takedowns, threatening to do damage from the mount. Then he ended up in a bad position, and then a worse one. Pretty soon he was getting creamed in front of 22,000 rowdy Muscovites, the kind of mid-fight spiral no competitor wants to go through.

Towards the end of the second round, he gave every indication he was done — at least to anybody watching the action from inside the Olympic Stadium, or on their laptops on Fight Pass. It was especially clear to Dan Hardy, John Gooden and Paul Felder, the cageside commentators.

So what happened?

Without having all the details, it’s at least possible that Dollaway was having a fully alert conversation with referee Herb Dean while Murtazaliev was slamming his fist into the screaming part of his skull. Maybe Dollaway was telling Dean, “don’t stop the fight, I’m still in it,” or something to that effect. But it didn’t look that way. It looked like Dollaway was through and Dean wasn’t all that interested in picking up the telltale signals.

Signals like, you know, not fighting back. Lying prone, turtling up against an onslaught of strikes. Trying to protect his bloody face in a moment of fleeting consciousness, in hopes that such body language might double as a white flag to the last line of protection in the cage, the referee. Instead, Dean leaned in for a closer look, urging Dollaway to fight. Dollaway didn’t. Dean persisted. He warned Dollaway that he would stop the fight, the thing Dollaway was begging him to do by not fighting. More punches, and more spectator groans.

Then the horn.

Even between rounds, as Dollaway sat on his knees unable to get up, Dean issued him a warning, as if Dollaway even knew he was in Moscow anymore. He didn’t need saving by the horn; he needed to be relieved of his burden to fight. That was a perplexing sequence of events from an otherwise sympathetic, ever-prepared and otherwise on-top-of-things referee — Herb freaking Dean.

What was Herb Dean thinking out there in Russia? Even when giving leeway to a fighter to recover through a tumultuous moment, the old MMA rulebook was being thumped in time with Dollaway’s temples: There was no sign of intelligent defense. That’s the language everybody thinks of when gauging an appropriate stoppage. Dollaway’s defense wasn’t intelligent; he was like a man being assaulted waiting for it to be over. If there’s one thing hardened fans of MMA can’t stand — after years of building up immunities towards blood, hematomas, cracked bones and people being choked unconscious — it’s seeing a fight go on too long.

Dean, usually the coolest cat in the octagon, inexplicably let the fight go on well past the call of mercy. Or he let the action go on, as it wasn’t much of a fight at that point. Either way, it was hard to watch.

Perhaps in the coming days Dean will explain his side of things, but it was an odd look for a guy whom most in the industry respects as of one the best at his job. If it were Mario Yamasaki, the referee who was recently banished from officiating UFC fights? People would be losing their shit at what an egregious repeat offender he was. If it were Steve Mazzagatti? Such oblivion would be more evidence of highly public ineptitude, and Dana White’s head would explode.

But Dean? He is one of the exemplars of the trade, the guy we point to as an exhibit of true professionalism in MMA — the man we breathe a sigh of relief whenever we know he’s reffing a big fight. Dean is rarely mentioned in controversies, which is ultimately a tribute to his merit. MMA referees are like offensive linemen in football. You only really hear their names when they screw up. Otherwise, the quieter they go about their business the better.

Dean is like a church mouse on most nights. He has always been that. The most controversial fight he’s been involved with was (probably) when he allowed Michael Bisping to go on after Anderson Silva’s flying knee back in 2016. If anything, he’s come under fire for stopping fights prematurely. Back at UFC 169 there was a mini-uproar when he stopped the bantamweight title fight between Renan Barao and Urijah Faber too quickly. He fell under similar scrutiny for stopping the UFC 170 bout between Sara McMann and Ronda Rousey too soon, not giving the challenger McMann enough time to recover after taking a liver shot.

In this one, he went the other way. Way, way the other way. He let Dollaway take about a dozen too many shots in a fight he had stopped competing in. It’s true that Dollaway’s corner could have thrown in the towel (an action you rarely ever see in MMA), or that Dollaway could have tapped out. But the referee’s primary job is to ensure the safety of the fighters even against themselves, and Dean — for whatever reason — didn’t seem to do that for Dollaway.

In Dean’s case, you want to give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe there was more going on than met the eye. But in fighting, it’s a fine line between respecting toughness and standing idle through unnecessary punishment, and it’s the referee’s job to get it right. Dean usually does, but he didn’t on this one. He left Dollaway out to dry.

And it’s a long flight home from Moscow for both in which to think about it.