In his second shot at a UFC title, Ortega nearly submitted Volkanovski in the third round of the UFC 266 main event before the defending champion reversed position and bludgeoned Ortega with heavy ground-and-pound. After the third-round horn sounded, it looked as though Ortega needed help from his cornermen to sit up on his stool, but the bout continued after Ortega was checked on by Dean and a ringside physician. Volkanovski went on to win a unanimous decision.
Dean spoke to reporter Helen Yee about the climactic moment and he defended his decision to allow the fight to continue, explaining that Ortega’s struggle had as much to do with fatigue as the damage that he had taken.
“I don’t think his cornermen helped him [to sit up],” Dean said (transcription via Bloody Elbow). “He was laying there, he wasn’t getting up. I think it was more of those ‘Hey, it’s time to get up. Let’s get moving.’ ‘Cause once they grabbed him, it’s not, like, they had to lift him up. Once they put their hands on him, he was getting up to get on the stool. But I think he was really having that — I can’t speak for him, but I know how it feels like to struggle with yourself. And he definitely was spending some time talking to himself there, figuring out, digging deep. Finding the strength to go on.
“What was interesting is he got that minute rest period. ‘Cause basically, at the end of the round, it was exhaustion, I think. He had given it his all. Then the physician comes in, medically clears him, says he’s clear. Some of (Ortega’s) answers weren’t exactly clear, but then when he looked at me and gave clear answers, like, ‘Yes, I see, yes I wanna continue,’ and you could see that he was ready to compete again, we gave him another chance. Of course, we’re gonna kinda watch closely, but he got out there and did what he was supposed to do.”
Had Dean stopped the fight, it might have led to a different kind of controversy, so he’s not second-guessing himself. Ortega is known for having one of the most resilient chins in all of MMA as well and that may have played a factor in Dean’s call.
Dean wanted to ultimately leave the decision in Ortega’s hands.
“Definitely, it was close to being stopped,” Dean said. “At the end of the round [Ortega] was exhausted. And he made it through the round and I think a fighter has the right to make that decision after the rest period.
“He made it through the rest period. His problem was he was tired, so I think getting some rest, a minute of rest, would be the best thing for him. And he has the right to make that decision then.”
In the end, fans were treated to a classic contest, one that bolstered the resumes of both men. For Volkanovski, it was his first title defense that wasn’t against Max Holloway, following a pair of decision victories over the featherweight great; for Ortega, it was another chance for him to show his heart in defeat.
According to Dean, he had to keep the magnitude of the moment in mind.
“As far as a referee, I’ll allow guys to set their own pace a little bit in the first and second rounds,” Dean said. “Maybe have more of a feel-out round than I would (allow) in other rounds. They’re the champion, they deserve it.
“And I know that most of the time in championship fights, or most of the time in the UFC, people definitely wanna be there. And they wanna compete and let it all out. Definitely, at the championship level, they do.”