Officials are important in every sport, but they have an additional significance in combat sports. A mistake by an umpire in a baseball game may cost a team a win, but a mistake by a referee in mixed martial arts can have much more dire consequences.
MMA has grown so rapidly, however, that mistakes by referees are more and more commonplace. And that's not a good thing.
While many fans are outraged over what they perceive as a lack of quality judging, the shallow referee pool is perhaps the biggest issue facing the sport.
"Definitely, we need a lot more [good] referees," Ultimate Fighting Championship president Dana White said.
One of the two most well-known referees in the sport's brief history, along with "Big" John McCarthy, Herb Dean is trying to address White's concern.
Dean is a terrific referee; try to remember the last time you saw Dean make a significant mistake and you'll realize just how good he is. He gets it right, consistently, more than anyone in the game, whether that means knowing when to stop a fight, picking the right time to stand the fighters up or giving a grappler time to maneuver for a submission.
A former fighter with a black belt in jiu-jitsu and a 2-3 pro-MMA record, Dean has begun a school to train referees and judges, the MMA Referee School, in Pasadena, Calif.
The school is certified by the Association of Boxing Commissions and recently graduated its first class. The second session will be held Jan. 8 in Pasadena, Calif.
"The sport is growing and there are so many fight cards being held all over the place and there is always a need for additional good officials," said Dean, who was trained to officiate by Larry Landless and began refereeing in 1999 in King of the Cage. "There's no such thing as too many good officials and even the officials who are currently working need to consistently work to make sure they're up to date with the techniques that are being used."
A lot of boxing referees are interested in working in MMA, as well. And while Dean welcomes them, he said it's important to note that the sports are vastly different and just because one has a keen understanding of boxing and its rules doesn't mean that it will apply to MMA.
As a result, Dean stresses MMA technique and said anyone who wants to become a referee has to understand all aspects of the fight game, not just striking.
Dean applauded referee Josh Rosenthal's decision not to stop the Brock Lesnar-Shane Carwin heavyweight title fight in the first round at UFC 116 in July. He said Rosenthal allowed the fight to continue despite the fact that Carwin was in a dominant position and pounding on Lesnar because he understood the sport and the way Lesnar was trying to move to defend himself.
"Knowing when to stop a fight is very difficult and it's not like I can tell them, 'After a certain number of blows, stop it,' " Dean said. "Every situation is different. We're trying to judge intelligent defense. Josh saw what Brock was doing with his feet. Even though he was covering up, he was using his feet to try to create a better position and Josh noticed that and understood that Brock was looking to do something to deal with the position he was in and solve the problem.
"When I was working the [B.J. Penn-Diego Sanchez] fight [for the lightweight title at UFC 107], I was close to stopping it in the first round because Diego was taking a lot of punishment. But Diego was always doing something to better his position and so I let it go on."
In both cases, the referee was correct. Lesnar survived Carwin's first-round onslaught and defended his title with a second-round submission. Penn defeated Sanchez, but Sanchez made it into the fifth round before the fight was stopped.
Dean also teaches judging, emphasizing the five scoring criteria: Effective striking, effective grappling, cage control, aggression and defense. And though some MMA purists don't want to hear it, effective striking is the top criteria a judge uses when scoring a round.
So, in a fight that pits a striker against a submission expert, the striker has a built-in advantage. Judges are taught to look for damage caused by strikes, first and foremost.
"If one guy spends five minutes almost knocking the other guy out and, in another round, the other guy spends five minutes almost submitting the guy, let me ask you a question: At the end of that time, who would you rather be?" Dean said. "[Causing] damage is worth more."
Dean takes the would-be officials through all aspects of refereeing and judging in the two-day seminar. Afterward, he takes them out to help him at live events and then aids them in working amateur bouts.
Slowly but surely, Dean is improving the sport he loves, not only by continually officiating at a world-class level but by sharing his knowledge, as well. That, ultimately, may be his biggest contribution.
"I see [referees] all the time who don't know the rules, who are afraid to make a decision and who just don't know the fight game," White said. "They're not in control. Herb Dean is the best referee in the world and I think he's the best referee there ever was. He knows the game, he knows the rules and he makes clear-cut decisions. I would be happy if he refereed every fight."
That's impossible, but hopefully, he can have the same impact upon the sport as a person who trains officials as he has as an official himself.
Long term, the best thing he could do for MMA is to create dozens, if not hundreds, of Herb Dean clones.