Herb Dean is one of the most recognizable faces in mixed martial arts. He's one of the world's elite referees and says he's worked more MMA fights than anyone in the sport's young history.
Those who follow the sport closely may do a double take, then, when watching the Cage Rage card on Saturday at Wembley Stadium in London.
That will be Herb Dean in the cage, but it won't be as the referee. Dean is also an active fighter – for the time being – and will fight Dave Legeno on Saturday's card in a heavyweight bout.
Dean loves the competition, but it will be the last time he gets a taste of it. He's going to voluntarily retire after the bout to focus on his officiating career.
Dean and John McCarthy are the most recognizable referees in the U.S. And so, to avoid even the appearance of impropriety, he's planning to quit fighting after his bout with Legeno.
"I love to compete, which is why I got into it," said Dean, who is 2-2. "But it's not going to be difficult to quit. The sport has really exploded in the last couple of years and I'm so busy as a referee.
"And let's be honest here: I'm a referee. I like to fight and I train hard and I take the fights seriously. But at the end of the day, when you look at it, I'm a referee."
Keith Kizer, the executive director of the Nevada Athletic Commission, said Dean is one of the five elite referees he will call on for any big fight, along with McCarthy, Steve Mazzagatti, Yves Lavigne and Mario Yamasaki.
Kizer doesn't have a serious problem with Dean competing while he's refereeing, but said it creates minor issues.
Dean, Kizer said, can't officiate fights of people he's fought. Dean once fought – and was knocked out by – World Extreme Cagefighting competitor Joe Riggs, so he can't work any of Riggs' fights.
But Kizer said he liked the fact that Dean is a fighter because he understands the nuances of what is happening during a fight.
"Herb was working a UFC event for us and a guy put on a certain choke," Kizer said. "Herb knew from his experience that that choke wouldn't cause pain, but it would cause unconsciousness. He knew the guy wouldn't be tapping, because he wasn't in pain, but he would at some point go unconscious.
"And so as soon as he saw the guy go limp, he jumped in and stopped it. If a referee didn't have that experience, he might tend to wait for the guy to tap and he could have been unconscious for a minute or more. So Herb's experience no doubt makes him a better referee."
Dean's fighting background is as a kick boxer, but he learned wrestling as he started in MMA. He likes to think of himself as a well-rounded fighter, but hasn't gotten the kind of results he might have had he had a few breaks.
Like many fighters, Dean said he's struggled to stay healthy.
"I never really learned how good I could be, because I was just plagued by injuries," Dean said. "And if I fought a lot to try to find out, then it would have impacted my refereeing. And I know for certain that I'm a referee, not a fighter."
He's been traveling the world to officiate fights in nearly every MMA organization that's ever held a show. But as the sport's popularity has begun to soar in the last couple of years, Dean has developed his own following.
He is recognized a lot more now than he ever was. His dreadlocks are a giveaway, but he's almost as much of a celebrity as the fighters he officiates.
"The sport is really becoming huge and I get recognized a heck of a lot more now than I ever did," Dean said. "There is a big difference. People know who I am. They come up to me and they know I worked this fight or that fight and they can talk about it very specifically.
"It's such a great sport and it's kind of nice to see this upswing. It used to be a very small, hard core group that followed it, but now it's becoming popular the world over."
After Saturday, though, Dean's vantage point will change. He'll see the fights only from the referee's point of view, though he hopes to make his finale something to remember.
"Of course I want to go out with a win," Dean said. "But you know what? I'm just thankful for the opportunity to fight. I've loved every minute of it."
- Herb Dean