The conclusion of UFC on ESPN+ 17 won’t be soon forgotten. After the main event between Jeremy Stephens and Yair Rodriguez was declared a no-contest just 15 seconds after the opening bell, the inside of the Mexico City Arena looked like a scene from the Old Testament.
Stephens played the part of the Sabbath breaker being stoned to death by the angry congregation, which in this case was a throng of fans who came to support the Chihuahua-born Rodriguez and were devastated when “El Pantera” raked his fingers into and across Stephens’ eyes. There were thousands of people in the arena whose actions showed the emotional maturity of a toddler. Rodriguez, who went through all five stages of grief in mere moments, was one of them.
I’m not here to condemn the actions of Rodriguez and the unruly crowd, nor am I here to disparage the fighters who accused Stephens of faking the eye injury as a way out of the fight. I’m not even here to point out the illogical conclusion that Rodriguez came to when he said post-fight that he has to give Stephens the benefit of the doubt, but that Stephens is the only one who has to live with what is in his mind.
However, I am here to recognize one person: referee Herb Dean.
Dean deserves to be recognized and celebrated for how perfectly he handled the unfortunate situation Rodriguez caused when he slashed his fingertips across the eyes of Stephens. I have not been shy about sharing my opinion that Dean is no longer the “gold standard” of MMA referees, but I have to admit that he deserved a “Performance of the Night” bonus on Saturday.
In an early exchange, Stephens landed a grazing left hook that Rodriguez countered with a low kick. In an attempt to maintain distance, Rodriguez also pawed at Stephens. In doing so, his fingers scratched downwards into Stephens’ face, and one seemingly caught each eye, though the left eye was the one that was damaged. Immediately, Dean called for a stop in the action and brought the fighters to neutral corners of the Octagon. For the next five minutes, the veteran referee took charge and used all the tools available to him to get the fight restarted while still upholding his most important responsibility to ensure fighter safety. He did all of this while the thousands of patrons in attendance grew increasingly impatient with the delay in restarting the fight.
As Stephens was trying to recover, the broadcast team discussed whether he would have five minutes, as is the case for errant strikes to the groin, or whether he had less time or perhaps no limit. Luckily, Dean, as a seasoned referee and advisor to the commissions, knew that it was at the referee’s discretion on how much time Stephens could use, up to five minutes. Dean, a mixed martial artist himself, knew what was happening with Stephens’ eye and calmly explained the situation to the cageside physician. Dean kept a close eye on how much time remained in the five minutes that he allotted for recovery.
In the midst of a hectic situation with a raucous crowd, the best version of Dean was back. This is the guy that had expertly stopped the UFC 48 contest between Frank Mir and Tim Sylvia when he saw Sylvia’s arm break. This is the guy who noticed the exact moment that Mike Swick lost consciousness after Paulo Thiago slapped on an extremely tight d’arce choke.
Eventually, the five minutes expired. When the doctor saw that Stephens still couldn’t physically open his left eye, the contest was waved off and met with a cacophonous eruption of anger and disappointment from the crowd, followed immediately by a downpour of beverages into the cage.
The stoppage obviously wasn’t a popular decision. However, I was reminded in that moment of why UFC President Dana White once said, “When Herb Dean does shit, I don’t even question it anymore.” It’s all in the little things that Dean did to make sure he got the best possible outcome that a lesser referee could have done differently without the majority of fans noticing.
He could have called the doctor to Stephens immediately and run the risk of the fight getting called off right then, but he examined the injured eye before calling the doctor and explained that it didn’t have to be determined immediately whether or not Stephens could resume fighting.
He could have allotted less than five minutes, because the poke/scratch looked far less devastating than others in recent history. Instead, Dean, knowing that Stephens isn’t the type of fighter to take a second longer than absolutely necessary to recover, gave the fighter the full five minutes.
He could have faltered under the bright lights and gave into the screams coming from the crowd. He could have pressured Stephens back into action when Stephens clearly could not continue.
Nobody could have navigated through those rough five minutes any better than Dean did on Saturday in Mexico City. I tip my hat to the man and look forward to watching what I hope will be the resurgence of the “gold standard” of MMA referees.