Oh My God! It happened again! Only a few short weeks after Mousasi kneed Weidman into a baffling and controversial TKO win by apparently legal knees, after the bout was stopped because the referee thought the knees were illegal (what?), and after Miragliotta took all the heat for his apparent mistake, and all the discussion surrounding the use of instant replays and referee polling, it happened again. This time with the consensus one of the best referees in the business, Herb Dean. There was nothing different between the two incidents. Nothing. Except that this time it was worse. Much much worse.
Let’s take it from the top. First of all, we should remember that the new unified rules of MMA have not been adopted everywhere, which is a big part of the reason this confusion is taking place. In New York, where Weidman and Mousasi fought, the new rules had been adopted, which means that a fighter is only considered ‘downed opponent’ when both his hands (and feet) are on the ground. In Texas, where Alvarez and Poirier have just fought, the new rules had not been adopted, which means that one hand on the ground is enough to consider a fighter “downed”, and therefore illegal for his head to kneed at.
So, Poirier is on the ground, trying to get up, pushing himself up with his hand. His hand is clearly on the ground, which makes him a “downed” opponent according to the old rules which Texas follows. Alvarez knees him in the head once with the hand staying completely on the ground. Herb Dean doesn’t do anything. Then Alvarez knees him again, this time the force of the knee lifts Poirier’s hand off the ground,but the knee hit him when his hand was still on the ground, which means this knee is illegal too. It’s not like in the case of Weidman and Mousasi, where Mousasi lifted Weidman up with his hands, forcing Weidman to not be a “downed” opponent, and the knee landing only after that. Poirier was a downed opponent when both of Alvarez’s knees landed. But the second knee lifted his hand off the ground AFTER the knee landed. So both knees that Alvarez threw were illegal.
Herb Dean was inches away from the action and didn’t do anything. This was a huge mistake; much worse than Miragliotta’s in the Weidman-Mousasi fight. Mousasi’s knees were borderline. It was very understandable that Miragliotta didn’t see exactly what happened in real time. Add to that that he was not standing in the best angle to see, and his mistake is reasonable. But Herb Dean was situated perfectly to see the knees, and they were not borderline at all. Poirier’s hand was clearly on the ground. And it happened twice!! It can’t get much worse than that.
The only explanation is the confusion stemming from the two parallel rules systems in play at this time – the old one and the new one, which confused Dean. He didn’t remember in the heat of the action that he should be following the old set of rules, where one hand on the ground is enough to consider a fighter “downed”, and he just considered Poirier not a downed opponent, and therefore didn’t stop the fight. That of course doesn’t justify his mistake, since these were not the rules he should have adhered to. Poirier was aware of the correct rules, as he was obviously purposefully putting one hand on the ground, using the other to block the shots. So he did what he thought he should do for the rules to protect him. It was Herb Dean’s job to apply those rules, but he failed to do so.
But this is not even half the story. After the two illegal knees landed with Poirier putting one hand on the ground, he understood that Herb Dean was not going to stop this illegal activity, so he dropped both hands to the ground and one knee – making him a downed opponent under the new rules too, which shouldn’t even be mentioned in this discussion. There is no way Alvarez missed him doing such an extreme move. This move was a total abandon of any kind of defense on Poirier’s part and was intended entirely to make Alvarez stop the illegal knees, and yet Alvarez kneed him a third time, this time to a completely exposed head, which received the full force of the blow, making Poirier collapse to the floor.
This time Herb Dean did finally stop the action. Of course after the fiasco of Weidman-Mousasi, obviously one would expect Herb Dean, the best in the business to learn from the other referee mistake and refer to the instant replay to see if he made a mistake, or do a referee poll, a method he himself talked about as something referees can use. The fact that he didn’t use either of these makes it seem that he was very sure about his decision, and didn’t feel there was any doubt. This is especially problematic since, as I showed, he was obviously very wrong.
But let’s continue. So Herb Dean stops the fight. At this point Alvarez had hit Poirier with 3 illegal knees, one of them a blatant foul, with Poirier kneeling and putting both his hands on the ground, when the rule is that he can be standing on his feet with only one hand on the ground to be considered a downed opponent. After Poirier makes it clear ha cannot continue Herb Dean decides that since this was not an intentional foul by Alvarez he should not be disqualified, and rules the fight a No-Contest.
If we disregard Herb Dean’s huge mistake in letting Alvarez knee Poirier twice while Poirier’s hand was on the ground, since Dean was probably confused and deemed the knees legal, Alvarez knee when Poirier was kneeling with both hands on the ground was as big a foul as one can make. If Dean doesn’t consider this enough for a disqualification, he basically says that he would never disqualify someone for a non-intentional foul.
Now, let’s think about that. What does that mean? If a fighter who is not breaking the rules intentionally would never be disqualified, then you are basically giving them a free hand to disregard the rules. Not to break them intentionally but to disregard them, which is almost the same. If fighters would know that they can poke people in the eyes, hit them in the groin, knee them in the head when they are on the ground and they wouldn’t get disqualified for that unless it’s intentional, then they wouldn’t try not to do that. It’s true that they wouldn’t be able to do it intentionally, because then according to Herb Dean, they should get disqualified, but they would not try not to do it, either, which would make for much more fouls than there are today.
And another thing, let’s say that Alvarez was obviously losing the fight (I don’t know if he was, but he certainly may have felt this way following the near KO he experienced just minutes before), he now have no reason to try to follow the rules anymore, if we follow Dean’s logic. As long as Alvarez doesn’t intentionally break the rules, he wouldn’t be disqualified, so Alvarez can just go crazy, not try to follow the rules at all, and the worst case would be that the fight would be stopped and it would be called a No-Contest, which is definitely better than a loss for him, which is where he was headed (in this thought experiment).
So actually, it’s exactly the opposite, our goal should be to try and make fighters follow the rules at all times, even when they are losing the fight and therefore have nothing to lose by breaking them. So what should happen is that when a fighter breaks the rules so blatantly as Alvarez did, not only should he be disqualified, because that would only award him the loss he was headed for anyway, he should also be punished in some way – fine, suspension, etc.
In other words Alvarez benefited greatly from breaking the rules. He was able to get out of a fight in which he was beaten badly, he broke the rules 3 times, one of them as badly as the rules can be broken, and he didn’t get punished for it at all, he basically came out with a draw. I just can’t imagine a worse sequence of bad decisions than this one.
And Herb Dean is still defending his decision, and the reason he can do that is because nobody is talking about this. it’s like people have gotten used to bad decisions and bad consequences, and they just see it and move on. Like I said, this incident was much worse than the Weidman-Mousasi one, and yet it’s being talked about and criticized much less.
It’s true, of course, that the root of the problem is confusion that is caused by the fact that some athletic commissions have adopted the new rules and some haven’t. This is a very bad situation that must be resolved as as soon as possible, and unfortunately doesn’t seem like there is any effort to resolve it quickly. However, that doesn’t mean that it gives free hand for fighters to make such blatant fouls, and it definitely doesn’t mean that referees should make such blatant mistakes, basically rewarding fighters for breaking the rules.