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Herb Dean's Stoppage Of Fedor Vs. Henderson More Imperfect Than Good Or Bad

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When Herb Dean stopped the fight between Fedor Emelianenko and Dan Henderson on Saturday night at Strikeforce, his stoppage was neither good nor bad. It was imperfect, but wholly appropriate. Luke Thomas makes the case that the vocabulary of stoppage classification is distorting our ability to properly evaluate them.

(Photo by Josh Hedges/Forza LLC/Forza LLC via Getty Images)
(Photo by Josh Hedges/Forza LLC/Forza LLC via Getty Images)

Speaking anecdotally, most observers view Herb Dean's decision to stop the fight between Fedor Emelianenko and Dan Henderson as the right one. However, there is a vocal minority who underscore Emelianenko made a natural if basic defensive maneuver directly after Dean's interference. In other words, there's some debate about whether the stoppage was good or bad.

The truth is it was neither, at least as we traditionally use the terms, and the vocabulary of defining stoppages as 'either-or' limits our ability to properly evaluate referee stoppages.

MMA currently views stoppages as a function of a binary system: they're either 'good' or 'bad'. These terms have some value as a designation and there is a difference between them, but are ultimately too narrow. What Fedor Emelianenko vs. Dan Henderson teaches us is that we're using the wrong language to describe referee stoppages and thus thinking about them in ways that obscure important nuance.

Dean's stoppage is 'bad' if what we are seeking is cleanliness. It isn't merely surgical precision we are asking of referee, but perfect execution of the duties discharged to them in a moment of obvious and unequivocal need. Ememlianko turning face up at the very moment or just after Dean's intervention suggests to some the fighter was prevented from continuing before he could rally a defense while he was capable of rallying a defense. And they have a point.

The suggestion Emelianenko was unconscious and woken up by subsequent punches is, at best, conjecture. The video tape is entirely inconclusive. I dismiss these arguments out of hand.

Other arguments, though, suggest because Emelianenko seemed wobbled and hurt as he stood to his feet after the fight was stopped, and that therefore the stoppage was good, are completely immaterial. Fighters are permitted, routinely I might add, to compete rocked, hurt or in sundry other dubious cognitive states. While I admit UFC lightweight champion Frankie Edgar did more in terms of self defense and evasive maneuvering, he also fought incredibly hurt for at least a full MMA round if not more against Gray Maynard at UFC 125. Fighting rocked isn't a deal breaker, it's part of the game. What we're looking for is the tipping point where competing hurt turns into not competing much at all.

And that's where things on Saturday night get muddled.

Emelianenko sliding face first and going limp after eating Henderson's right hand is about the surest physical sign to referees that a fighter is either in huge trouble or out altogether. Referees are taught that going face first (and in this case, limp) is worse than falling back first, at least in many cases. That Henderson was able to quickly jump on top of Emelianenko and follow with two more hard, unanswered punches (arguably illegal punches, although somewhat understandable given the conditions) told Dean that Emelianenko was in serious danger if the bout wasn't stopped.

Dean is not a mind reader. He cannot use telepathy to sense if a fighter has lost key cognitive awareness. He does his job by gathering physical cues from basic human senses and uses that, to the best of his ability, to make a decision about what is in the fighters' best interest. Emelianenko going limp is the sort of dead giveaway that impermissible trouble is a punch or two away if Dean doesn't do his job.

Yet, despite going limp and being obviously hurt, Fedor quickly turned over just after the fight was stopped. This isn't some monumental achievement and perhaps the product of muscle memory or instinctive reaction. But it could also be an instance of Emelianenko trying to intelligently defend himself. We won't ever really know and neither group that view that stoppage as good or bad can be truly sure.

What we do know is this fight teaches us referee Herb Dean was obeying proper protocol and yet, proper protocol might not be always enough when it comes to giving competitive fighters every chance they deserve.

What the MMA community has to accept is that there is a natural gap between what constitutes a proper stoppage according to referee protocol and a fighter being completely, cleanly incapacitated. The two are not mutually exclusive. It is both possible for the referee to do their job to the letter of the law and simultaneously prevent a fighter who potentially could've offered more. The overwhelming majority of stoppages, both 'good' and 'bad', are defined in two parts: the decision of the referee to end the bout at the appropriate time and the fight itself organically taking a turn that called for action. In the case of Fedor vs. Henderson, we have the former without having the latter.

Our rules that govern referee behavior are excellent. I am in no way suggesting this fight proves they need to be amended. They intuitively make sense, prioritize fighter safety appropriately and have a demonstrated record of working. Yet, they do not and, realistically, cannot solve for the totality of professional MMA bouts without some measure of controversy. That's true even when the referee is employing best practices.

This fight stoppage was neither 'good' nor 'bad' as we traditionally define those terms. What we know for certain is Dean had cause to act and there is some evidence Emelianenko had more to give. The two will live in conflict forever and that's ok. That's just part of the game.