UFC Referees: Unsung Heroes Who Keep The Fights Fair And Safe

UFC Referees

In a mixed martial arts fight, the third man in the cage is just as important as the protagonists. The referee makes sure that the rules are enforced and fighter safety is ensured.

The UFC had a busy year in 2023 and according to company data, the promotion held a total of 43 events during a 12-month period. During that span, the UFC employed a total of 46 referees. Among them, there were five who were called upon more often, presumably because of performance.

Below were the most used referees in the UFC in 2023:

Mark Smith (65 bouts)

UFC - Mark Smith via businessinsider.com
Image: businessinsider.com

Mark Smith rose from No.2 behind Herb Dean on the list in 2022, to first last year. Smith is a retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. and F-16 pilot and was a member of the elite flying group the Thunderbirds.  Smith also served as a White House Fellow and Senior Adviser to the NASA Administrator. After 21 years of service, he retired in 2012 and joined the private sector.

Smith then took a job as an airline pilot, a corporate health and wellness advocate, and later judge, trainer, and referee for professional and amateur mixed martial arts, kickboxing, and Muay Thai. 

Herb Dean (57)

UFC - Herb Dean via mmamania.com
Image: mmamania.com

Herb Dean is probably the most recognizable UFC referee today. A former MMA professional who fought under KOTC and Cage Rage among others, Dean posted a 2-3 record as a professional mixed martial arts fighter. After his retirement, Herb parlayed his MMA experience to become a referee in the sport. 

He made his UFC referee debut at UFC 47. At UFC 61, he was the referee in the highly anticipated rematch between Ken Shamrock and Tito Ortiz. At UFC 229, he also refereed one of the biggest fights in UFC history between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Conor McGregor. Dean was named Referee of the Year by Fighters Only Magazine from 2010-2014, and 2018-2023. 

Marc Goddard (56)

UFC - Marc Goddard via mmafighting.com
Image: mmafighting.com

Marc Goddard has risen from the ranks to become one of the most prominent referees in the UFC. The Glasgow, Scotland native is a former heavyweight mixed martial arts fighter who also fought as a submission grappler. After a 14-bout MMA career, Goddard became an MMA referee in 2004. Four years later, he was the first UFC referee from the U.K. 

Marc also worked as Director of Regulatory Affairs for the IMMA F. He was one of the founders and is now a trustee of the “Safe MMA” charity medical project. Goddard is also a member of the technical committee of the United States Association of Boxing Commissions.

Jason Herzog (54)

UFC - Jason Herzog via si.com
Image: si.com

Jason Herzog is the owner of a Master’s Degree in Engineering and a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt. Although he loved mixed martial arts, Herzog had no desire to fight, opting to be the third man in the cage. He began refereeing in 2008 and started with small organizations before making it to Bellator MMA, PFL, ONE, and the UFC.

In 2020, 176 MMA fighters from across different promotions were asked by The Athletic to vote for the best referee in the promotion. Although it was Herb Dean who emerged as the runaway winner with 34.4% of the votes, Herzog finished second with 12.9%. His 54 bouts officiated in 2023 were 10 more than in 2022.

Chris Tognoni (53)

UFC - Chris Tognoni via thesun.co.uk
Image: thesun.co.uk

Chris Tognoni taught Physical Education and Weight training at the Mohave High School in Bullhead City, Arizona before becoming Athletic Director and Assistant Principal of the school. Since 1997, Tognoni has been an MMA referee. Later he also started refereeing Muay Thai and Kickboxing fights. 

Tognoni is a member of the board of the Southern Nevada Officials Association and is the President of Arete Officiating and Consulting, Inc. Despite being a successful UFC referee, Tognoni continues to teach middle school at the Del Webb Middle School in Nevada because he says that teaching is his passion.