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10 Universally Respected Referees Who Stood Out In An Unenviable Position

10 Universally Respected Referees Who Stood Out In An Unenviable Position
By Mikey Traynor
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When a referee does his job right, he mostly goes unnoticed. That's the cliché, but it doesn't exactly apply to the men we are saluting here today.

The men in the middle are some of the most highly criticised figures in sport. Whether it's bitter fans, cranky pundits, or pretty much anyone who watched a game in which the ref had a shocker, it is so easy to have a go at the official with the ability to analyse every decision.

There are, however, a select few who have earned the respect of everyone from the athletes they officiate, the fans who watch them, and the media who cover their sport. These men have proven themselves to be not only excellent at judging their selected sport, but also in using common sense and seeing the bigger picture.

We've picked out 10 refs, some retired and some still active, who are universally respected in their respective sports.

Nigel Owens - Rugby

Where do we start with Nigel Owens?

A friend of Balls.ie, our readers share our total admiration for him as a person, but as a ref you simply will not find any rational rugby fan with a bad word to say about him.

His presence was missed in the 2016 Six Nations as a conscious decision to take the burden off of Owens and blood in some younger referees in the sport saw him in a reduced role, as he has a fantastic ability to keep up with play and enjoys total respect from every player on the pitch, especially when he has been crossed as Chris Robshaw will tell you better than anyone.



In terms are refs that are still active, there are none better than Owens.

Dickie Murphy - GAA

Boris Johnson once described politics as a world that is 'notoriously short of credit'. But compared to GAA refs, its practitioners are practically showered in adulation.


We considered numerous candidates. Pat McEnaney is revered by many, often cited by pundits as the finest Gaelic football referee of the modern era.

But no one who has ever holidayed in Mayo could stand over the statement that he is universally respected. Kildare fans also harbour a grudge.

Brian Gavin is popular among hurling fans who like the more laissez-faire style official but he is despised by others.
Wexford whistler Dickie Murphy is the nearest thing we've found to a universally respected referee. Denis Walsh wrote that he mastered the art of 'allowing aggression to breathe without strangling a game'.


He was the man in the middle for so many big games in the revolution years in the 90s, being trusted with four All-Ireland finals, in 1992, 1995, 1997, and 1998.

Big John McCarthy - MMA

A former police officer with the LAPD, John McCarthy is an iconic figure in MMA having been involved with the UFC since 'UFC 2: No Way Out' back in 1994.


Initially, McCarthy didn't have too much work to do considering the more relaxed rules and regulations of fighting in the UFC at the time, but he was someone who insisted on having the power to stop the fight when one fighter was not intellegently defending himself despite facing opposition from a number of UFC executives.

He retired from refereeing MMA in 2007, only to return to work with the UFC in 2010 and now hosts his own MMA podcast. The fact that he is bigger than almost all of the men he shares the octagon with no doubt helps when it comes to earning respect.

Kenny Bayless - Boxing

When you're chosen to referee Floyd Mayweather Vs Manny Pacquiao, it's because you are considered the best.


What I say, you must obey!

While some may feel that he was unfair on Pacquiao in that massive fight, he is still considered to be the best in the business and was called exactly that by Freddie Roach in the build-up to that grand occasion.


He's reffed over 100 title fights and called the shots in some memorable bouts such as Hatton vs Pacquaio, De La Hoya vs Mayweather, Pacquiao vs Cotto, Hatton vs Malignaggi, and both Pacquiao and Mayweather's fights with Shane Mosley.


Ed Hochuli - American Football


Ed Hochuli is a beast.

Immediately recognisable on the field for looking like an NFL linebacker wearing a referee uniform for Halloween, Hochuli commands respect for his adjudication as well as his physique.

A former attorney, Hochuli speaks well and isn't afraid to make the calls he sees. While many of his NFL colleagues have been widely criticised in recent years, the general consensus is that it's a shame there is only one Ed Hochuli.

Earl Hebner - WWE

Without a doubt the only member of this list to have started a referees strike because he wanted the ability to physically defend himself against attacks from the athletes he was officiating, Hebner was the most memorable referee from the golden age of professional wrestling.

Considering how bad at acting the majority of referees in professional wrestling are, the fact that the WWE made him an active fighter and gave him his own personal conflict with Triple H speaks volumes as to how he was seen within the organisation.

Sadly that conflict with HHH ended with him being fired, and pedigreed, would make it seem like a sad story if Hebner did not return at 'Backlash 2000' (one of the best PPVs ever as far as we are concerned) and get his revenge by counting the fall as The Rock defeated Triple H in the main event.

He was fired by the WWE in 2005 for selling official merchandise without permission, which would be enough for most referees to be excluded from this list, but because he's a professional wrestling referee we're claiming it simply adds to his storyline.

Mills Lane - Boxing


The retired ref is a boxing icon, as is his trademark phrase.

Let's get it on!

Aside from officiating some of the highest profile heavyweight championship boxing fights of the 70s, 80s, and 90s, Lane was so popular that he even had his own TV court show called 'Judge Mills Lane' where he played the role of a TV judge. He also agreed to voice the character of himself in MTV's hugely popular 'Celebrity Deathmatch' which helped him arguably the most famous ref on this list.

Dick Bavetta - Basketball


The current record holder for most NBA games officiated, he retired after refereeing a truly staggering 2,635 consecutive NBA games in 2014. He never missed an assignment and kept himself in incredible condition. He was inducted into the basketball Hall of Fame in 2005.

Herb Dean - MMA

The second MMA ref on this list, Herb Dean is a firm favourite among fighters and fans alike.

He always stays calm, puts himself in the best position to stay in total control of the fight, and rarely calls stoppages either too early or too late. Dana White has said publicly before that he feels Dean is the best referee in the history of MMA.

When Herb Dean does shit, I don't even question it anymore. I wait for the replay. This guy sees shit that I can't see sitting there watching the monitor.


High praise indeed.

Pierluigi Collina - Soccer

This list would have been completely worthless were it not for the iconic Collina, so we had to leave the best for last. So good that he was the lone cover star of the popular video game Pro Evolution Soccer 3, Colina was unmissable on the pitch, but at the same time never caused controversy.

Without a doubt the best clip of Collina that exists is him showing Tomas Repka (a bit of a mad man, by the way) who was the boss.


As if there was any doubt. What a hero.

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