Referee stoppage spotlights UFC main event.

It’s every referee’s worst nightmare.

Just over four minutes into the first round of their UFC Fight Night 158: Vancouver bout, Justin “The Highlight” Gaethje brought down fan-favourite Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone with a left hook and counter right punch. The main event fight ended with Gaethje getting the KO/TKO victory over his 36-year-old idol.

But rather than immediately celebrate, the 30-year-old Gaethje turned to referee Jerin Valel and began shouting obscenities at him. All the while, “Cowboy” Cerrone looked at Valel, bewildered, with his arms raised as if to ask him “What are you doing?”

What happened? Well, after Gaethje connected on his hook and counter punch combo, Cerrone briefly dropped to a knee. Gaethje, smelling blood, slammed his right fist into Cerrone’s face to bring his opponent down again. He expected the ref to step in, but after Valel did nothing, Gaethje drove two more shots into Cerrone’s head. Again, he turned to Valel to tell him to stop the fight, but again Valel stayed still. Gaethje took one more shot at Cerrone, who was struggling to get up, before Valel finally stepped in between them.

Justin “The Highlight” Gaethje (top) expresses his disappointment over referee Jerin Valel’s late stoppage following his win over Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone. [CREDIT: USA TODAY Sports]

Justin “The Highlight” Gaethje (top) expresses his disappointment over referee Jerin Valel’s late stoppage following his win over Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone. [CREDIT: USA TODAY Sports]

Gaethje was upset that Valel forced him to take extra, arguably unnecessary punches at his already-downed opponent, while Cerrone was disappointed that Valel waved off the fight when he could’ve rebounded.

And they weren’t the only ones expressing grievances about the stoppage post-fight.

“Justin seemed upset. Cowboy seemed upset,” said UFC executive David Shaw post-fight. “It was one of those situations where Jerin probably gave Cowboy…the benefit of the doubt. It probably could have got stopped a punch earlier.

“Sometimes you have to give guys a bit more leeway to see if they can recover. But from my position, I believe it was stopped a tad too late.”

Referee complaints aside, the fight generally lived up to its main card tag. Both fighters came in boasting respectable records (36-12-0 with 1 no contest for Cerrone, 20-2-0 for Gaethje), and they both displayed solid movement and stand-up play in the short time they spent facing each other.

Gaethje, who picked up the Performance of the Night Award, was the more active of the two fighters. Before his fight-winning hooks and uppercuts, Gaethje had already landed some leg kicks and hard punches. There was a lot of power behind Gaethje’s strikes – not too big of a surprise given his two straight KO/TKO wins leading up to this fight – and it always looked as though “The Highlight” was going to finish the fight via a knockout.

After the bout, Gaethje announced that he was available to fight the winner of a Khabib Nurmagomedov-Tony Ferguson fight.

“I want to fight for the world title,” he said. “I want to prove I’m the best in the world.

“I would be really, really happy to fight the winner of [Khabib vs. Ferguson].”

With the win, Gaethje improves to 21-2-0 overall and 4-2 in the UFC. It’s his third straight victory through a first-round knockout, and it's his fourth KO in the UFC Lightweight division since 2017.

Cerrone’s loss drops his record to 36-13-0 with 1 no contest. He has lost six of his last 10 fights.