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Around the same time we were D.A.R.E.’d to resist drugs in elementary school, we were also taught that “cheaters never prosper.” These are strange messages to process for most pre-teens. Apparently, the enemy was among us -- standing in line for the slide, punching the tetherball, swinging from the monkey bars -- ready to pass out free drugs and/or hurriedly copy answers onto their arithmetic worksheets. Aside from creating an atmosphere of suspicion on our playground, both messages fell upon ears that weren’t so much deaf as they were clogged with fart jokes.
As is the case with all good advice given to little kids, it wasn’t long before they were inverted for comedic effect. “D.A.R.E. to DO drugs,” the playgrounds laughed. “Cheaters ALWAYS prosper.” Saying the opposite of what you’re supposed to say is one of the earliest lessons in humor. In reality, though, the results of cheating were mixed. Cheaters sometimes prospered -- when adults weren’t looking -- but for the most part, they got caught. It took some trial and error and sophistication to make cheating a consistently prosperous endeavor.
The most common rebuttal to “cheaters never prosper” is “if you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.” It speaks to the idea that cheating is not a cut-and-dry moral failure. Often, it’s just good sense. If it helps you achieve your goals and you can get away with it, why wouldn’t you? This is the case in the Ultimate Fighting Championship and lopsidedly so. If you aren’t breaking the rules, you’re fighting uphill.
In the UFC 208 main event on Saturday in Brooklyn, New York, Germaine de Randamie broke the rules twice and twice was warned to stop, lest she be warned with a sterner voice the next time. She landed clean shots after the bell at the end of Rounds 2 and 3 against an opponent who had appropriately responded to the bell. Fighters should “protect themselves at all times,” but that’s a cowardly procedure to hide behind in this instance; it’s well-understood that “at all times” begins and ends within the five minutes of a round. If de Randamie walked over to Holly Holm and kicked her while she was on her stool in between rounds, nobody would be shrugging it off, so clearly there are times when fighters don’t need to be protecting themselves.
As is the case in all things, there’s room for explanation. Fighters can be caught in the heat of the moment and already mid-swing as the bell goes, and that’s all understandable. Just as it’s understandable to accidentally land a low blow when trying to hit the inside of an opponent’s thigh, or to throw an open-fingered strike and scrape an opponent’s eyeball. That’s what warnings are for; they inform the guilty party to change whatever it is that led them to break the rules, or else. However, warnings are meaningless when they start to substitute for actual punishment. Manage a group of kids with nothing but warnings and see how long it takes for them to figure out they can get away with anything.
It may be harsh to say “The Iron Lady” cheated in the fight. The difference between rule breaking and outright cheating is in the intent, which only de Randamie herself can know. Intent, however, shouldn’t dictate whether or not a fighter is disciplined but rather how they are disciplined. In the same way that there’s a difference between manslaughter and first-degree murder, there’s a difference between deliberately and knowingly punching someone after the bell and simply being in the heat of an exchange. That doesn’t mean manslaughter is completely forgiven and dismissed with a warning not to kill someone the next time. It’s just given a lesser sentence. If there were a way to somehow prove that de Randamie had planned to hit Holm after the bell, the punishment would certainly warrant something harsher than a point deduction.
There’s a fallacy that’s commonly repeated when it comes to referee’s hesitance to take a point: They don’t want to interfere with the outcome of the fight. Then why have referees to begin with? That’s what they are there to do. When the situation allows, they interfere to ensure that a fair fight takes place. Besides, letting penalties go does, in fact, affect the fight. The extent of which it does is both impossible to know and irrelevant.
If someone instinctively grabs the fence and prevents a takedown, they may or may not have completely altered the trajectory of the fight. We’ll never know. More importantly, however, is the fact that the rules are not meant to be subjectively applied as individual referees see fit. There’s room for nuance, of course, and nobody is against giving someone a warning for their first offense. However, whether it’s eye poking, groin striking, fence grabbing or throwing extracurricular exchanges, two warnings without punishment is one too many more often than not. Otherwise, you’d be a fool not to open the fight with an eye poke, nut shot, punch-kick combo. As things stand, you could probably do it again before anything happens, while your opponent writhes on the ground unsure of how far away the shapes around them are or if they will ever be able to procreate.
The irony of it all is how out-of-cage rule breaking seems to be disciplined with solemn consistency. As Nick Diaz has exposed and smug schoolmarms have insisted upon, if you smoke weed before enough fights, you’ll get threatened with a lifetime ban. Not because there’s any evidence that it enhances performance or provides any competitive edge, but because the rules are the rules and it’s against the rules. Punch someone after the round ends, however, and the rules suddenly morph into mere guidelines, general and flexible and open to on-the-spot interpretation. Perhaps the discrepancy is compensation for the messier, less manageable politics that unfold in real time in the Octagon.
The refs shouldn’t be demonized, though. It’s a difficult and thankless job that is most of the time only noticed when done poorly. Yet it’s also the most vital part of the sport. Without referees, MMA would be artless and gross. It makes sense that they are hesitant to deduct points, even if it’s not the correct call. In the aftermath of UFC 208, it was easy to let the end justify the laissez faire involvement of referee Todd Anderson. Had he taken the point, the fight would have been ruled a draw, and nobody wants a draw, especially in a title fight and an inaugural one, at that. However, that’s a lazy defense of enforcing the single-most important development in the history of MMA: the implementation of rules.
There are plenty of solutions out there worth investigating, and the existence of a rule does not mean it is unimpeachable. Rules can be and have been changed. If anything in the unified rules need revision, let it be revised. Until then, however, the very least we could do is actually enforce the existing rules.
Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.