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The UFC 215 scrap between Rick Glenn and Gavin Tucker on Saturday in Edmonton, Alberta, produced controversy of the wrong kind. Tucker was competitive early, but as the fight progressed, Glenn took over in a big way. By the second round, Tucker was taking a terrible beating. In the third round, it got even worse. The one-sided destruction continued for what felt like an interminable period. It was an unsettling scene as the fight went long past the point in which the outcome was in doubt.
The most immediate reaction to the fight was outrage at referee Kyle Cardinal. Fans live booed loudly late in the bout and after its conclusion. UFC President Dana White ripped Cardinal on Twitter. Glenn noted he thought the fight should have been stopped. To be sure, this reaction was justified. Cardinal did not fulfill his obligation to protect the safety of the fighters, and his judgment at the least calls into question whether he should be refereeing in the future. However, the Glenn-Tucker fight and the Gilbert Melendez-Jeremy Stephens clash on the same card both raise an additional question MMA ought to tackle.
The referee has a responsibility to protect fighters, but the referee is not the only party that plays a role in that. There is also a doctor at ringside that can intervene when there is a serious injury. Finally, each fighter has a corner, and that corner can intervene and call for the referee to stop the contest. The problem is that it very rarely happens. There were a few corner stoppages at the beginning of the Ultimate Fighting Championship when few knew exactly what they were getting into. B.J. Penn’s corner famously called for an end to his UFC 94 main event against Georges St. Pierre. In general, however, corner stoppages are an extreme rarity.
There are logical reasons this is the case. Unlike in boxing, where top-flight contests are usually scheduled for 30 or 36 minutes, MMA fights are either 15 or 25 minutes. Thus, there’s less time for prolonged beatings and less time to contemplate whether to step in. Moreover, MMA has more ways to win than boxing, along with smaller gloves, so fighters hold out hope that they’ll make a miracle comeback like Frankie Edgar vs. Gray Maynard, Brock Lesnar vs. Shane Carwin or Todd Duffee vs. Mike Russow. It’s reasonable to expect fewer corner stoppages in MMA than in boxing.
The problem is that corner stoppages have largely been abandoned in MMA, even in instances when they would clearly be best for the fighter involved. The Melendez-Stephens fight was illustrative of this point. Melendez is as tough as they come and even he recognized the bleakness of the situation while trying to fight with one leg. His corner, rather than being an advocate for his safety, talked him into continuing. It would be one thing if Melendez was a mentally weak fighter just looking for an out, but he is the opposite of that and was responding to what his body was telling him. His corner played the opposite role of what a corner should typically do in that situation.
It’s hard to fault any individual corner too much in that situation, because MMA has evolved to where corners don’t think of themselves as playing a protective role in the same way boxing corners do. Referees are expected to play that role, as evidenced by the outcry against Cardinal while nary a word was directed at Tucker’s corner. If corner stoppages aren’t thought of as a normal response to a long one-sided fight, it becomes all the more unlikely that any individual corner will step forward in that situation. Fighters are going to tend to want to continue against all reason, like Tucker saying he was glad he could “go out on his shield,” even while recapping the devastating injuries he sustained against Glenn. They can learn to accept corner stoppages like boxers do, but that is much easier if it’s viewed as a normal part of the sport rather than an outlier action that reflects a lack of confidence in their personal toughness.
This is why there ought to be a cultural shift in attitudes towards corner stoppages. A rethinking of the role corners play in protecting fighters is unlikely to make corner stoppages a frequent finish, but it would hopefully provide one additional layer of protection for times when the referee doesn’t intervene but probably should. At the very least, corners should become a part of the conversation when fights go on too long. No one at cageside knows the fighter better. No one at cageside should have more concern for the fighter’s wellbeing. They can be a valuable ally in maintaining fighter safety if only they view that as a fundamental part of their role.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.