Between a Rock and a Hard Place

By Jacob Debets Dec 12, 2019

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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On a night with no shortage of wicked submissions, come-from-behind wins and divisional implications, Saturday night’s UFC on ESPN 7 event was marred by two conspicuous and consecutive miscarriages of justice on the event’s main card.

The first occurred in the Stefan Struve-Ben Rothwell heavyweight affair, where the “Skyscraper” absorbed two devastating low blows over the course of two rounds, which twice had the dutchman writhing on the canvas in agony. Struve, who walked into the Octagon carrying a 1-3 record in his last four fights just a few months removed from a short-lived retirement, looked to have serious reservations about whether he would be able to continue after copping the second errant kick. After exchanging some words with referee Dan Miragliotta -- during which the official appeared to encourage Struve to continue as he was “winning the fight” and Rothwell would lose a point -- he opted to continue; 73 seconds later he was stopped by strikes.

The second instance happened in the co-main event, where Marina Rodriguez and Cynthia Calvillo fought to a majority draw. The bout was held at a catchweight of 120.5 pounds after Calvillo blew the strawweight limit by half a weight class, with the Californian being outpointed on the feet in rounds one and two only to score a 10-8 round in the final stanza courtesy of chain wrestling, submissions attempts and some scary ground-and-pound.

In both the heavyweight and strawweight features, the victor’s win was irreducibly connected with their failure, whether deliberately or otherwise, to adhere to the rules. Rothwell seemed well on his way to catching his fourth straight “L” on the scorecards before desperation kicked in and he hunted a compromised Struve down; whereas it’s hard to imagine Calvillo’s grappling didn’t benefit from the extra four and a half pounds, or that she’d possess that last-ditch durability if she’d gotten her body down to 115 (the weight class she insisted on competing at).

Rothwell and Calvillo will be reminded by the fanbase of their ostensible lack of scruples, but the clear victims here are their adversaries. Struve is likely only one more loss away from being released from the UFC, and Rodriguez’s otherwise impressive title campaign at 115 has been temporarily obstructed.

Many will hold that Struve and Rodriguez made their own bed -- Struve could have bowed out and taken the “DQ” and Rodriguez could have turned down the Calvillo bout after she blew the scales. But that argument ignores the economic and cultural architectures which penalize exactly those kinds of decisions.

Most significantly, a withdrawal at either juncture would have serious financial implications for the two principals. Struve would have missed out on the opportunity to double his pay check courtesy of his win bonus, and Rodriguez would have spent six weeks ringing up costs in camp only to pull out and likely forego being paid at all. These decisions would undoubtedly be attended by criticism from fans for the myopic charge of “taking the easy way out,” and you can bet the matchmakers would hold it against them in the future -- especially in relation to Rodriguez, who was competing in the co-main event slot for the first time in her UFC career.

These are no-win decisions the UFC has calculatedly forced onto fighters, both as a crude means of cutting costs and of reinforcing the insecurity and fear that makes them pliable subjects. From way back in the early 2000s, when Dana White would remind fighters that he “cut a champion” in B.J. Penn for (perfectly legally) courting offers from other promotions, to the present-day where WMMA pioneer and two-time title contender Liz Carmouche received her walking papers in the midst of doing (unpaid) promotional work for the company during fight week, fighters are made constantly aware of their expendability.

So yeah, Calvillo should never have been competing at strawweight given her ostensible inability to make the weight, and Rothwell should have been more alive to the fact that when you fight someone who’s seven feet tall, your body kicks will need to aimed a little higher than with your average heavyweight.

However, the real bad guy in all of this is the promotion whose ethos is forcing its athletes into that exact position; right between a rock and a hard place.

Jacob Debets is a law graduate and writer from Melbourne, Australia. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com. Advertisement

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