Opinion: Cogs in the Machine

By Jacob Debets Jun 26, 2020


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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Heading into UFC on ESPN 11 on June 20 in Las Vegas, few people would have predicted that the very first fight on the card—it featured 28-year-old prospect Austin Hubbard (12-3) and the debuting 25-year-old Max Rohskopf (5-0)—would lead the news cycle coming out of it.

By now you’re familiar with the salient details. Rohskopf asked coach Robert Drysdale in between the second and third rounds to call the fight; Drysdale refused. Over 60 seconds Rohskopf asked nine times for Drysdale to throw in the towel, telling him “I don’t want to do this anymore” and “I don’t have it.” Drysdale told him to “f---ing stop it” and instructed him to continue. “You’re a f---ing champion,” he said, before instructing him to use his wrestling to grind out a decision victory. The whistle sounded to signify that the third round was about to start and that the cornermen needed to exit the Octagon. Rohskopf was still on his stool. Ringside officials briefly coalesced around him. Rohskopf repeated his request for the fight to be stopped. The referee took his arm and asked him whether he wanted to continue. He answered in the negative. The fight was mercifully called to an end.

Rarely has the lack of agency fighters have in this sport been more fully demonstrated than in this interaction between Rohskopf and Drysdale. While it is maddeningly rare for corners to throw in the towel when their fighter no longer has a realistic chance of victory and not uncommon to see fighters talked out of quitting on the stool, the vision of a fighter repeatedly instructing his coach to cease the bout and being stonewalled is uniquely disturbing and rightfully become the source of significant controversy.

In the aftermath of the incident, significant column inches and airtime have been dedicated to analyzing the role, rights and responsibilities of cornermen, most of which has oriented around anecdote and fight philosophy. As Showtime’s Luke Thomas has reported, there does not appear to be any training or best practices materials provided by regulatory bodies vis-à-vis cornermen. Predictably, this has included defenses routinely trotted out by corners that are criticized for failing their athletes: (1) Rohskopf still had the potential to win the contest, (2) Drysdale knows his fighter better than anyone else and (3) relative to other contests, Rohskopf was not taking significant damage.

The proponents of these arguments, including Drysdale himself, have been rightfully drowned out by the wider MMA community. With an increasing body of literature demonstrating the link between impacts to the head and CTE and harrowing stories like David Mitchell’s coming to the fore, the notion that a coach could force a heavily fatigued athlete—much less one who has taken significant punches to the head while providing little meaningful offense or defense in the preceding five minutes—to compete against his will has been roundly rejected. As former UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz observed on the broadcast, a “fighter knows when he’s done,” and it is inappropriate and immoral for any third party, let alone one charged with protecting his health and welfare, to attempt to forcibly dissuade him of that notion.

It would be wrong, however, to understand the Rohskopf incident as shining a spotlight on only the deficiencies of Drysdale and other cornermen. It also acts as a powerful indictment of the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s business model—specifically the reliance of matchmakers on short-notice replacement fighters to fill out a bloated event schedule—and the willingness of coaches and managers to cater to the demand with young prospects.

The UFC has always talked a big game about its commitment to health and safety—and more vitriolically than ever in the wake of criticism for holding events during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, such rhetoric does little to reflect the extreme physical demands placed on athletes called up at the 11th hour to compete. Already perilous undertakings like weight cuts take on a whole new dimension of risk when they’re being conducted on short notice, as is the overt pressure to put on “exciting” (see: striking-heavy) performances to get noticed by company brass. This model, which manifestly favors the promotion’s interests and leaves often debuting fighters to shoulder outsized physical and financial risks, provides vital context to Rohskopf’s capitulation and UFC President Dana White’s apparent sympathy for his situation.

It also begs the question: How many young careers are being sacrificed for the sake of the UFC meeting the KPIs under its broadcasting and streaming deal with ESPN? While Rohskopf was a much-hyped prospect heading into his Octagon, he was only given five days to prepare for Hubbard, a man with three times his experience and three UFC fights already under his belt. In an interview with MMAFighting.com, Rohskopf confirmed that he was dealing with injuries and was unable to get in much hard training prior to entering the cage. The initial timeline he was operating against was for a shot on the Dana White’s Contender Series in August, but with manager Brian Butler singing his praises to UFC matchmakers, he got the short-notice call and shaved two months off his camp.

In cases like these, it’s not difficult to imagine an alternative universe where Rohskopf is provided with an appropriate time to prepare and puts on a performance orders of magnitude better than the one at UFC on ESPN 11. While this image is unlikely to appeal to the Sean Shelbys and Mick Maynards of the world, it shouldn’t be a hard sell for managers and coaches, whose foremost obligation is to their clients and pupils, not to perpetuating the UFC Machine.

Jacob Debets is a lawyer 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.

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