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It was perhaps the first advertising slogan for competitive combat, and it came to define the gladiatorial games during and long after their existence: munera sine missione, “no mercy shown.” No phrase, Latin or otherwise, better captures the soul of machismo that is both the allure and allergen of violent spectacle.
For all its efforts to distance itself from the barbaric analogue of the coliseums, the Ultimate Fighting Championship has employed this tried-and-true appeal to masculinity time and time again. Back when events carried names beyond the headliner or type of fight, titles like UFC 2 “No Way Out” or UFC 37.5 “As Real as it Gets” were clear tips of the hat to the same simulation of death that the Romans exploited to fill seats.
Of course MMA, and especially MMA today, is nowhere near the barbarism and brutishness of the Roman games; we have rules and referees. Hence the catharsis of watching violence can be achieved without the moral compromise of watching people kill each other. We even have our stats about how MMA is safer than football or boxing, since submissions and shorter competitions reduce exposure to blunt force head trauma.
Then a fight like Hector Lombard-Neil Magny happens, and none of that makes it easier to helplessly watch a fighter get pummeled into the mat with a referee obliviously standing by.
To be sure, refereeing is no walk in the park. It is thankless work that is only noticed when done poorly. Yet without the third man in the fight, the sport would be vulgar and artless. Without throwing a single strike, the referee makes the best parts of fighting possible. All the more reason to be critical of Steve Perceval; it is for the good of the sport that referees protect the fighters when they are incapable of protecting themselves.
Let’s skim past the fact that the fight had the full profile of a strong co-headliner and that it took place in a country where mixed martial arts is still not completely legal; any good-natured Australian who felt disinclined to legalize it beforehand probably did not leave UFC Fight Night “Hunt vs. Mir” on Saturday in Brisbane persuaded otherwise. The issue here is not the political ramifications of a painfully prolonged beatdown. The real issue is fighter safety.
Magny outlanded Lombard 142-9 in round two, including a UFC record 100 significant ground strikes. Though none of those strikes were clean knockout blows, they didn’t have to be: Lombard had no defense other than letting his head get bounced off the canvas. To put it in simpler terms, he was not intelligently defending himself by any stretch of the imagination. As such, the fight should have been stopped before the end of what was legitimately a 10-8 or 10-7 round.
Letting the fight continue was not just poor officiating. It showed a concerning lack of understanding of the sport, a notion further validated by the fact that none of the judges scored a single 10-8 round in the fight. From my vantage point, it looked like both rounds should have been at least 10-8. To add Down Under insult to downright injury, this all happened less than a year removed from the otherworldly beating Stipe Miocic handed Mark Hunt in Southern Australia at UFC Fight Night 65 that also went on longer than it should have.
Beyond the inexcusable yet understandable professional incompetence in a relatively new market, there is still sturdy inertia behind the misplaced notion that throwing in the towel or tapping to strikes is somehow cowardly or worthy of ridicule. I hate to be this cliché about it, but stepping into a cage to fight another person requires wells of courage that most of us will never dig deep enough to find. As much as I relish in the metaphorical value and concrete dynamism of professional fighting, there comes a point when unimpeded punches to a man flat on his back or stomach is too much to enjoy. I’d like to maintain some sort of moral high ground over backyard felony fights, whose seedy thrills are best reserved for early AM insomnia -- and in close proximity to a shower.
No, removing a fighter from harm’s way is as courageous as helping him get there, maybe more so because it requires a more nuanced type of courage: humility. I don’t fault the fighters for pushing themselves until someone intervenes; that’s what they train their bodies and minds to do. The onus then is on the corner to call the fight, should the ref drop the ball. In the case of Lombard, it is particularly perplexing since he returned to the corner in between rounds two and three, and none of his coaches thought it necessary to tell him he’d had enough. I understand wanting to give your fighter every opportunity to win, but more important is giving him the opportunity to avoid taking unnecessary punishment. A properly functioning brain is so much more valuable than a victory.
Contrast that with the headlining fight, where Hunt was both lucky and gracious enough to be able to see how out-of-it Frank Mir was and skip the perfunctory follow-up strikes to get the ref time to intervene. Longevity in this sport is still a nebulous phenomenon, but it is common sense to think that it is more attainable when the amount of extra damage fighters absorb is minimized as much as possible.
I’m not casting judgment on anyone. It was an exciting fight, both in the narrative elements of a back-from-the-brink win for Magny and the all-around action itself. We watch this sport because of -- not in spite of -- its built-in violence. The speechless excitement I felt watching Joo Hwan Kim slam Jung Bum Choi into unconsciousness at Top Fighting Championship 10 on Saturday in Seoul is exactly what fans want to see, and it was no less dangerous than a constant barrage of mounted punches from Magny. I’m no saint, but I still would not allow a friend, student or training partner to take punishment like that on my watch.
Although there are moral and political undercurrents to this, the heart of it all is simple and pragmatic: Protect the fighters who put it all on the line for our entertainment. This is not ancient Rome, and a little mercy goes a long way. It’s not like they’re getting paid that well, anyway.
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.