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At the risk of sounding like the kid in class who reminds the teacher to hand out homework, one of the best things to happen to the sport of mixed martial arts was the implementation of rules. As fun as it was to watch the early days of no-holds-barred fighting, that was not a tenable system for any organization. Sure, it was great to see the weirdness of grappling legend Royce Gracie resort to hair-pulling against Kimo Leopoldo at UFC 3, and it was downright hilarious to watch Keith Hackney pummel Joe Son’s testicles at UFC 4 -- especially when considering what we later found out about Son -- but those are the types of occurrences that justified the sport’s label as “human cockfighting.”
Without rules, sanctioning would have been a near insurmountable obstacle. That would have greatly strained the remunerative potential of MMA, which would have prevented most of the great fighters we know today from ever entering the sport. Part of the reason why those early Ultimate Fighting Championship tournaments were fun was because the competitors weren’t particularly skilled or athletic. They were tough enough, scrappy enough and probably more than a little off-in-the-head enough to want to fight a stranger in some random sketchy arena. They were regular people you’d see in regular life with a dash of martial arts and/or street-fighting experience; they weren’t world-class athletes.
The problem: Enforcing rules can be hard. The very thing that makes MMA so dynamic and exciting -- the constant potential for an instantaneous ending of the fight -- also makes it unmanageable. Pity the thankless, fallible work of refereeing.
In the UFC on Fox 28 main event on Saturday in Orlando, Florida, the impossibility of controlling a professional fight was easy to see. Jeremy Stephens finished Josh Emmett 95 seconds into the second round with a sudden, devastating barrage of strikes. More than a few of those strikes were not legal. In a matter of seconds, however, the bout was over, Stephens was celebrating and audiences were scratching their heads.
The most visibly egregious of the controversial strikes was the knee that Stephens threw to a clearly downed opponent. This one was strange, because instant replay shows that it barely connected, if it connected at all. It’s hard to argue that this was a crucial component of the finish; had he not thrown it, the fight would have no doubt ended in the exact same way. Yet had he landed it squarely on Emmett’s shiny dome, the bout would have no doubt been called a no-contest. It’s complicated.
The fuzziness of the knee’s legality naturally led to some complex underlying questions. Is it the intent, the attempt or the consequence that matters? To what extent does an illegal strike need to connect in order for it to be considered illegal? Analogies work both ways. Attempted murder, for instance, is still a crime, even if the attempt doesn’t lead to any actual harm; and yet, lifting a few cents from the “take a penny, leave a penny” tray in a convenience store is not at all the same as emptying out the cash register.
The appearance of the attempted knee was bad, but the real damage was done when Stephens landed ground-and-pound elbows to the back of Emmett’s head. Then again, how exactly do you prevent that? Fighters instinctively scramble and cover up when they’re in the lower-middle class of consciousness. How is the fighter on top supposed to account for that? Everything happens so fast and the consequences are so severe that neither the fighters nor the referee can really do anything to prevent those kinds of elbows in the moment.
That’s why, some might argue, there are commissions and appeals processes after the fight, which is what Emmett and his team have stated they will pursue. It’s totally understandable and reasonable to appeal the loss, though if I were Team Alpha Male, I wouldn’t get my hopes up about the outcome. It’s rare that losses get overturned for illegal strikes, and the lines are blurry enough in this case to warrant well-intentioned inaction from the commission. Even if you take a hard legalistic line, there’s a legitimate counterargument that those strikes, while illegal, did not alter the imminence of the finish; it’s not like all of them landed on the back of the head. Then we’re back at square one: Where’s the line? If we’re going to consider certain strikes legal and others not -- and we should -- then there should be actual consequences for transgressing those boundaries. Otherwise, what’s the point of having the rules in the first place?
I’m torn. My gut concedes that the strikes were illegal but probably didn’t affect the result. My head says that doesn’t matter: Illegal is illegal. Personally, I will have no qualm with whatever happens, and if anything, I wouldn’t mind seeing two of the heaviest gunslingers in the featherweight division run it back for a second time. That way, everyone wins.
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.