The Big Picture: The Things That Matter

By Eric Stinton Aug 6, 2020
Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

Sign up for ESPN+ right here, and you can then stream the UFC live on your smart TV, computer, phone, tablet or streaming device via the ESPN app.

* * *

Defining what matters and what doesn’t has always been at least subjective and debatable. People have different values and perspectives, informed by different upbringings and life circumstances. It’s only natural then that people can watch the same thing and walk away with entirely different feelings.

Yet the distinction between the things that matter and the things that don’t is blurrier and more elusive than ever, a heat shimmer as a border wall. It’s why so much seems to get earnestly conscripted into dumb culture wars these days. Wearing masks during a pandemic is not just a mild inconvenience; it’s an attack on our constitutional rights, an assault on the very core identity of America. Never mind the hundreds of thousands of COVID-infected body bags strewn across the globe. The real virus is the business owners who want to mitigate unnecessary risk for their employees by requiring customers to cover their face for a few minutes. The rightful recipients of our stress and frustration and anxiety are not our impotent leaders but cashiers and front desk workers doing what their bosses told them. Paying too much attention to one thing while ignoring another is unavoidably human, which isn’t an excuse so much as a warning. We are often best-served to question our gut reactions and intuitive targets.

At UFC Fight Night 173, referee Herb Dean was the third man in the cage for the main event fight between crafty veteran Derek Brunson and white-hot prospect Edmen Shahbazyan. That he was given the lead role just a week after delivering two controversially bad performances on the same fight card says something, namely that there aren’t many people with the ability and willingness to be a high-level MMA referee.

The fight was billed as a coming-out party for the 22-year-old Shahbazyan, but Brunson weathered a first-round blitzkrieg and reversed fortunes in the second. Brunson mounted “The Golden Boy” at the end of the second round and started raining down hard punches that seemed to have briefly knocked out Shahbazyan. Dean momentarily waved his hand as the bell sounded but did not end up calling the fight. He let the Shahbazyan go to his corner and get evaluated by the cageside doctor, who gave the green light for the fight to continue. It didn’t continue much longer, as Brunson picked up right where he left off. Within 30 seconds of the third round, Dean had seen enough. Immediately, there were cries that Dean had once again blown the call. The charge was that he was indecisive at the end of the second round, and he should have stepped in right then and there.

This is not a compelling argument for several reasons. First, the in-the-moment complexity of a fight is impossible to understate, but as is the case in any sport, the right call is almost always to stay out of the action in the closing seconds of competition. In the same way NBA refs don’t call the same ticky-tack fouls in the final five seconds of a game that they might call in the first quarter, unless a fighter is clearly out, the right response is usually to let time expire and promptly step in when it does. Shabazyan was not clearly out, and that’s exactly what Dean did. Though I wouldn’t have been upset if he did stop the fight at the end of the second, the responsibility really belonged to the doctor who evaluated Shahbazyan or the corner. They deserve at least as much criticism as Dean, but with the images of the previous week’s performances still fresh in fans’ minds, the veteran official was the easier target.

That controversy burned itself out in the ensuing days and ended up the nonstory it was all along. Lost in the process, however, was the real controversy that deserves the ire of MMA fans yet has received very little criticism: the fact that fighters who had their bouts cancelled did not get paid their show money. Ed Herman was originally set to fight Da Un Jung but ended up slated against Gerald Meerschaert, who tested positive for COVID-19 and withdrew hours before the event started. Likewise, Kevin Holland was supposed to fight Trevin Giles, but the latter fainted backstage on the day of the event and the bout was cancelled.

Fighters getting nickeled and dimed like this isn’t a new phenomenon, but it is especially egregious given the circumstances. All four fighters paid for training camps, did media, cut weight and showed up on fight night—during a pandemic, no less. Those are all parts of the job in addition to fighting in a cage, and circumstances out of their control prevented each of them from fulfilling that final and most crucial part of the gig. While people across the country, including professional fighters, struggle with the financial uncertainty wrought by COVID-19, the multi-billion-dollar Ultimate Fighting Championship has in UFC President Dana White’s words “never been bigger.”

What makes the UFC’s penny-pinching even grosser is that it gets paid the same from ESPN no matter what, and fighter salaries were already allocated beforehand; paying four undercard fighters would not have put the promotion in the red. It was going to be a profitable event regardless, and by not having to pay any win bonuses—a far more justifiable action than withholding show money—it would have skimmed a little extra on the top anyway. Instead, the promotion decided not to be generous to its fighters during a time of great need, opting instead to avoid any precedent that it will take care of its fighters.

That four fighters put themselves at risk—and by extension, their loved ones—of exposure to COVID-19 and ended up without the salaries they were banking on is petty and cruel and far more deserving of criticism than Dean letting the main event go on a little extra longer than it maybe should have, yet that was much less discussed in the event’s aftermath. As fight fans, we should always root for fighters to get paid for the sacrifices they’ve made, even if those sacrifices don’t materialize in the cage. Making sure fighters are taken care of is what really matters, and that should not be even a little bit debatable.

Eric Stinton is a writer from Kailua, Hawaii. His fiction, nonfiction and journalism have appeared in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat, Medium and Vice Sports, among others. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint, or find his work at Advertisement
<h2>Fight Finder</h2>