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There has been for most of our lifetimes one particularly strong stigma when it comes to combat sports—one against a fighter electing not to continue to fight. This was particularly pronounced in boxing. For all his valor inside the ring, Roberto Duran’s infamous “No Mas” fight against Sugar Ray Leonard followed him to his retirement. There are still prominent boxing writers today who belittle world champion boxers when they retire from fights due to injury or accumulated damage.
This mentality has also seeped into MMA. There has been an ongoing discussion within the sport in recent years about what to do in bouts where a fighter is taking a prolonged beating but neither the fighter nor his corner is willing to call off the fight. When Anthony Smith’s corner was criticized for not stopping his fight with Glover Teixeira in May, Smith angrily fired back that he wouldn’t allow his corner to do such a thing. Fighters are expected to take that attitude, which is why pressure is put on corners and referees to protect them.
While that expectation of fighters to continue exists, it doesn’t come into play that often because most MMA fights are only three rounds, so there are fewer opportunities for combatants to recognize the cause is hopeless. As such, it was something of an open question how fans, media and fighters would react to that type of situation. We got the chance to find out at UFC on ESPN 11 on Saturday in Las Vegas.
Austin Hubbard-Max Rohskopf wasn’t a particularly notable bout, at least prior to the finish. The first round was competitive, with two judges scoring it for Hubbard and one for Rohskopf. The second round remained competitive until around two minutes in when Rohskopf, who took the fight on short notice, began to tire. The final three minutes of the second round were one-sided, with Hubbard repeatedly tagging Rohskopf with punishing strikes. All three judges scored the second round 10-8. The fight was getting away from Rohskopf, but the vast majority of the time, a UFC fighter would continue.
Rohskopf elected instead to call it a night. He told his corner that repeatedly, with his corner trying to talk him out of it. When his corner didn’t want to accept that choice, Rohskopf told the referee and judge that was it. The scenario was a classic example of the sort of thing that used to get boxers publicly lambasted and that would even follow them like a scarlet letter. As such, it seemed entirely possible that a passionate debate would have ensued about Rohskopf’s decision.
In an encouraging and revealing development, that didn’t turn out to be the case. There was debate, but it centered not on Rohskopf but on his corner and the way they resisted his call for the fight to end. It’s understood that corners are going to try to motivate their fighters when the fighters are doubting themselves, but most felt that the corner should have accepted and respected what Rohskopf was telling them when he voiced it plainly and repeatedly.
The feeling on Rohskopf was closer to uniform. Among fans, media and fighters, the overwhelming sentiment was that there was nothing wrong with an exhausted Rohskopf deciding he’d had enough. This may seem like a common sense approach to younger fans, but it’s a noteworthy trend in the longer history of combat sports. Moreover, it’s a trend that reflects a positive revolution in the mentality of MMA culture.
As the long-term effects of head trauma become clearer and better documented by scientific research, those of us who appreciate and love the sport of MMA need to accept the toll it takes on the participants. They are also aware themselves of that toll and are under no obligation to push their bodies past the breaking point for some sort of abstract sense of courage. Those of us who know nothing of what it must be like to enter into hand-to-hand combat with a world-class fighter on a national stage—and get the worst of it—lack standing to pass harsh judgment on the mentality of a fighter in that position.
This might seem like common sense, but it’s an observation that fight fans have not always grasped. That they now do is a positive development. A fighter’s guts and willingness to push himself to the breaking point can be a great asset at the highest level of MMA. It was evident in Anderson Silva submitting Chael Sonnen in the fifth round or Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira coming back to submit Bob Sapp and Mirko Filipovic. However, it is not some sort of character flaw if a fighter decides he cannot fight on. The MMA community respected Rohskopf’s decision. Hopefully it will continue to do so in similar situations in the future.
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