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In Defense of Rousimar Palhares, MMA's Dirtiest Fighter

Why the UFC Should Reconsider Its Lifetime Ban on Rousimar Palhares

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COMMENTARY I Guess it's just me, Renzo Gracie and a tiny minority here in America who feel the recent Rousimar Palhares punishment - banned from the UFC forever - is too severe and doesn't fit his infractions.

So be it. Not the first time the majority has been out of touch on an issue. Study the history of civil rights and women's rights and the rights of gay people in our country (and just about every other nation) and you'll choke on plenty of injustice. Hardly the first time we've seen "the book" get thrown at someone while others commit far more serious offenses yet benefit from leniency, a slap on the wrist or simply a fairer penalty (which is almost always something other than a lifetime ban).

Make no mistake: The Big League ban against Palhares - a notoriously "dirty" fighter who is essentially the Ndamukong Suh of the UFC - is far more egregious than the heel hook submissions he continues to crank even after his terrified opponents tap. All it should take for you to start second-guessing yourself on the matter is some name-dropping.

Names like: Adam "Pac Man" Jones; Josh Brent; Donte Stallworth; Ron Artest; Mike Tyson; Michael Vick, Bernard Hopkins; Bobby Knight; Riley Cooper; Ray Lewis; Latrell Spreewell; the aforementioned Ndamukong Suh; Roberto Alomar; and yes (and most prominently) even Aaron Hernandez.

All sports figures who have been involved in far greater controversies and far more outrageous or disturbing acts than Palhares.

Want to know how many of the aforementioned athletes were lifetime banned from the premier organization in their respective sports? Take a guess.

How about a grand total of zero. That's right - zero.

Not even Aaron Hernandez, in jail and facing first-degree murder charges, has been officially banned from the NFL. The All-Star tight end was cut by the New England Patriots but not terminated from the league. Not even "Pac Man Jones", civilly sued by a former strip club bouncer who claims Jones and his entourage were involved in a shooting that left him paralyzed from the waist down (a jury ruled in the bouncer's favor, by the way, though Jones is appealing the verdict).

Yet we rush to cast Palhares as some extreme monster whose infractions are the worst of the worse. Let me assure you - it's not even close. I could literally write an entire 300-page book on athletes and coaches who have committed far more serious acts both on and off the field than Rousimar Palhares - yet they still had a chance to make amends and compete at the highest level of their sport. That's what America is supposed to represent, folks. Second chances, third chances, fifth chances.... keep going til you get it right. "Don't quit," right? All is well that ends well. The ethos and extraordinary hallmark of our country is that we believe anything is possible, that anyone can reinvent themselves, that anyone can change. We insanely cling to the power of redemption. The Palhares penalty doesn't jive with the exceptional forgiveness that is a precious part of our nation's ethos.

For the record, I love watching Michael Vick play and, though I love dogs, I do not feel the Philadelphia Eagles quarterback's actions deserved a ban. Vick paid a heavy price. Now let the man play and rebuild his life. Ray Lewis was investigated in connection with an altercation that left a young man dead. The murder charge was quickly dropped and Lewis pleaded guilty to misdemeanor obstruction of justice and was fined $250,000 by the NFL. In the aftermath of the case, Lewis has been a model citizen, won two Super Bowl titles and firmly established himself as one of the greatest on-the-field leaders in NFL history (Lewis also happens to be my favorite NFL player and I harbor great respect for him).

Bernard Hopkins, who spent time in prison for numerous felony convictions, is one of my absolute favorite fighters mostly because of how dramatically he transformed his life afterward. Prison didn't make me dislike Bernard Hopkins - it made me respect his accomplishments all the more.

And Mike Tyson - well, the UFC loves him. He's at a lot of the fights and backstage. And I love Mike Tyson, too, despite the ear biting incident and some ugly things he has said and his rape conviction.

Please understand - I'm not saying or suggesting that any of the previously mentioned players should have been banned from their respective leagues. In fact, I believe such "death penalties" should be used only in the rarest cases. What I'm saying is the Palhares case is out of whack with precedents established throughout the pro sports landscape and deserves reconsideration and reversal.

Dana White

I worked five years at the UFC and gained great respect for Dana and the miracle, multi-billion dollar company he and the Fertitta brothers have built. If not for Dana and the Fertittas, I wouldn't be writing this column. There would be few jobs in this industry and I'd probably be toiling in a law office somewhere.

Accordingly, this column should not be interpreted as an attack on the UFC or Dana or even the many journalists or fans who view the Palhares ban in a different light than I do. The UFC is truly a remarkable company (as evidenced by the fact that students from University of Oxford and Stanford and Harvard have invited Dana to speak and share secrets of his success); we just disagree on this particular issue, as is bound to happen from time to time in our crazy and complex world.

Of note, ironically, is that Dana White's heart and soul belong to the underdog. He started with virtually nothing himself and has infinitely more compassion for the little guy than the heavy-handed label some ascribe to him. The former valet parking attendant is among the most generous people I have ever met with his time and his money. I have literally watched him sign autographs for three hours until every last fan was accounted for. Ask any waiter or valet parker in Vegas who has ever dealt with Dana and they will tell you, gumbas like Dana, Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Charles Barkley are among the biggest tippers you'll ever come across. Park Dana's car and a $100 bill isn't uncommon when you return it. Goes to a restaurant - might tip $200 on a $100 bill. Dana White has also helped me, asking nothing in return.

The Dana I know tries to be fair and routinely does what he believes to be in the best financial and protective interests of the UFC brand. He was clearly and rightfully disgusted by Palhares cranking his trademark heel hook last week as opponent Mike Pierce frantically tapped 9 times. Compounding matters and perhaps further incensing Dana - it was Pahares' third strike in three years (the glob of muscle nicknamed"Tree Stump" was suspended in 2010 for holding a submission too long and later hit with a 9-month suspension for elevated testosterone levels).

So Palhares is a habitual offender. He is a recidivist. He is the equivalent, you could say, of an NFL offensive lineman with a reputation for "chop blocking" at the knees of opposing players. He is the rough-and-tumble Detroit Pistons "Bad Boys" of the late '80s and early '90s in the NBA who would brutally clothesline you if you were driving the lane for an easy layup. Accordingly, no matter what the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt does for the rest of his career, he is forever destined to be the poster boy for dirty fighters. "He pulled a Palhares" could well become fighter-speak when referring to a despicable act by a particular fighter.

So it is scant surprise that, although upon closer inspection Palhares' punishment is much harsher than what other pro athletes have incurred, the prevailing view since Dana White announced "he's done" last Thursday to Jeremy Schaap on ESPN has been, "He deserved it." Fighters and fans have been flooding Facebook and Twitter with messages since, essentially rejoicing that Palhares joins only Britain's Paul Daley on the ignominious banned from the UFC list.

I'm sorry - to me this goes way too far. Palhares, who spent part of his childhood living under a bridge, already had a $50,000 bonus withheld. The athletic commission suspended him for 6 months for not letting go. And the guy gets banned on top of that.

Let's shed some perspective on this: Palhares didn't get charged with murder. The 33-year-old didn't get drunk and find himself involved in a crash that left someone dead. He didn't rape anyone or get accused of rape. Didn't get convicted of a felony. Didn't throw a 95 mph fastball at an opposing player in retaliation for an earlier home run. Palhares didn't choke his coach after practice. He didn't cripple Pierce or shred his anterior cruciate ligament. He simply did what his coaches trained him to do (as former coach Murilo Bustamante told me directly a few years ago), which is: Hold the submission until the referee tells you to stop or intervenes. Don't let go just because the other guy taps.

Only Sport Where the Ref Tackles the Athletes

When it comes to pro fighters committing "extra" and "dirty" conduct in the heat of battle a lot of fight fans and journalists suddenly have amnesia. Thankfully, I don't. I've been following the sport for over a decade and have logged 27 years as a competitive jiu-jitsu player and wrestler (and over 300 live matches). Trust me, an extra squeeze or crank is not uncommon. A lot of times it's not done out of malice - you're just giving everything you have in that moment to make the other guy tap. And when he does tap you're still in that everything mode and it takes a second or so to snap out of it and realize your opponent is actually tapping. It takes a second to go from 100 back to 0 sometimes, especially when your adrenaline and killer instinct kicks in. Even when you're a pro.

There's a reason MMA is the only sport in the world, on occasion, where the referee literally dives in and tackles the athletes. There's a reason we have referees in the first place. There's a reason we don't leave it up to the fighters themselves to decide when they will stop punching an opponent, or when they will let go of a submission.

So I ask you: What is the reason? Why? Because if you leave it up to the athletes to decide when to stop, they are too much in primal mode and a lot of them will keeping going. Especially a beast like Palhares who seems to fight only on instinct.

And despite the best efforts of referees, plenty of fighters over the years have gotten in an extra blow or two on a fighter who was already clearly knocked out. Plenty. Even on the same card where Palhares fought, Korea's Dong Hyun Kim got in an extra blow to a knocked out Erick Silva and nothing (rightfully) was made of it. Did you see the venomous grudge match between Dan Henderson and Michael Bisping at UFC 100? A booming overhand sent Bisping to the canvas like a ton of bricks. The mouthy Brit was out cold but that didn't stop Hendo from diving in with everything and landing another powerful shot for good measure. And, by the way, Henderson's Knockout of the Night bonus was not withheld and he was not suspended (again, rightfully so). There was also no ensuing controversy or public firestorm afterward. Nobody called for Hendo's head.

Every now and again I see fighters continue to squeeze a choke long after an opponent goes limp and is unconscious. Why? Because the referee wasn't sure the other guy was unconscious or not (sometimes it can be hard for bystanders to know). But rest assured, pro fighters almost always know when their opponent is out. The power of mixed martial arts and ground fighting is that you can feel your opponent's energy. You can tell when he goes limp. But guys keep squeezing. Why? Because they don't want to take any chances. They're waiting for the referee to step in and do his job.

But I have an interesting theory (aside from the fact that Palhares actually looks like a monster or Bigfoot) as to why a double standard exists for Palhares. Here is where Palhares runs into deep trouble: It's rare for one fighter to be so freakishly outstanding at the one submission that terrifies fighters the most. The heel hook.

Few fighters are scared of going to sleep from a rear naked choke. Top fighters are not afraid of being knocked out. You go out from one of those scenarios, you wake up and you live to fight another day 3 or 4 months later. No biggie. Heel hooks are a different animal altogether. Palhares locks a heel hook on you and in the back of your mind there is terror. This man has the power, in a matter of seconds, to shred every ligament and piece of cartilage in your knee. He has the power and torque to injure your knee where it takes you two years for that knee to ever feel right and "normal" again. Or maybe the knee never heals 100 percent. Maybe your knee is never the same. I believe Pierce knew this and that is why he tapped so frantically.

That is the difference between Palhares holding heel hooks longer - and fighters getting that extra squeeze on a rear naked choke or armbar even though they know the other guy tapped (pay attention and you'll notice these extra squeezes and torques). Heel hooks, by their very nature, have the potential to be so much more devastating and violent. So the tendency is to hold Palhares to a different standard because he happens to be so good at one of the most feared moves in the fight game today. recently reported that Pierce suffered an MCL sprain, though no official word as to how severe that sprain is and how much time it will sideline Pierce.

How about this for fair: If Pierce is sidelined say, for six months with the injury, then I believe a fair punishment would see Palhares prohibited from fighting until Pierce returns (and, in that instance could tack on an extra few months for good measure). So if Pierce is out 18 months due to devastation to that same knee, Palhares is out 18 months, too. If Pierce is somehow forced to retire from a hellacious knee injury suffered during last week's fight then a debate over whether Palhares should be banned from UFC gets interesting (in my mind, at least).

Food For Thought

In defense of Palhares - maybe the only reason he gets heel hooks is because he cranks them so violently and viciously and explosively. Think about it: Hardly anybody else in the UFC or across MMA gets this particular submission. Palhares is the best in MMA and BJJ history at heel hooks. Maybe it's no coincidence that his mad doggedness is a key reason why. Maybe being too nice with the heel hooks would mean a lot fewer submissions since he'd be more concerned with not hurting the other guy than getting the tap. Something to think about.

The truth is, Palhares is a good fighter (15-5, 8-4 in the UFC). He can still fight in other, smaller and less prestigious MMA shows, but not for the biggest league in the world. Even based on the fight against Pierce, I actually sensed that Palhares appears to have improved in the don't overcrank the submission after the tap department. I don't think Palhares considered himself in violation of the rules.

We know that UFC president Dana White's opinion is ultimately the only one that matters if you happen to be a UFC fighter. What happens next with Palhares is anybody's guess. Dana White is known to occasionally experience changes of heart and I'd love to see him reconsider and exercise his compassionate muscle in this case. But I don't see the UFC mastermind doing an about-face on this one. This verdict will likely stand. Palhares, who doesn't speak English, isn't a pay-per-view draw and is thus disposable. Palhares is considered a threat to fighter safety and punishing so severely is sure to send a message to other fighters about the "extras."

Wherever Palhares goes next his reputation as a dirty fighter - more savage than sportsman - will follow. Opponents found it hard to escape the death-grip of those heel hooks. Palhares will find it hard to escape his past. It may hold onto him a lot longer than he wants.

Frank "Da Tank" Curreri, a world-class Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt with over 230 grappling wins in live competition, lives in Las Vegas and has been covering UFC for the past 11 years. He has worked for UFC and as a news journalist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, The Salt Lake Tribune and a FOX news affiliate in Las Vegas.

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