The referee's final instructions are usually a mere formality, allowing the tension to build just that much longer before a fight begins. But they are significant and they mean something, as Rousimar Palhares sadly found out at Ultimate Fight Night 22.
Palhares looked away from Nate Marquardt to complain to referee Herb Dean late in the first round of their middleweight fight on Wednesday at the Erwin Events Center in Austin, Texas. And when he looked away, Marquardt clocked Palhares with a powerful right from the top that was the beginning of the end.
Marquardt quickly finished the fight with a series of punches on the ground before Dean stopped it at 3:28 of the first round, giving Marquardt a victory he absolutely had to have to keep any hope of getting another middleweight title shot alive.
The victory was made that much easier by a huge mental gaffe by Palhares. The men were grappling on the ground when Palhares grabbed Marquardt's leg. Marquardt easily pulled out of it and quickly scrambled to his feet.
As Marquardt got up, Palhares, flat on his back, diverted his attention from Marquardt to look to his right to complain to Dean that Marquardt's leg had excessive grease on it. As he was complaining to Dean for that split-second, Marquardt came down from the top with a thudding right hand that, in essence, ended the fight. Marquardt finished it off with a flurry off shots on the ground before Dean halted the assault.
"He went for an ankle lock, I spun out and kicked off his butt, and when I turned around, he kind of was waving at the ref and pointing at me," Marquardt told Yahoo! Sports. "I jumped down into guard and punched him. It knocked him out and eventually the referee stopped the fight.
"When the fight was over, he said I had grease on my foot or my leg. The referee took a white paper towel and wiped my leg and then waited a bit. He finally said there was no grease. Then, the [Texas] commission checked my legs, my foot and my shin and they found nothing. They said I was clean."
Marquardt said he had had a very good warm-up and had a good sweat going in the locker room and suspected the sweat is what Palhares assumed was too much Vaseline.
Even if Marquardt had two jars of Vaseline on his legs, though, it wouldn't matter. Palhares has the right to complain when it's safe to do so. In the middle of the action with an opponent standing over you ready to punch isn't particularly safe.
This, though, isn't just a combat sports issue. In any sport, athletes are advised to keep playing until the referee orders a stop. And the rule of thumb has to be, if in doubt, keep going. It's why you routinely see defensive players in the NFL race to the end zone with fumble recoveries, even when it seemed pretty clear that the runner was already down.
In combat sports, the admonition from the referee is particularly critical, because stopping before the referee calls time can be physically dangerous. And while Palhares is healthy, you can be certain he won't make the same mistake again.
There was no grease, fortunately, so we'll be spared a drawn-out complaint from Palhares. Marquardt got the victory he so desperately needed in a card that didn't get a lot of attention but which carried great significance for him.
Marquardt entered 2010 as the unquestioned top contender for the Ultimate Fighting Championship middleweight title, held by Anderson Silva. But at UFC 109, Marquardt was upset by Chael Sonnen, who then went on to do so well in a loss to Silva that the UFC ordered a rematch. With the winner of the Vitor Belfort-Yushin Okami bout at UFC 123 in November being given a title shot against the Silva-Sonnen II winner, it's going to be a long time in any event for Marquardt to move back into championship contention.
Another loss, though, would have been devastating. Marquardt, though, said he didn't place any extra significance on the match.
"Honestly, every fight in your career is critical," he said. "The next fight is always the most important one. That wasn't that big of an issue to me. Even though I lost to Chael, I was still at the top of the division."
He cemented that with a victory that came in large part due to his diligence of preparing to defend ankle locks. He spent time during camp in Albuquerque, N.M., working with trainer Greg Jackson on it, as well as working with Tyrone Glover in Denver.
Though Marquardt entered the fight with a healthy respect for Palhares' leg locks, he said he was confident he was up to the task.
"Once I learned the defenses I would use, I used them against high-level guys," Marquardt said. "I put myself in situations, too, rather than having them work for it, and that made it easier in the fight. He's good, but he never had it set or never had a grip on my leg to really get close to anything."
So shocked was Palhares that Marquardt was able to slide out of the final attempt that he diverted his attention from the fight itself. And for that, he has no one to blame but himself.
The next time out, bet on Palhares listening to the final instructions as if it were the president's State of the Union speech.