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“Why wasn’t the fight immediately called after the intentional foul?”
“How come that wasn’t an automatic disqualification?”
Two people, neither of whom could be considered hardcore MMA fans, asked me those questions separately this past weekend after they watched Petr Yan’s egregious illegal knee against Aljamain Sterling at UFC 259.
Since the moment Yan’s knee connected Saturday night, the prevailing notion on social media has been that Sterling “deserves an Oscar,” and that he milked it and ultimately quit. The fight ending in a disqualification and Sterling as the new champion? To MMA Twitter, that was his decision – which isn’t technically true, but the optics of how the situation unfolded made it seem that way.
The hate being hurled at Sterling – the victim of an intentional and vicious illegal knee to the face, mind you – is completely irrational and unjustified.
Which leads me back to those two questions and specifically how they were phrased: Why wasn’t the fight immediately called? Why wasn’t the DQ automatic?
The answer lies in the language of the Association of Boxing Commissions and Combative Sports unified rules of mixed martial arts, which were in effect at UFC 259. They state the following:
“If the fighter is fouled by blow that the referee deems illegal, the referee should stop the action and call for time. The referee may take the injured fighter to the ringside doctor and have the ringside doctor examine the fighter as to their ability to continue on in the contest. The ringside doctor has up to 5 minutes to make their determination. If the ringside doctor determines that the fighter can continue in the contest, the referee shall as soon as practical restart the fight. However, unlike the low blow foul rule, the fighter does not have up to 5 minutes of time to use at their discretion.”
In Sterling’s case, from the moment referee Mark Smith called time to the moment he called off the fight, roughly 3 minutes elapsed. We saw Sterling wide eyed and dazed, unable to stand and barely able to sit up, prompting the cageside doctor to be called in. At one point, either Smith or the doctor asked Sterling, “Are you done?,” a question that only reinforces the false notion that continuing is up to him. It took another minute and one more question from the doctor before Smith finally waved off the fight.
Even though nowhere in the rule book does it state that the decision to continue falls on the fighter, make no mistake: Fan perception is that it does, and that feeling only grows with each passing second. For Sterling, it didn’t help that Daniel Cormier right away reminded viewers that UFC light heavyweight Anthony Smith “took the high road” when Jon Jones illegally knee’d him in their March 2019 title fight, or that DC later said Sterling would not deserve heat “if he decides that this fight is over.”
To be clear: The referee handled the situation by the book. But if ever there was an instance to make a quick decision to stop a fight because of an illegal blow, this was it.
Don’t just take it from me, though. Take it from Anthony Smith, who speaks from experience.
“What I don’t understand is why the legality of the knee is the issue in why (the referee) won’t make the decision,” Smith said in an interview with Fanatics View. “Because had Aljo’s knee been up but he was in the same position, (the ref would) have stopped that fight immediately just basically off the reaction that Aljo had once he took it. Why does the legality of that knee change that? Because if you would’ve stopped it before – if it was a legal knee – because he was too injured to continue, why wouldn’t you do it right away because it was illegal? …
“We’re gonna pretend that you’re so experienced and so knowledgeable in this sport, that we’re gonna task you with stopping fights when people can’t continue. Right? But then all of a sudden there’s a foul and you start looking around, you’re lost, and you’re looking at the table, looking at the commission, and you’re trying to find the doctor. What you should be doing is you should know what the fighter looks like when they’re injured. You should know when it changes. You should know the look in their eyes. You should know their mannerisms. I (knew) that Aljo was hurt when he first took that knee, and I’ve never ref’d one of his fights. And if I know that, then Mark Smith should know that.”
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Maybe Mark Smith did know that, but this isn’t about him so much as it’s about the rules in place, which encourage referees to be patient when dealing with illegal strikes.
“I don’t wanna crap all over Mark Smith because I think, given the rules and the way things are done right now, I don’t think he did an awful job,” Anthony Smith said. “I think he took too long to make the right decision, and I think aesthetically it made Aljo look awful.”
It’s important to remember that not all illegal strikes are created equal. The allotted 5 minutes fighters get to recover from eye pokes and low blows, for example, that makes sense. In that time, vision can return, pain from a groin kick can go away.
Head trauma is entirely different. A fighter who just had his bell rung by an obvious and – in Sterling’s case – intentional illegal knee should not be given time to recover. The fighter can’t be relied upon to intelligently convey his ability to continue, nor should he be part of that decision-making process.
“I think referees need to have more responsibility, and they need to be willing to take more responsibility,” Anthony Smith said. “You’ve never seen Tom Brady get sacked and end up with a roughing-the-passer (call) and then the referee talk to Tom so they can figure out what they’re gonna do. You make the call. That’s your job.”
Imagine if that’s what had happened with Sterling. Imagine the referee waving off the fight within seconds and never relying on the doctor in the first place because Yan’s illegal knee was clearly that bad.
The conversation almost certainly would be different. Maybe Sterling wouldn’t be receiving the brunt of the blame for the unfortunate result. Maybe the focus would be on Yan’s action instead of Sterling’s reaction. That’s how it should be. That’s how it can be.
A tweak to the unified rules could go a long way toward changing this moving forward.