For mixed martial arts, a sport unique to itself yet, as its name implies, one which embodies an entire class of narrower disciplines—and hence can be chaotic to its detriment—you would think every effort would be made by those tasked with its oversight to erase any further, unnecessary variables. Instances of canvas cave-ins and collapses are nonexistent in the UFC specifically by dint of this oversight, as are tears in its mesh perimeter from the impacts of tossed and tackled fighters.
It is clear, in other words, that the industrial side of things at this level has, given the absence of related crises, been stress-tested in meticulous fashion so as to avoid catastrophe and fiasco. MMA is only a quarter century old and while no longer scandalous to swathes of the wider masses, is still in a position where it must continually prove itself. A collapse of the cage or other such bedlam, especially one involving serious injury, would only reaffirm lingering notions of amateurishness and illegitimacy.
There remain some wrinkles in the fabric of the sport itself, however, that may simply not have an iron. Accidental groin strikes, for example, are a chronic condition MMA shares with boxing, kickboxing and all striking martial arts. The pitcher does not intend to hit the batter with a stitched orb made of rubber cement at ninety miles per hour but the pressure and intricacy of his task—whether to apply curve, what kind and with what force—is a necessary risk if he is to outstrategize his elite foil. Male fighters already wear cups in their shorts and, as MMA is both a striking and grappling discipline, said fighters would only be encumbered by further gear. Everyone knows this, and as such most booing heard by onlookers in these instances is a presumption, fair or not, of intent. (It never behooves a fighter’s career in any circumstance to kick or knee their opponent’s nether regions.)
This past weekend saw an anticipated five-round UFC main event between top ten-ranked featherweights Yair Rodriguez and Jeremy Stephens thwarted by an eye poke just fifteen seconds in. The Mexican fans in attendance erupted in unbridled anger and showered the octagon, fighters and cage-side personnel alike with beer and concession stand trash in a preposterous scene. However graceless this reaction was (such incidents occurred even prior to the debacle), the outrage itself was warranted. It was also, as continues to be the case with eye pokes, misdirected.
The notion floated by some that Rodriguez intended to rake Stephens’ eye is, of course, ludicrous. The event was poised as a high stakes showcase for the Parral, Chihuahua-based “El Pantera” in his own backyard and he along with his team spent six weeks of arduous training to prepare for the fight, the expenses from which would not likely be recouped from a by-the-books loss (given the UFC’s pay grade) let alone no-contest. If Rodriguez were “scared” of Stephens and just wanted an escape route, another popular theory, accepting a rematch set for less than a month later is an odd way of showing it. Regardless, even entertaining the idea he did intend the foul, knowing to a certainty he would be damned outright by a significant number of viewers, the fact is neither he nor anyone else should be able to perform this action in the first place.
Unlike groin strikes, this problem is not one general to the sport but specific, or at least most rampant, in the UFC. Countless fights under the promotion’s banner have either been jeopardized or called off completely due to eye pokes, one of which I witnessed in person when I attended UFC Vancouver a week and a half go. It was the only UFC event I’ve ever been to and yet somehow I still lucked out! MMA may be unpredictable but in the UFC eye pokes are all but guaranteed; not just killjoys on occasion but an unfettered plague almost none of their events elude despite a weekly schedule.
Worse, eye pokes are a direct and blatant result of the their own glove design, which allows a fighter to fully extend his or her fingers on a whim. In the now defunct Japan-based PRIDE FC promotion, which the UFC subsumed, the issue was exceedingly rare as the gloves simply did not allow this extension. The forced curve of one’s digits had no adverse effect on punches as they are by nature closed fists, and likewise with grappling as any grip or hold is, by nature, a constriction.
So why, despite the unflagging havoc eye pokes wreak and the ease with which the problem could be addressed, has it not been addressed? The question is the answer: negligence. Negligence, that is, by way either of laziness or stubbornness. If you didn’t already know, the UFC and president Dana White more often than not respond to self-reflection as an allergen, especially when the obvious conclusion is, okay, we got it wrong. We didn’t achieve absolute perfection on the first try. This is why there are still so few weight-classes on offer as contrasted with other combat sports and even other MMA promotions, resulting in fifteen pound jumps that encourage either dangerous weight cuts (which can mean up to forty-pound drops) or fighters competing dangerously undersized.
Yet as with their obdurate stance on weight, it seems it will take a true worst case scenario for the company to wake up and commit to this long overdue overhaul. Dagestani Khabib Nurmagomedov, 28-0 lightweight champion and arguably the UFC’s biggest commodity, once pulled out of a championship bout due to weight-cut related liver failure. In response, and on behalf of their budding undefeated star, the company proceed to do…nothing. This begs the question: if Jeremy Stephens had lost his eye this past weekend, and therefore his career, would they have done the same? While I am not excusing the actions of the Mexican fans over this incident, the fact is that this was a symptom, one of many, of a curable disease. What is the real scandal here?
For a company as ferociously self-preserving as the UFC, why wouldn’t they want to correct an error which threatens their bottom line? What are the prospects, in their minds, for a return to Mexico City after this weekend’s horror show? As I noted on the topic of Kelvin Gastelum vs. Darren Till, the UFC likes to pretend its events exist in a vacuum, almost as if they weren’t numbered. But they are, and therefore denote, if not progress, than motion. Direction. At this point even making the gloves worse would demonstrate an ability to adjust.
November’s UFC 244 is poised to be their most lucrative pay-per-view for the remainder of the year and, given that it features two of the most popular fighters in the sport, will doubtless attract the most spotlight. It has already received so much pundit hype and fan saliva that the UFC is creating a novelty belt exclusive to its headliner, despite it being a non-title bout, and has even arranged for “The Rock” (the second highest grossing male actor in Hollywood according to Forbes Magazine) to present it to the victor. Mexico City Arena just housed an important event for the UFC’s Latin American and Hispanic markets, to be sure, but Madison Square Garden’s 244 will be watched the world over. How will the company and its shareholders react if lightning strikes twice?
Celebrity colour commentator Joe Rogan, meanwhile, claimed late last year to have inside knowledge of a redesign initiative already underway. UFC 244 will mark just shy of one year since those remarks, and if there is any urgency by his billion dollar employer to roll out the new model, it remains invisible to the fans, fighters, and their families. Some of whose livelihoods depend on the win and performance bonuses which, for the majority of the roster, represent half their purse and are withheld on these conditions. As unhinged as the sport can be both by nature and design, it turns out there are constants in the UFC. They begrudge for example the existence of outsiders over whom they have no leverage, which is why you will never see them, as in the case of Bellator and Rizin, participate in cross-promotion. They distrust the power dynamics of the real world for this is not the world in which they reside and operate, unless forced.
Between 2017 and 2018 “The Rock” made $124 million dollars, more than the entire UFC roster makes in several decades combined. If at the conclusion of Masvidal vs. Diaz the majestic Hawaiian is left standing there with no waist around which to wrap a belt that will never be meted out again because one of the two fighters is now blind, and he whispers in Dana White’s ear amid a beer-soaked clangor, will the UFC open its eyes then? Will it be there, under this spotlight of their own making, that they take the world’s advice?