Opinion: When Fighters are Too Tough for Their Own Good

By: Anthony Walker
Sep 13, 2017

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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The idea of toughness continues to bring us back to watching combat sports. Fighters are simply tough on a level to which the average person can never relate. It’s a vital attribute to the art of face punching in all of its forms, and witnessing it is central to the experience of observers. We saw this on display in spades at UFC 215 on Saturday in Edmonton, Alberta.

Former Strikeforce lightweight champion and two-time Ultimate Fighting Championship title challenger Gilbert Melendez and previously undefeated featherweight prospect Gavin Tucker were poster boys for toughness, perhaps so much so that they crossed the line to being too tough for their own good. Melendez and Tucker should have been saved from themselves.

This wasn’t the first time we’ve had to ponder this, and I’m certain it won’t be the last. In fact, fighters in every discipline have been lauded and remembered for it. Heart, grit or whatever you choose to call it is simply something we -- and the nature of the sport -- demand from fighters. To compete in a sport that involves intentionally causing and receiving pain and damage from a trained killer requires those qualities with an added dose of self-belief sprinkled with delusion. This forms a very dangerous mixture that can potentially be a recipe for disaster.

However, this is one of the most important reasons why we have athletic commissions. They exist to protect fighters from shady and unethical promoters, opponents with unfair advantages and oftentimes themselves. Needless to say, the commission in Edmonton failed miserably in the later regard. Medical Policy No. 8 of the commission reads as follows: One of the core values of the Edmonton Combative Sports Commission (ECSC) is to protect the safety of contestants involved in combative sports events. Referees Jerin Valel and to a much greater degree Kyle Cardinal seemed to forget this important rule while watching Melendez and Tucker absorb a massive amount of unnecessary damage.

In Valel’s case, he watched Jeremy Stephens mercilessly batter Melendez’s left leg. The impact of those kicks resulted in several knockdowns that left the former champion essentially helpless on the feet. If it were not for his veteran savvy -- which included passable skills in the southpaw stance -- and determination, he would not have made it to the final bell. Melendez struggled to stay on his feet with every thunderous kick that was slammed into his visibly compromised leg. Instead of making a ruling based on a noticeable injury, Valel appeared to admonish Melendez for seeking refuge in a ground game that was his only hope. If Valel believed that his discolored and swollen leg was enough of an issue to warrant examination by the cageside physician between rounds, then attempting to influence Melendez’s changing strategy in response to that injury is bizarre and counterproductive.

In Tucker’s lopsided loss to Rick Glenn, Cardinal stood by as the Canadian was brutally beaten while providing essentially no offense or intelligent defense. Multiple 10-8 rounds were scored. There was even a 10-7 on judge Sal D’Amato’s scorecard. The large majority of the MMA media, including all three Sherdog.com scorers, counted the rare 30-25. It was abundantly clear that Tucker gave everything he had during the full 15 minutes of the bout. He wanted to be in there. That’s when Cardinal is expected to do his job and look out for the fighter’s safety.

Of course, while representatives of the ECSC should be raked over the coals for continued ineptitude, let’s not forget another guilty party that should be held accountable: the corners. Sherdog columnist Todd Martin shined the spotlight in their direction. We all admire the bravery, insanity and determination shown by fighters. However, when that line is crossed, somebody has to be there to protect them. If the fighters can’t rely on appointed officials who are paid to do that job and the cornermen who are supposed to share in the responsibility, who will look out for them?

At best, fans can be woefully uninformed and have unrealistic expectations of the gladiatorial aspects of fighting. At worst, they can be bloodthirsty and insensitive, demanding entertainment without regard to the long-term costs to the entertainers. In turn, promoters seek to fulfill that need and reward combatants who play into those demands with the current pay structure. With this in mind, commissions and corners should be even more vigilant about their roles in protecting the health and safety of fighters. Proper training and accountability should be a top priority for commissions to ensure officials are not allowed to repeat reckless and inept performances. Cornermen should keep the long-term career prospects in mind for their charges.

We expect and praise everyone who steps into a cage or ring for not having the live-to-fight-another-day mentality. However, those who oversee the action should serve as buffers to protect them from themselves. Anything less is unacceptable.

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