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The conclusion to the Petr Yan-Aljamain Sterling bantamweight title fight Saturday night was unfortunate all around. It was the first time an Ultimate Fighting Championship title changed hands via disqualification. Fans were deprived of the opportunity to see the fight fully play out. Yan’s reputation was damaged by a hard-to-fathom mental mistake. Sterling took a brutal illegal knee to the head. However, what perhaps stood out the most was the reaction by a sizeable portion of fans and even fighters to what happened to Sterling.
It was undeniable that Sterling took a vicious knee to the head. There was no serious suggestion that he faked being hit with the knee, as has been discussed from time to time in the past in regards to grazing knees or groin shots. Rather some, including even former bantamweight champions Henry Cejudo — who later apologized for his remarks on Twitter — and T.J. Dillashaw, suggested instead that Sterling was basically embellishing and making the shot seem like it caused more damage than it actually did. It was insult on top of injury for a man who worked so hard to finally receive a UFC title shot.
Fighters shouldn’t be put in the position that Sterling was after receiving that knee, and there’s an easy way to correct that without changing any rules. In short, referees should use their discretion to stop fights in quick order on the rare occasions that one fighter lands a brutal illegal blow.
The process of giving fighters time to recover and decide if they are able to continue makes perfect sense in the context of an accidental foul like a low blow or eye poke. That’s because fighters have every incentive to want to continue. They trained for a fight and want to win. If the bout is declared a no contest because of an accidental foul, they lose the opportunity to earn the win bonus that is a significant portion of fighter pay. They are thus going to continue to fight if it’s at all possible. Fighters are the best judge if they can or cannot in that circumstance.
The situation is completely different when it comes to clearly intentional fouls. In those instances, the athlete is put in a situation that’s pretty close to unprecedented in major sporting events. The custom has become to give fighters time and the option to decide for themselves if they can continue. They are thus the arbiter of whether to continue and risk defeat plus significant monetary loss or to not continue and be declared the victor with a winner’s purse. It’s a problematic situation to put the fighter in.
To be clear, the central issue with this predicament is not a concern about widespread abuse by unscrupulous fighters. We’ve had plenty of time to see how intentional fouls are handled and there are very few instances where fighters have been credibly accused of taking advantage of the system. Rather, the problem is that fans and fighters all understand the nature of this choice and it thus naturally puts a fouled fighter in the position of having to defend his or her integrity when all he or she has done is been the victim of an illegal foul.
Let’s imagine a hypothetical fighter takes a hard illegal kick to the head while on the ground. He hasn’t lost consciousness and has his equilibrium but his head is throbbing and he feels woozy. He is given five minutes to recover and at the end of the time he still feels the effects of the kick and doesn’t feel it’s fair to have to continue after having been egregiously fouled. This fighter has three basic options and none of them are fair to him.
His first option is to continue. He’s at a disadvantage and more likely to be knocked out, even if he gets a point or two in the case of a decision. He’s also going against what his body is telling him. His second option is to tell the referee he doesn’t feel up to continuing, to get his hand raised, and to walk to the back like fighters do every card after recovering from a standard TKO/KO defeat. The problem here is that if it doesn’t seem in his walk and demeanor that he’s suffering serious repercussions from the blow, he’s going to be accused of taking the easy way out. Fighters aren’t accused of faking being knocked out when they are able to walk away from the Octagon under their own power, but that’s exactly what happens if there’s a disqualification.
It’s for that reason that the fighter is incentivized to take a third path: to embellish a little. If he justifiably doesn’t feel up to continuing but knows deciding not to continue is going to lead to people questioning his integrity, visually manifesting the head trauma is a way to try to cut off criticisms of the decision not to continue. Of course, it also leads to criticisms about acting. In short, there’s no good option for a fighter in this position. The fighter has done nothing wrong and they’re in a no win position.
There’s a way to avoid all of that. Referees should use their discretion in that position and just call for the disqualification immediately upon seeing a foul as hard and egregious as what happened Saturday night. Don’t force the fighter into a choice between continuing or having to prove to fans and fighters the decision not to continue is justified. Simply end the bout.
It isn’t as if this fact pattern presents itself very often. Intentional fouls are rare and hard intentional fouls even rarer. If the foul wasn’t that hard, by all means give the fighter time to recover. However, if it’s analogous to Yan-Sterling, take responsibility and protect not only the fighter’s health but the fighter’s reputation by not putting them in the no win position of deciding between effectively declaring themselves the winner or trying to continue when they almost certainly shouldn’t.
This is fully within the referee’s discretion. The Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts hold that if an intentional foul causes an injury and the injury is severe enough to terminate the bout immediately, the fighter causing the injury loses by disqualification. Obviously, that assumes some fouls are going to be severe enough to warrant immediate bout termination. Moreover, the referee under the Universal Rules has the discretion to disqualify a fighter for conducting himself or herself in an unsportsmanlike manner. Flagrantly flaunting safety rules would seem to fulfill that criterion as well.
Referees understandably want to let fights play out to their natural conclusions. They try to avoid having fights end on eye pokes, groin shots or bleeding if it’s at all possible. Heavy intentional fouls are a different manner. Yan-Sterling is the perfect example of how they should be handled differently. Hopefully the referee will intervene immediately next time, and the next fighter like Sterling won’t be put in the impossible position he was.