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Shattered Dreams and Eye Patches: Fouls are not handled properly in MMA

Most professional sports have specific consequences prepared for every sort of devious conduct. But in MMA, fouls are assumed to be unintentional and therefore forgivable. Recipients of illegal attacks are given five minutes to recover and then expected to man-up and continue. This is silly foremost because intent is often impossible to glean from a split-second attack. But furthermore it is unfair for a fighter to continue with the physical ramifications of an illegal move, while his opponent remains unfazed and unpunished.

According to standard MMA rules, if a fighter cannot continue due to an illegal strike, the bout should be either be ruled a DQ in the injured side’s favour, a no-contest, or a decision should be awarded based on the judge’s scorecards. However, those options usually require a fighter to quit the match. In a sport where careers can be instantly de-railed by an unpopular performance (Rolles Gracie’s UFC career recently ended after a running time of 6.5 minutes) fighters are under a lot of pressure to look tough and stay in the fight. Months of training coupled with the difficulty inherit in making a name in MMA will force fighters to limp on against their better judgment, possibly getting knocked out (see Chris Tuscherer after having his testicles punted by Gabriel Gonzaga). This is a situation where fighters need to be protected from themselves.

Fans want to believe that fighters can shake off eye-pokes and strikes to the groin or back of the head, but there are physiological factors that overpower general toughness. Blurred vision and overactive nerve endings make a fighter slower, disoriented and vulnerable. Yet on the rare occasion when a referee issues more than a verbal warning, the punishment is merely a point deduction. So if a fight ends in any fashion other than a judge’s decision, dirty shots go completely unpunished. As a result of this poor enforcement, fouls have affected the fight results on many occasions: from Cheick Kongo’s triple knee-to-groin combo against Cro Cop, to Josh Koscheck repeatedly confusing Anthony Johnson’s eyeballs with little jars of fingernail polish.

Fouls cannot be entirely prevented, but they can be strongly discouraged with serious consequences. Verbal warnings should be reserved for illegal actions that clearly will not affect the outcome of a fight. Conversely, a severe eye-poke, foot to the groin, or stuffed takedown via grabbing the cage, should result in automatic point deductions. Furthermore, subsequent illegal moves should cost points and a portion of the offender’s pay, say 10%. Fined monies should be then awarded to the opponent–just as part of a purse is donated when a fighter does not make weight.

Properly enforcing fouls would not only keep fights fair, it could also keep them interesting. Another type of illegal activity is “timidity, including, without limitation, avoiding contact with an opponent,” which was displayed flagrantly by middleweight champ Anderson Silva at UFC 112. But while PPV customers were becoming infuriated, Silva received only a stern finger waving from ref Dan Miragliotta after nearly two full rounds of prancing around. If Silva had started losing points for his goofiness and threatened with DQ, he would have likely started to care.

Imagine a little boy named Timmy who likes to play with matches. One day, his reckless habit starts a serious fire and cause major damage to an orphanage filled with particularly flammable children. As a result, Timmy needs to be punished to discourage him from setting fires in the future. He will cry and argue that he did not mean to hurt anyone. But if there are no consequences, the little pyro will not be compelled against repeating the behaviour. His parents need to teach him a lesson and take away his Xbox, so that he will weigh the consequences before starting fires in the future.

It may seem rude to compare fighters to children, but it’s actually appropriate. Fighters are functioning on a limited thinking capacity during a match. They run on instinct, impulse and muscle memory; there’s no time to think deeply. As a result, like the child, it takes a strong jolt to break a pattern of behaviour; nipping at their cash can do exactly that to professional athletes.

Certain actions are illegal in sporting competition either because they are too dangerous (see head-spiking to the canvas) or because they are cheap ways to injure an opponent that requires no skill (hair-pulling, fish hooking) and demean the sport as a whole. MMA’s continuing growth owes a lot to adding proper rules and regulations. And while it’s certainly true that most fouls are completely unintentional, failing to enforce them severely affects the perceived legitimacy of the sport.

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