I suppose it was inevitable, but some are suggesting in the wake of last night's fantastic WEC 41 main event between Mike Brown and Urijah Faber that the broken right hand (and undetermined left hand injury) of Faber was the difference maker in last night's affair. Specifically, that Faber likely would've won had it not been for the injury. There are several major problems with this analysis, so let's unpack them here:
1. Historical precedence. The first and most notable problem with the idea that Faber's hand is an excuse for the loss is that it doesn't cohere with how these types of injuries affect outcomes in professional MMA. The reality is that hand breaks are very common and often fighters in high pressure situations (e.g. title fights) still find themselves with no alternative but to fight on. The examples of this are endless. The night before WEC 41, Joe Riggs continued to fight Phil Baroni despite cleanly breaking both hands. Let's not forget Rich Franklin broke his hand (the hand itself, not the fingers) against David Loiseau yet not only won the fight, but continued to punch with the broken hand for the remainder of his five round fight.
And for real grit and determination, it's worth observing Arthur Abraham managed to overcome a game Edison Miranda (in the video above) despite incredible unluckiness and malfeasance from Miranada. Oh yeah, and he fought with his jaw broken...in two places:
On September 23, 2006, Abraham won a decision against undefeated contender Edison Miranda despite having his jaw broken in two places. Miranda was deducted five points by landing repeated low blows as well as intentionally headbutting Abraham in the 5th round. After the Miranda bout, he was praised for his ability to finish the fight despite his injury.
It's not that hand injuries don't complicate game plans or reduce fighters' ability to function in the cage. They clearly do and, of course, the hand injuries to Faber were a factor in the loss. But we cannot offer a complete pass in this instance. It is understandable that such an injury would make defeating Brown far more difficult, but it does not allow his fans or supporters to suggest the injury is the chief determinant in the loss. While normally considered outrageous to perform athletically with such an injury, fighting with broken hands or other extremities is a requirement not really made of athletes in other sports. Fight sport, however, is unforgiving and punishing and we are not wrong to look to a fighter to persevere despite the debilitating condition (particularly in title fights). We cannot blame a fighter for being unable to win with such an injury, but we are permitted to expect him or her to adapt despite the setback. More on this later.
2. Acceptance of significant injury. The lust for blood by callous fans should now and every time be eschewed. But there are times in fight sport when we permitted to ask fighters to gut through injury conditions that inhibit their ability to perform. Specifically, title fights or other pivotal, career defining moments. It is not a lust for violence and carnage, but rather, the recognition that these seminal moments in this sport are few and far between, and that while assuredly unfair and uncomfortable, it is permissible to expect a fighter to find a way to win even with serious setbacks (to say nothing of the "it's the challenger's job to beat the champ" ideology). We have both historical precedent of fighters winning in major fights with similar or worse injuries and the recognition that the requirements of victory in MMA often call for physical exceptionalism. More than almost any sport, MMA demands of its competitors - particularly at the highest levels - a sacrifice of the body that can often seem outrageous by other sporting standards. But this isn't baseball or basketball; this is fight sport. The culture of toughness and durability in the name of victory has always been and will continue to be far more onerous in this sport than others. Tacitly or not, fighters have entered into this culture when they let the cage door shut behind them. We have to keep a humane perspective and remind ourselves fighters who could not win because they have broken hands are not weak or incapable. Far from it. They are human. But we must also remember the path to winning in MMA is often blazed through a trail of unspeakable pain by ordinary human standards. It's an onerous burden fighters have to shoulder, but its the one they entered into.
3. Predicting the counter conditional likelihood. So let's say the hand was never broken. Would the fight have been closer? Most likely. Would Faber have won? Could be. But the reality is that we simply don't know. It's easy to assume Faber's speed and lateral movement would've allowed him to edge out a decision, but perhaps it gave Faber confidence to exchange in Brown's range enough to get dropped. Or maybe Brown decides he didn't want to get picked apart anymore and takes Faber to mat only to hit a head and arm triangle. In other words, we are permitted to acknowledge Faber's injury hampered his effort and, to some extent, affected the outcome. But to what specific extent, we do not and cannot know. It is quite literally impossible to say what, specifically, the hand injury meant to the outcome other than it clearly made matters more difficult for Faber. But it is logically impossible to point to the injury so plainly in a fight where the sheer volume of variables affecting the outcome are in play. You cannot isolate this instance, significant though it may be, as the clear and obvious game changer. We can reasonably speculate, but we simply don't know how the fight would've played out without the injury.
4. Brown nullfiying Faber's wrestling and grappling. The most overlooked aspect of the bout was that Faber was essentially trapped after the hand injury. In both the wrestling and positional control grappling domains, Brown positively shut Faber down. Yes, Faber was able to escape, but only after getting his guard passed, back taken or threatened with several submissions. Moreover, Brown accrued the MMA equivalent of "riding time" by focing Faber into defensive maneuvers over elapsed time. That meant Faber had very little choice except to keep the fight standing. Unfortunately for Faber, his broken hand made standing with Brown not much of a situational improvement. But that's Faber's cross to bear, not Brown's.
Now, had this bout been contested under IFL rules where elbows on the ground were not allowed, I'd have to rethink this position a little. Structural impediments to winning would change the equation somewhat, but the reality is that Faber has very good ground and pound with elbows on top. If I'm not mistaken, I believe Faber either broke or came very close to breaking Joe Pearson's face with an elbow from top control. Faber is also excellent at pulling out of whizzers and underhooks to create a lane for an in-line elbow both standing and in top control. In reality, those tools were all available to Faber, but Brown's dominance on the ground made the use of them exceptionally difficult to come by. Injury or not, that's Brown's handiwork, not Faber's lack of luck.
My hat goes off to both fighters and I give Faber enormous amounts of credit for trying to fight through a very difficult and painful injury. I do not judge him in anyway remotely negative for not being able to win given the seemingly insurmountable odds. Given all he had to contend with, Faber has nothing to be ashamed of and everything to be proud of. But I also do not deny Brown his very legitimate win. The MMA Mistress is often times fickle and unfair, but that's the risk every fighter assumes by being a part of this chaotic, violent affair. The reality is that in meaningful, pivotal fights (or when the fighter chooses), the expectation to fight through offensively debilitating conditions is not misplaced.