Tim Keown of ESPN The Magazine recently penned a thought-provoking article about the delicate gray area fighters and referees face when fights draw to violent conclusions. Former UFC light heavyweight champion Forrest Griffin is quoted throughout the piece, and his comments regarding the issue can be taken a number of different ways. While the standard line is that there's no shame in tapping out or quitting, an athlete's ego and the nature of combat sports make quitting a very difficult decision. And what about when you're not even in control of your faculties? When all your training possibly works against you to a degree?
Whatever the case, Griffin is on his back, head lifted above the mat, fists clenched, absorbing repeated strikes he can't see coming, in his most crucial UFC fight. Long after Griffin's synapses have stopped firing on all cylinders, Rashad Evans is beating on him like he's the manifestation of all evil. Evans has no way of knowing that Griffin's body language is a lie. In these final seconds of his 2008 loss to Evans, Griffin's body doesn't know how or when to stop. It's no different from a dog that will fetch a ball 'til its paws bleed.
Griffin, defending the UFC light heavyweight title for the first time, was relying on the referee to draw the line between serious danger and healthy competition. But where is that line? There's no clear definition, but against Evans that night, Griffin was clearly on the wrong side of it. In those moments between his mind-body disconnect and the fight's merciful conclusion, Evans' fists connected with Griffin's face close to a dozen times. "It would have been nice if the ref had spared me at least the last four or five shots," Griffin says. "If I could have quit, I would have, but I wasn't coherent."
Imagine the danger line in sports as a divider in a desolate, flat stretch of two-lane highway. On one side, you'll find strength, courage, competitive fire -- all those qualities we've come to mythologize in the sports-warrior industrial complex. On the other, you'll find recklessness, stupidity, the potential for serious injury -- all the qualities that make us question an athlete's sanity and future health. The line is often blurred or, in Griffin's case, undetectable to its owner. It is present in some form in every sport, drawn by competitors, officials and rule books. Where it is drawn, though, is an open question.
Griffin is pretty honest when discussing the warrior mentality and how it affects decision-making in the cage, along with how his opinion on the subject has apparently changed over time:
The fighting sports have built-in mechanisms that allow competitors to bow out of a lost cause. MMA fighters can tap out, but there are unwritten rules governing that, too. You don't tap out on strikes or else you're branded as less than tough. Griffin says there are ways around this; a fighter who recognizes his hopeless plight but doesn't want the shame of a tap out will often turn his back to his opponent and offer himself up for a rear naked choke hold. "When I was younger, I considered tapping out to be breaking," says Griffin, who has never tapped out in 24 career bouts (he's 18-6) but forced seven men to give up. "We all thought, Once you break, you can never come back. It's not dishonorable to me now, though. If I'm going to lose anyway, I might as well get out with all my limbs."
Whether that change in mentality came with age, experience or some other factor is known only to Griffin. But it doesn't take long for Griffin to contradict himself anyway:
In one breath Griffin says he has reached a point where he would do the unthinkable -- tap out in a lost cause -- and in the next he says, "I've been hurt so much in training and in fights that I've reached the point where I have to approach every fight like it's my last. So there's only one way to go out: as hard as you can."
Griffin stops and lets the contradiction hang in the air. The whole conversation has him both amused and frustrated. "Look," he says, "I know that attitude is completely different from what I just said. Sorry, I can't help it."
This is but one example of how hard it is for fighters to come to terms with issues like this. How much of a role does the fighter him/herself play? And how about the referee?
The article also offers an extensive look at a boxer, Yuri Foreman, and the ridiculous issues he faced when he blew out his knee in a fight with Miguel Cotto in Yankee Studium last summer. Foreman was clearly done after a seventh round slip caused him to re-injure his knee, but the referee Arthur Mercante Jr didn't agree.
As he limped across the ring, ref Arthur Mercante Jr. said to him, repeatedly, "Walk it off, champ. Suck it up, kid."
Foreman fought for two more rounds, falling down multiple times because of his knee, and even believing the fight was over in the 8th when a crowd of people entered the ring. But Mercante kept asking Foreman if he was okay to go, and Foreman clearly felt pressured to continue in the "biggest fight of his life". He finally went down for good in the ninth but the mentality in that case, from all sides, was viewed as pure lunacy to a large section of combat sports fans.
Is there a line? Who should be in charge of enforcing it? And how can sports overcome ingrained mentalities to protect it's combatants?