UFC 142 Results: Clarifying The Rule On Strikes To The Back Of The Head

Original Strike-Zone Graphics from the ABC 2008 MMA Unified Rules Report

"The Truth Is Out There."

No -- this is not another seething diatribe insisting that the rule on illegal strikes to the back of the head needs to be clearly defined in order to end the perpetual confusion. This is a reminder that the illegal strike zone has been quite concisely clarified since the ABC (Association of Boxing Commissions) published their official report on MMA's Unified Rules after their annual meeting in New Orleans in 2008.

Referee Mario Yamasaki is now embroiled in controversy after determining that Erick Silva utilized illegal strikes in his fight-finishing flurry of Carlo Prater at UFC 142 RIO: Aldo vs. Mendes. Because Yamasaki interpreted that one or more of Silva's punches fit the description of an illegal blow to the back of Prater's head, Silva was disqualified for the unintentional foul(s) and Prater was awarded the win by DQ.

Two distinct questions have arisen from the bout's contentious outcome:

  1. Exactly what constitutes an illegal strike to the back of the head?
  2. Was Yamasaki's assessment and subsequent ruling correct or incorrect?

While I will address both points, please understand that the second topic is inherently subjective while the first is black and white -- the guidelines for illegal strikes are either in place or they're not, and they are indeed. Each year, the ABC hosts a convention where personnel from the individual state athletic commissions are invited to discuss and review their rules and regulations for boxing and mixed martial arts.

For MMA, the unified rules serve as an approved foundation for the rules, regulations, medical requirements, and general procedures as they pertain to officials, fighters and promoters. The key phrase there is "foundation": because each athletic commission is governed by the laws and statutes of the specific state they represent, they have their own set of guidelines but they are all intended to be closely based on the original backbone of the unified rules.

However, minor deviations can and do exist: the state of California has their own method of prioritizing the scoring criterion, the state of New Jersey features a unique "sliding scale" for emphasizing striking vs. grappling based on how much fight-time occurred standing vs. on the floor, and the state of Nevada has provided additional guidelines for referee stand-ups and submissions.

The two images in the graphic atop this article were copied and enlarged from the ABC's 2008 report, which can be easily referenced and even downloaded for safekeeping. The images depict the exact boundaries on the head where it is legal and illegal to land strikes. The notion that this rule is an undefined and ongoing perplexity is a fallacy.

Continued in the full entry.

SBN coverage of UFC 142 RIO: Aldo vs. Mendes

The following passage is the committee's written conclusion on the back of the head rule from page 9 of the 2008 report:

Illegal Strikes to the Back of the Head-

The Committee has found a compromise between the Mohawk definition and the headphones definition. The Committee recommends a nape of the neck definition.

Basically, the group concluded that a strike that touches the ear is generally acceptable. Strikes are not permissible in the nape of the neck area up until the top of the ears. Above the ears, permissible strikes do not include the Mohawk area from the top of the ears up until the crown of the head. The crown of the head is found where the head begins to curve.

In other words, strikes behind the crown of the head and above the ears are not permissible within the Mohawk area. Strikes below the top of the ear are not permissible within the nape of the neck area.

With question number-one behind us, allow me to speculate on referee Mario Yamasaki's conclusion that Silva's punches were illegal.

At this stage in the sport, the margin of error associated with making live-time decisions in such a lightning-paced sport will always be subject to human error. Last night, Yamasaki was forced to make the call without a monitor and without viewing the slow-motion replay of the sequence in question. As the only other person in the cage with the competitors, Yamasaki had a genuinely unique perspective that none of us can understand -- who knows what it looked like from whatever particular angle he was at when the blows in question took place.

What I do know is that Yamasaki was not out of position during the finish and that -- again, in the context of real-time -- he was far from out of line in his final decision. The viewers have all been tainted with the luxury of reviewing the flurry several times, in slow motion and from the most ideal camera angle. Our frame of reference bears little to no similarity with Yamasaki's.

Therefore, the question I ask myself is, "Is it conceivable that the punches could have been illegal in real time?" While many will disagree, it's entirely conceivable that the blows were illegal. It's unfair to knock Yamasaki for the call when none of us can speak from his perspective and, more importantly, when fighter safety will always be the paramount responsibility of the referee.

To summarize, in this day and age of technology, a human being should not be burdened with making such a crucial judgment under such extreme duress. The answer? It already exists.

Propagated by the Anthony Johnson vs. Kevin Burns and Mirko Filipovic vs. Mustapha Al-Turk bouts, in which it was determined (after the fact) that an unintentional eye-poke played a crucial role in the outcome, the instant replay rule was implemented in certain states. It began in 2009 in the state of Nevada and, to my knowledge, is also available in New Jersey and California.

Instant replay can be instituted in only one circumstance: when the referee suspects that a foul may have influenced the outcome of a fight that has already been stopped. Here is Nevada's description of the instant replay rule:

"A referee at the conclusion of a contest or exhibition stopped immediately due to an injury to an unarmed combatant pursuant to NAC 467.718 and after making a decision, may view a replay if available in order to determine whether the injury in question was caused a legal blow or a foul."

Safety is the sole reason why MMA has been able to surge forward, shed the ghastly image of "human cockfighting" and be accepted as a mainstream sporting competition. That's why I'll always give MMA's officials a considerable amount of leeway when they err on the side of fighter safety in split-second decisions made in the heat of battle.

However, since "better than safe than sorry" is not always 100% accurate or fair to the fighters, the instant replay rule is in place to compensate for live-time judgments. That way we uphold the cardinal directive of fighter safety but also have the fallback option to scrutinize things with the best technology available. Unfortunately, since the unified rules only apply in the states and the UFC had ventured to Brazil, instant replay was apparently unaccounted for.

MMA is still a young sport that will never be perfect, so continuous improvement is what we should all promote. Live and learn. Dana White spoke with MMA Junkie and revealed that the UFC is open to reviewing an appeal from Silva and also stressed the need for instant replay, leading me to believe that justice will be served and plans will be made to avoid calamity in the future.

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