At UFC on Fox last Saturday, on the Fuel TV preliminary card, the match between Light Heavyweights Phil Davis and Wagner Prado ended prematurely when early in the first round Prado swarmed in to attack Davis, only to walk straight into a finger of an open, outstretched hand that made significant contact with an eyeball. Prado's reaction was almost instantaneous, and after telling the ringside doctor he was seeing double the fight was rightly called off, to the disappointment of Davis and the audience, and to the heartbreak of Prado. The match was determined a No Contest, and the two will likely rematch at an upcoming pay per view card.
UFC commentator Joe Rogan remarked over the frequency with which accidental eye pokes or gouges had been occurring in fights, and mused if a design alteration of the MMA fight gloves was needed to address the problem, while not inhibiting the fighter's ability to grip and therefore grapple.
Unfortunately, finding a suitable design replacement, testing it and then getting Athletic Commissions across the nation to accept it is going to be a long and laborious process, and while attempting to find closed finger gloves online, the results tended to suggest only slightly less cumbersome models to that of Boxing gloves, which are wholly inadequate for the sport of MMA.
What can and should be corrected now though, are the habits of the current fighters.
One of the hardest things a fighter from a high end competitive combat sport has to do when crossing over into MMA, is unlearn bad habits in order to practice better ones. Coach Greg Nelson of Minnesota MMA has a saying he likes to use when training fighters and even everyday guys that might attend a seminar or camp, and that's "Practice Makes Habit". The phrase is a general commentary on learning skills to use within fighting, and the danger of practicing something to perfection only for it to end up perfectly wrong. Along the same subject, I have heard other coaches claim a bad habit learned within just a couple of weeks could take as much as 6 months to correct.
The majority of amateur wrestlers, especially ones that compete every season from elementary school through to college have spent the better part of two decades competing in the sport by the time they're in their early 20's. That's nearly two decades of drilling stance, motion, level change, penetration and the other core elements of wrestling, and included among that is reaching out an arm to measure distance to set up a wrestling shot.
It's unlikely Phil Davis intentionally eye jabbed Wagner Prado. His reaction to put up a hand when Prado came in was instinctive, with Davis saying he doesn't even remember it specifically happening when asked after the fight. And while in the past our own Wrestling contributor Coach Mike Riordan pointed out eye pokes that have sometimes happened on purpose in Amateur Wrestling, Davis doesn't seem the malicious type to get an unfair edge by using such a dangerous foul.
It's not just Amateur Wrestlers who use an out reached hand to measure distance, many Kickboxers have also done so, but with a closed finger glove that never caused these issues in their sport. Yet in MMA we've seen Cro Cop horrifically catch a fighter like Mustafa Al Turk in both eyes, and for a while former UFC Light Heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell had the unofficial nickname of 'The Eyesman' for the number of opponents he might catch with a thumb before following up with a knock out blow, possibly a habit from his time learning Kempo.
Eye attacks are no joke. A low blow may be temporarily debilitating, sometimes enough for a fight to be called off, but there is protection in place and bruised or ruptured tissue does heal after a short while. By contrast the eye is very difficult to repair naturally or surgically, and without care damage can be permanent and severe. The last thing anyone should want to see is a career cut short by a fighter losing his sight in one or both eyes, something that has a permanent effect on the quality of their life as well.
Unfortunately outside the unintentional eye pokes, there are bound to be some done on purpose by certain fighters looking to gain an advantage.
Coach Neil Melanson, who is blind in one eye and partially sighted in the other due to Behcet's disease, is quite outspoken about the issue of eye pokes in MMA. During a recent interview with D'Arce Side Radio, Melanson brought up the issue:
I want to talk about the eye poking that's going on, and has been going on, and I want to see some action being done by the commission and a decision being made. I want to see all accidental eye pokes go away because of the fact that if you watch certain fighters, I'm going to say Josh Koscheck for one, he fingers everybody in the eye. I talk to all the guys he fights, and he paws at you, and those fingers go in your eye and once your start blinking, he throws that bomb. I think there's a couple of athletes out there that are intentionally doing it, I'm not accusing Josh but he does poke a lot, and to me it's with a purpose. And I've actually heard other athletes that aren't members of the Xtreme Couture roster literally tell me that "If I get in a bad area, if I'm behind, I'm going to poke this guy in the eye".
Meaning that ... because they're not going to lose a point, they can get an accidental eye poke, the guy's eye is swollen shut, the guy wants to keep continuing because he's a warrior and wants to prove things to Dana White, and to the fans, and then he gets lit up.
... If we want to stop fingering people in the eye and want to keep the gloves the way they are so your fingers are free, there has to be an aggressive ruling that if someone gets fingered in the eye and it's legit, you lose a point. There's no room for accidents. Then all they'd have to worry about is the people that are basically crying wolf, whether it's saying, "Oh I got poked", but the ref will be hopefully be making that call and decisions.
But I'm tired of it, because I'm blind in one eye and so I never had a chance to fight, could never make it as a career, could never get a license. So it's not easy, but some of these guys who are high level and doing well and something happens to their eye where they can't see and now they have a permanent problem? That's their career done. Everything's gone. And they've got to change their whole lifestyle because now their eye is not qualified to fight. And it's eventually going to happen, guys are getting really hurt and I think there's got to be some type of ruling that keeps this from happening, because I'm tired of seeing it. I want to hear other people's opinions on it honestly , because I never hear anyone talking about this issue.
While a glove redesign may help, it's a long way off from becoming a practical reality, and I'm inclined to agree with Melanson about stricter penalties. Some instances of eye pokes are genuine accidents, some are done with malicious intent, and an instant point deduction is a step in the right direction to encourage fighters to be more careful.
A more significant step is down to fighters practicing the good habit of keeping their fingers together and their finger tips turned in when measuring distance, something we know is possible with the current glove designs from all the grips used on submissions like the Double Wrist Lock / Kimura, or even certain Guillotine and Rear Naked Choke grips. So what if it's initially difficult to learn it as a new habit while unlearning a bad one? It's better than losing a fight because of point deductions, or ruining an opponent's life by blinding them.