MMA is a sport of trends, at times much more clearly so than other major sports, as it relies heavily on the tactical evolution of its competitors to win fights. When something starts working, everyone starts using it. People start throwing front kicks, suddenly everyone has one, and don't even get me started on the whole wheel kick phenomenon... But, one of the somewhat more understated but nonetheless pervasive recent trends in MMA has been knees to the sternum on a downed opponent. It's a high percentage, high damage move, excepting of course, that it's very nearly illegal. That knee drifts up an inch or two, or your opponent down an inch or two, and suddenly you have a potential disqualification on your hands.
"It's not something that is up for debate," Newell said. "It's very blatant that the knees hit me in the head. I wasn't the same. It's obvious when you watch the video that it's what cut me. It's obvious that, when I got up, I was wobbly, and they need to closely monitor who they hire as referees, and they need to have stricter standards.
"I'm not saying that I would have won had it not happened," said Newell. "I respect Justin. He's a great fighter, but I was winning the fight up until it did happen, and it happened, and it changed the fight. There's no ifs, ands, or buts about it. It was a huge momentum swing. It went from me winning, to me just getting destroyed. I don't even remember the fight after the knee. I don't remember anything my corner said to me or anything."
Gaethje himself, has been quick to dismiss criticism coming from Newell. He spoke to our own Bloody Elbow Radio crew last week about Newell's comments over Twitter and about the potential that his use of knees might have been illegal (interview starts about 30 minutes in):
I watched it in slo-mo many times, and I think it was in the shoulder. It's a bad angle, but do you think it was in the head?
He thinks it was in the head, I don't think it was in the head. I still, you know, like I told him, "He's so tough, he doesn't need to go out like that." So, it just bothered me a little bit, but I'm over it.
You can check it out for yourself, and see what you think. The knees occurred with about 2:30 left in round 1 and 1:53 left in round 1. Both look questionable. Skip to 1:40 and 2:00 on the highlight video below to find them.
Unfortunately, because the potential stopping power of a knee to the sternum is so great, more and more fighters are turning to them as a standard technique. We've already seen a few point deductions and even a couple of disqualifications in the past year due to sloppily thrown knees. Partially this drives the conversation toward the idea that MMA needs to do away with the rule against knees to the head of a downed opponent, but until they do fighters are left flirting with the rules in a sport where they are rarely heavily enforced.