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Opinion: In MMA, it pays to cheat

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In today's op-ed, columnist John Nash shares his opinion that recent incidents in MMA demonstrate how much better off a fighter is by cheating than following the rules.

Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

As a kid, I was a big fan of professional wrestling. But unlike most of my peers who were fans of heroes like the Junkyard Dog and Hulk Hogan, it was bad guys like Harley Race, Rowdy Piper, and Ray "The Crippler" Stevens that I always cheered for. These were wrestlers that lived by Gorgeous George's famous mantra of "win if you can, lose if you must, but always cheat." They pulled hair, gouged eyes, choked their opponents, used the ropes for leverage, and, most importantly, won. While most fans were offended by such unsportsmanlike conduct (my great-grandfather would get so infuriated watching Verne Gagne's opponents cheat, he'd cry) I quickly realized the bad guys were the only ones acting rational under the insane logic that are professional wrestling rules.

No one demonstrated this better than my all-time favorite, the late, great Nick Bockwinkel. Mr. Bockwinkel was a master of breaking the spirit but rarely, the actual letter of the rules. For example, it was illegal in the AWA (the promotion where Bockwinkel was champio) to choke your opponent. It was an act that could get you disqualified. But there was a major loophole to this rule: a wrestler was given a five count by the referee to break the hold. Bockwinkel would therefore always wait until the count reached "four" before releasing his choke... only to reapply it a few moments later. As long as Bockwinkel did this, the referee was impotent to do anything more.

Even at that young age I understood that while the fans might boo Bockwinkel for his actions, it was really the referees and incompetent officials like AWA President Stanley Blackburn that were to blame. If they punished wrestlers for those tactics then there'd be no incentive to use them. But they didn't punish them. Instead they only pleaded with them to stop thereby rewarding their behavior. It was then that I realized that you had to be a chump not to cheat in the ring.

Of course mixed martial arts, unlike pro-wrestling, is a real sport and not a staged performance. Recent incidents within the cage, such as Browne's and Palhares's eye pokes on Mitrione and Shields, and Yoel Romero's fence grab at UFC 194, have me fearing that this "always cheat" way of thinking is threatening to become just as much a part of MMA as it was in the squared circle.

That is not to say that the fighters involved in each of these incidents were intentionally cheating. For example, it is entirely possible that both of Travis Browne's eye pokes against Matt Mitrione during their January 19th bout were entirely accidental. But accident or not, they still  put Mitrione at a severe disadvantage (especially the second one which was more a gouge with his thumb than even a poke.)

It is impossible to know if Mitrione would have won that fight if his eyes hadn't been poked. What we do know though is that Mitrione's chances at victory were much lower as soon as his eye started swelling shut, impairing his vision. With Browne paying no price for those eye pokes - no disqualification, no point deduction, nothing - how can anyone take anything from that match but the conclusion that it pays to stick a finger in your opponents eyes?

The Yoel Romero - Renaldo "Jacare" Souza fight at UFC 194 was another incident that demonstrated how the rules seem to reward the rule breaker. In the second round of their bout, as Souza was about to score a take down on Romero, the former Olympian grabbed the fence, allowing him to reverse it so that he was now in top position.

Referee Marc Goddard had the good sense to stop the fight and take away Romero's illegally gained advantage. He stood the two up, gave Romero a warning, and then put them back to their position before the fence grab: in the clinch against the cage.

While Goddard made sure Romero didn't gain an advantageous position, the fence grab did not prove inconsequential. Romero would win a split decision, with two judges giving him the second round. If he doesn't grab the fence does Jacare win the round and therefore the fight? It's impossible to say. What we do know though is that thanks to the fence grab Romero didn't end up in the unfavorable position of being beneath a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu ace. Instead he got to restart the fight back in the neutral stand up. And because there was no point deduction, which would have resulted in the fight being scored a draw, he was effectively rewarded.

Perhaps the most egregious incident took place last summer during the Rousimar Palhares-Jake Shields match at WSOF 22. For the first two rounds Shields controlled the fight, taking Palhares down and mounting him. Palhares response was to repeatedly and blatantly rake the eyes of Shields in front of referee Steve Mazzagatti, who did absolutely nothing about it. After Shields told Mazzagatti over and over again "he's poking me, he's poking me" he finally responded in a way that would make a pro wrestling referee proud: he told him to stop and then watched it happen again. The eye gouging would eventually come to an end in the third round when Palhares submitted a frustrated Shields with a Kimura.

We'll never know if Shields could beat Palhares in a match in which his eyes were not being gouged, but what we do know for certain is that he couldn't defeat him in a bout in which the referee did absolutely nothing to prevent it.

In each of these cases, even if officials didn't intend to reward the offending party, their actions, or rather lack of actions, did just that. The lesson for anyone who watched these bouts has to be that you are much better off being the person that commits the infraction than the person following the rules. This can lead to a dangerous situation, in which not only is cheating not punished, but in fact it is not cheating that is punished.

As author Stephen Convey expressed the dilemma:

The more people rationalize cheating, the more it becomes a culture of dishonesty. And that can become a vicious, downward cycle. Because suddenly, if everyone else is cheating, you feel a need to cheat, too.

The easy solution is for officials to start taking violations of the rules more seriously. Unfortunately it seems as if athletic commissions do not take the subject seriously.

How else to explain the fact that a rather inexperienced referee was assigned to work a UFC event with two ranked fighters in the first place? In fact, before the UFC's recent event in Boston, an open letter was sent from the website Mass MA to the Massachusetts Athletic Commission questioning why Gary Foreman, the referee for the Mitrione-Browne fight, was being allowed to officiate such an important card. Included among the concerns brought up by author was the fact that, "Gary also has not been an active referee for quite a few years, but when he was active, I think most of the local fans of MMA will agree, he had a history of questionable calls (early stops, late stops, etc)."

MSAC did not respond to the question about Foreman's lack of experience.They did express their confidence in him though. "We recognize, as happens with officiating in any sport, that not everyone will agree with every call made by an official. The DPS/SAC have full confidence in Mr. Foreman's ability to referee fairly and impartially."

In hindsight it would seem that the letter-writers' concerns were well founded, for not only did Foreman not punish Browne for the eye pokes, he seems to have completely missed the second one and only stopped the fight some thirty-seconds later when it was obvious that Mitrione's vision was impaired. Even then, the warning he gave appears to be directed at Mitrione, apparently telling him not to run into Browne's fingers.

The commissions actions in the Palhares-Shields fight are even more questionable. While the NAC came down hard on Palhares during a hearing for holding his submission too long after the bell (as well as punishing Jake Shields for his post fight punch) they completely ignored what transpired during the bout.

Jake Shields did not fail to notice this oversight, "To me, the eye-gouging was even worse. He was trying to gouge my eyes out. That was absurd and obscene. It's kind of ridiculous that (referee Steve) Mazzagatti never got anything."

"Even the Nevada case, when they were hearing the case against him, they never mentioned the eye-gouging. It was only holding the submission too long. I think having to admit to eye-gouging would be admitting that the referee didn't do anything. And they wanted me to come and testify against him. But I'm not going to come on there and be a part of it when they're not even addressing the real issue."

While both fighters faced scrutiny from the commission for their actions, Mazzagatti was not suspended or even chastised and is in fact free to keep refereeing in the state of Nevada even though he has demonstrated a lack of competency and concern for a fighters well being.

As the rules are currently enforced, or rather not enforced, it is impossible for me to recommend that any fighter follow the rules. Doing so would put them at a great disadvantage with any opponent that decided he was going to ignore the rules first. Unfortunately, the way things currently stand, fighters would be wise to follow the advice of deceased professional wrestler Eddie Guerrero:

"If you're not cheating, you're not trying."