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UFC 208: Should de Randamie have lost a point for twice punching Holm after the bell?

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“Attacking an opponent after the bell has sounded” is a clear foul in MMA, isn’t it?

MMA: UFC 208 Holm vs de Randamie Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

By the time the main event of UFC 208 rolled around, the MMA fight world was already clamoring about seemingly strange scores, what is or isn’t a 10-8 round, and how fantastically, entertainingly sick Dustin Poirier and Jim Miller are.

Germaine de Randamie and Holly Holm then ushered in the UFC’s new female featherweight division with the glorious controversy fight fans have come to know and love. Did Holm take the final three rounds? Should a point have been taken from de Randamie for tagging Holm after the bell at the end of the 2nd and going all Groundhog Day the very next round? Not an insignificant question as the championship fight would’ve ended in a draw.

In the ABC’s Unified Rules of MMA, the foul regarding late strikes reads:

24. Attacking an opponent after the bell has sounded the end of the period of unarmed combat. The end of a round is signified by the sound of the bell and the call of time by the referee. Once the referee has made the call of time, any offensive actions initiated by the fighter shall be considered after the bell and illegal.”

Say you’re not confused after reading that, I dare you.

24. Attacking an opponent after the bell has sounded the end of the period of unarmed combat.

Stopping at the Foul #24 heading, de Randamie is twice guilty as sin. She clearly tagged Holm after the bell in 2nd and 3rd rounds, short-circuiting Holm’s brain circuitry at the end of the 2nd stanza.

“The end of a round is signified by the sound of the bell and the call of time by the referee. Once the referee has made the call of time, any offensive actions initiated by the fighter shall be considered after the bell and illegal.”

Is she guilty as sin now? It’s not so clear anymore. De Randamie’s last strike of the 2nd round came as the referee was saying “that’s it” and slightly before he stuck out his arm in the motion to stop fighting. It was hard to tell if the referee gave an audible command at the end of the 3rd, but he put his arm out as de Randamie’s final strike was being thrown.

Listening to the blue corner audio (i.e., De Randamie’s corner) of the Fight Pass broadcast at the end of the 2nd round, it sounds as if an American voice said, “That’s a good punch,” at the 2:43:47 mark with a De Randamie cornerman responding, “That was a good punch.” The first voice then replied, “I wasn’t in yet, that’s a [inaudible].”

In the remainder of the blue corner’s audio, there isn’t anything close to an American accent coming from “The Iron Lady’s” corner. The first voice would appear to be the referee telling de Randamie’s team the punch that rocked Holm wasn’t a foul since he “wasn’t in yet” and hadn’t yet stopped the round.

As this was happening, UFC color commentator Joe Rogan told the world, “Oh! Oh no. That was after the bell clearly. That was late and it was hard. And that clearly wobbled Holly. That was not good… Oh man that was so late. That’s so late.”

This disconnect is a problem, not just between the referee and Joe Rogan but the millions of MMA fans, fighters, and coaches who think the bell ends the round.

I was among them until the ABC officials’ training seminar led by John McCarthy and Jerin Valel in Las Vegas last July. The bell signals a referee to call an end to the round, but it’s referees themselves who officially stop rounds. With 10-seconds left, they’re supposed to motion to the timekeeper that they heard the clack clack clack warning (watch for their subtle hand signals in the future) and immediately start a 10-second countdown in their head. Should the bell malfunction or otherwise not sound, a referee can choose to stop a round based off his or her mental countdown.

In the pre-fight rules meetings I’ve observed, the referee in charge will usually tell fighters what constitutes the end of a round and a late blow, often saying that strikes after “time” has been called or the fight has been motioned to stop are late. I can’t recall ever hearing the bell described as ending a round, and California (where I hear rules meetings) and New York (where UFC 208 took place) both use the ABC’s Unified Rules.

Still, we don’t know exactly what the referee told Holm and de Randamie in the pre-fight meeting, but his apparent “I wasn’t in yet” comment would seem to suggest he gave them the usual spiel about “time” or motioning the fighters to stop.

When de Randamie once again threw strikes after the bell at the end of the 3rd round, it appears from the main audio that the referee told de Randamie, “When that bell rings … [inaudible] … You hear me? That happens again we’re looking at a point, do you understand?”

Once he warned de Randamie about striking after the bell, the referee could potentially take a point for Foul #22 if she did it again, “Flagrant disregard of the referee's instructions.”

And that’s where the spirit of the rule perhaps comes into play. Most of us want fighters to stop their offensive actions at the bell; it keeps them and the referee safer and is the sportsmanlike thing to do even if it might not be built into the written letter of the law. When de Randamie violated that spirit a second time, the referee brought Foul #22 into play to make sure she couldn’t do it again unpunished.

Given that he seems to have told de Randamie’s corner the punch was “good” at the end of the 2nd round, it wouldn’t seem right to take a point at the end of the 3rd for doing essentially the same thing. Should the referee have given de Randamie a stern warning the very first time and taken a point per Foul #22 the second time? I’ll have a stronger opinion on that after ABC referee training and certification in a couple months.

The two round-ending incidents certainly spotlight a wide knowledge gap in the rule for illegal strikes as time expires. Clarifying certain rules was part of the motivation for the sport’s most recent rule changes; clarifying that rounds are judged only on effective striking/grappling (with extremely rare exceptions) and making a 360 degree sport clearer in terms of allowable strikes to the kidney.

If a random MMA fan were taken off the street and read the rule against late strikes, would they understand it? Would it be clear? They’d hear that offensive actions after the referee has called time are illegal. They’d also hear that attacking an opponent after the bell has sounded is Foul #24.

Say what now? Which is it?

Perhaps a clarity adjustment in the future would help.

Paul is Bloody Elbow’s business and analytics writer and is a licensed MMA judge for the California Amateur Mixed Martial Arts Organization (CAMO). Follow him at @MMAanalytics.