It’s February of a new year. We’re fully into the swing of the MMA schedule now, especially headed into a weekend boasting a UFC card, a whopping three Bellator cards, plus Rizin’s first card of the year. I’m sure most fans aren’t fully done digesting the last two weeks though, for better or worse. Mostly worse, though.
Over the last two weeks – less than, really – we’ve got an explosive reignition of anger and furor over the use of knees to a grounded opponent after a pair of disqualifications last week in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, and that a week earlier in Houston, a close fight – already deemed a bad decision – was decided by a judge who shared the same former trainer as one of the contestants. Oi vey.
Oh the bright side, we’ve got the first-ever professional athlete to get a World Anti-Doping Agency-standard therapeutic use exemption for medical cannabinoids, which could set a rational, compassionate precedent for other jurisdictions in this sport.
Well, let’s get the bad news over with first.
The ABC Needs to Get Out of the Loo-knee Bin
It’s no secret that for nearly 20 years, MMA fans in North America have groused, bitched and complained – rightfully so – about the Unified Rules’ nixing of knees to the head of a grounded opponent. We’ve seen its impact in fights in that two-decade span, but the flames of dissent seem hotter than ever and this past Saturday night only seemed to fan them as not one, but two, fights ended via illegal knees. Both main card fights, within an hour of one another.
First, in a little-known lightweight Kazula Vargas looked better than he ever had against Brok Weaver, before drilling him senseless with an obviously illegal knee around the four-minute mark, ending the fight. Fast forward less than 60 minutes and Brazilian Michel Pereira is less than two minutes from certain victory against esteemed UFC mainstay Diego Sanchez, when he lands a pair of knees. While that didn’t cause that damage Vargas’ did to Weaver, Sanchez showed no interest in continuing given the circumstance and opportunity, and even admitted post-fight that he was just exercising veteranship in taking his disqualification win.
This rule was a huge rallying point for the “Pride never die!” crowd during the height of the UFC-Pride fan wars. It seems to have come to a head more recently, though, as with fans still remembering 2017’s unceremonious end to the first Dustin Poirier-Eddie Alvarez fight, when Alvarez’s illegal knees ended a developing brawl. The rule took center stage 11 months ago, when hobbled, major underdog Anthony Smith could have easily become UFC light heavyweight simply by quitting after Jones dinged him illegally, which fortunately for Jones, he refused to do. It sucks. Everybody knows the rule is garbage. But do you ever wonder why it even exists?
Rewind with me back to September 2000. Zuffa had just bought the UFC and New Jersey had become the first state to regulate the sport. Ever the enterprising regulator, New Jersey State Athletic Control Board boss Larry Hazzard decided that before the state officially oversaw any fights, they needed to provisionally survey local fights to develop a cogent set of rules, which would become the initial Unified Rules. Hazzard attended International Fighting Championship’s Battleground 2 card in Atlantic City, which featured a battle between 5-0 future UFC title challenger Gan McGee and the anonymous Brad Gabriel, a seemingly pointless fight that would shape the sport forever.
See, Gabriel was just some local brawler who had knocked a pair of dudes out. McGee was 6-foot-10 former collegiate wrestler, both at Cal Poly and perennial powerhouse Iowa. McGee almost instantly walked forward, grabbed a clinch, a snapdown to the mat, then proceeded to knee the ever loving bejesus out of Gabriel. He opened a gash reminiscent of Vitor Belfort on Marvin Eastman, which began spewing blood all over the canvas, as McGee continued to smash him with knees until the fight was mercifully stopped, with Gabriel barely sentient in a thick pool of his own blood. Hazzard decided then and there, that if MMA was going to happen in his state, that would have no part of it. Two months later, the UFC debuted the Unified Rules on the Boardwalk.
The ABC has taken baby steps to curb some of the silliness we’ve seen with his rule, including tweaking the definition of a downed fighter over the last two years. But in the words of the immortal Mike Ehrmantraut, it has taken half measures, when it needs to go all the way. The next ABC Convention is scheduled for 24-29 in Sacramento. I pray this is the year smarter heads prevail, but this is athletic commissions cramped in a room together, so, well, I’m not hopeful.
Texas, Where I Do Even Start? Or Begin Again?
Fast forward a week and the Octagon is in Texas. And this is Texas. If you know anything about MMA, or boxing forever, this is the figurative definition of flirting with any kind prizefighting disaster due to a longstanding run of wholesale, widespread incompetence. Simply put, it’s nothing new.
In their middleweight undercard fight, Trevin Giles took a narrow split decision over James Krause, which was widely unpopular. Most notably, fans and media alike were completely perplexed as to how judge Joe Soliz gave the opening round 10-9 to Giles, despite Krause spending well over half the round on his back nearly choking him out. Both other judges, JJ Ferraro and Patrick Patian, gave the opening round to Krause. Oh well, right? It’s Texas, it’s MMA, it’s lame but to be expected. Right?
Not so fast. Not in the Lone Star State.
Krause, a clever man, knew he didn’t just get regular screwed. I mean, nothing about that first round scoring made sense. Lo and behold, Giles’ coach, Eric Williams, actually awarded Soliz his Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt. In case you missed that, even if Giles and Soliz were not actually training together, might as well be goddamn teammates. Only in Texas could such a clear conflict of interest not even be considered.
Texas’ reputation here is well founded. I’d be here right all night and you would just close this tab in your browser if I endeavored to list them all, so I’ll choose one event in particular. At Strikeforce: Houston in August 2010, the TDLR gave visiting-but-legendary referee “Big” John McCarthy just two fights in a mere three-referee rotation, and worse, gave him the first fight and main event five to six hours apart. The rest of the night was filled in by the not-so-good Kerry Hatley and career-long ghoul and moron Jon Schorle, who once intimated he wanted to assault me for critiquing his long-running career of buffoonery in print – all class. Schorle’s absurd stand-up of Bobby Lashley led directly to Griggs knocking out Lashley at the second round bell. Also, their inspectors missed, or perhaps ignored, both KJ Noons and Muhammed Lawal using inhalers in their respective bouts, something Greg Hardy just lost a win for. Just an average night in a Texan cage.
It’s not as though Texas isn’t without good officials here and there; I’d appraise Jacob Montalvo as a solid referee, for instance. This is structural incompetence. Maybe the best example I can give is on the boxing side. See, for years, the commission was ran Dickie Cole, who consistently promoted his failson Laurence to main event every major boxing card that came to the state. One time in a televised HBO event between Juan Manuel Marquez and Jimrex Jaca, they suffered a clash of heads which badly cut Marquez. During the doctor break, Cole strode in Marquez’s corner and told him in no uncertain terms that he was ahead on every scorecard and if he quit, it was a win. Dude, you’re the referee. Marquez manned up and knocked Jaca out legitimately in the next round, but Cole’s actions were so idiotic and egregious his own father had to suspend him for three months. This is the kind of regulatory state Texas is.
“The Spartan” Isn’t History, He Just Made History
Not all is to despair for in our week, though. While we may have to continue waiting for knees on the ground to a downed opponent, UFC veteran Elias Theodorou scored a massive political and medical victory for his fellow fighters this week, being granted the first-ever therapeutic use exemption for cannabis in competition under World Anti-Doping Agency code. The former “Ultimate Fighter: Nations” winner, who was released by the UFC last May and remains a free agent, was granted his TUE under the auspices of the British Columbia Athletic Commission. The 31-year-old’s tireless push behind the scenes for something that he thought would not just benefit his career, but those around him, is nothing short of admirable.
“I am grateful both as a patient and an athlete for the approval of my medical cannabis TUE by the BC Athletic Commission, recognizing my fundamental Canadian right to medicate as prescribed by my medical doctor,” said in a statement on Tuesday. “I remain committed to fighting the negative stigma of medical cannabis, not only for myself but for all athletes.”
We’re not out of the woods, yet. As just discussed with Texas, even though the BCAC is an ABC member, it doesn’t mean that other commissions in Canada, the United States and in other jurisdictions beyond the ABC’s purview will follow suit. Nonetheless, in a sport that has beaten down and trained its fighters and fans to expect the worst, non-sensical decisions, hopefully this serves as a wake-up call. This precedent-setting decision by British Columbia – ha ha ha to my fellow Canadians who appreciate the poetry of BC being the province to plant the flag here – also reveals that certain fighters have capacities to take important stands and push political initiatives that benefit everyone involved.
You ever been right, but for the wrong reasons? The first time I met Theodorou, and having some intel on his personal background, I figured he would wind up at best as a fringe contender in the UFC who maybe never reached his full potential due to interests outside of it. After all, he doesn’t need this sport. He comes from a fairly affluent background and has a lot of interests. He isn’t your classic MMA type who came from a hard scrabble history and already had three kids to feed, or an outstanding collegiate wrestler who fell short of the Olympics and didn’t know what else to do. MMA just seemed like something he was good at and he wanted to see how far he could push it. While, I was right. He really just pushed it forward, with an acute passion for the sport that I clearly didn’t understand at the time.