It sucks. Bad officiating is just something we’ve come to live with. It’s understandable on some levels. There’s the biological level. We make errors of judgment each and every day, and we do so because our progamming sucks. Then there’s the structural level. MMA isn’t even 30 years old. The learning curve is steep enough in traditional sports, nevermind a sport that started with sumo wrestlers fighting convicts.
Over a decade before Israel Adesanya would come to rule 185, another hyped striker would capture fan attention. That man was Phil Baroni.
Baroni was always a character onto himself. You’ve probably seen his high profile win over Dave Menne. But do you remember his genuine, ‘I’m the man!’ victory dance on top of the cage directly afterward? Do you remember his feud with Matt Lindland, and how it was fought online before online fights were a thing?
Baroni was and is a genuine personality. He’s always been extremely accessible. We were there with him when his house burned down. We were there with him for his transition into pro wrestling. We were there with him when he explained his uneven tan. And we were there with him when he wrote for Bloody Elbow.
If you’ve followed him since the beginning, then you were also there when he got absolutely robbed on November 21, 2003 at UFC 45.
He’d be fighting future middleweight champ, Evan Tanner. Tanner himself was coming off a loss to another future middleweight champion, Rich Franklin. This wasn’t a stepping stone fight either. This was a ‘sink quickly or swim violently’ contest. Tanner had to rebound to show he still had momentum as an elite prospect, and Baroni had to rebound to show that Lindland was his only kryptonite.
When the fight started, perhaps feeling like he had a tough act to follow with the Robbie Lawler vs. Chris Lytle war only minutes removed, Baroni wasted no time. Twelve seconds into the fight, and he crushed Tanner with two, short, right hooks directly to the temple. Tanner was rocked. He barely survived the next flurry, and got the clinch. Baroni followed that up with punches inside the clinch, first to the body, then to the head. The last punch inside the clinch collided with Tanner’s temple again, and whipped Tanner’s body around like somebody kicked the fulcrum out from underneath the seesaw.
With Tanner’s consciousness all over the cage, Mike Goldberg was kind enough to interject with his usual milquetoast platform of gargled platitudes. “The hand speed of Phil Baroni is ridiculously excessive.”
Goldberg was off, like usual. He didn’t know if he should have gone adverb or adjective. But Goldberg wasn’t the only one off that night. Tanner got the takedown for a brief moment, but Baroni got back to his feet, and tagged Tanner again, this time opening him up. Tanner fell to all fours, trying to be the mole avoiding each whack as Baroni continued to flurry. Tanner got up, and stumbled back against the fence. It’s literally three seconds between Tanner falling down, bleeding, swaying desperately to avoid punches from the ground, and standing back up only to be held up by the fence...when Larry Landless unbelievably stops the fight to check for a cut.
You probably know the rest. Tanner recovered, ended up in mount, and rained down elbows on Baroni. Landless started asking Baroni “do you want out?!” Baroni is telling him “yes!” because he thinks Larry is asking him if he’s okay. Nevermind that Baroni’s body language is clearly saying ‘no.’ And then, just like that, the fight is stopped. Tanner was dropping heavy elbows. But Baroni was lucid, and defending as best as he could. Baroni immediately started throwing punches at Landless, sneaking in at least one on Landless’ jaw. Dana would come in to yell at Baroni, “f**king relax Phil!” And everyone would take a minute to collect themselves after witnessing a trainwreck of decision-making.
I’m not gonna re-litigate the past, but it’s clear where it all went belly up. For one, there are three different kinds of hurt. There’s the inflammatory stage, which we can call ‘Joanna Head.’ The fighter seems okay, but their bodies are sending smoke signals. There’s the nociceptive stage, which we can call the ‘Stanky Leg.’ The central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system are like two cars playing a game of chicken, and this is the stage where both drivers blinked, and are now unsuccessfully avoiding their surroundings. And there’s the neuropathic stage, which is more or less the One Foot in the Coffin stage. Very few fighters recover from this stage. Cheick Kongo managed it against Pat Barry. Tanner was experiencing all three stages.
Not recognizing this simple inventory of pain was the first mistake. The second was something I didn’t learn about until Landless was later interviewed. Tanner’s corner (in this case, Dan Henderson) was allowed into the cage, which, of course, isn’t allowed. The last and most obvious was Landless thinking any conversation could be meaningful or useful in the middle of a fight. On video, it’s clear what Landless is asking. “Do you want out?!” he shouts. Landless would claim afterward that he was asking Phil, “are you okay?”
There are a lot of things I remember about that night. I remember the stoppage. I remember the fight. It’s always been fresh in my mind as a rejoinder to Dana’s righteous indignation over the Paul Daley incident (although don’t read this as an excuse for Daley’s actions against Josh Koscheck). But perhaps the oddest thing of all was Larry Landless’ written apology to Phil Baroni.
I am sorry about the whole situation and wish I could take it back and do it all over again. It was a terrible misunderstanding and I feel very sorry for Phil Baroni and his girlfriend.
It goes against my better judgment as someone obsessed with minutiae, but I’m not gonna dwell on this. If this was Larry’s way of apologizing to those close to Phil, why not choose his mother or father? Perhaps Larry and Baroni’s then-girlfriend were friends, but still. It’s just one among many amusing elements to a bustling disaster. So what did we learn that night in Uncasville, Connecticut?
Probably nothing. Larry Landless did what humans do, and made a mistake. But it’s been nagging me. John McCarthy’s description about what a referee does feels apt during these strange times. “We want people to fight, not be warriors...When they can’t protect themselves, you do.”
It’s the closest thing to an analogy casual fans and Dana’s apologists can understand, and maybe respect when the “wimpy media” asks the UFC to consider cancelling the show. I see some readers in the comments section and beyond call us crazy (or ‘worse’) for demanding standards rather than scuffles in the middle of a global pandemic; a pandemic that still hasn’t hit its peak here in the US.
And then I turn back to what McCarthy said. I want to see people fight, not be ‘warriors.’ Why can’t we just give them everything they need to fight safely instead of asking them to go above and beyond? UFC fighters are already used to fighting things beyond just their opponent. Just ask Phil Baroni.