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UFC 267 Opinion: Fighters don’t go out on their shields, they leave on a gurney

UFC 267 bout between Benoit Saint-Denis and Elizeu Zaleski was a notably terrible example of bad reffing, officiating, and cornering.

On Saturday at UFC 267, Benoit Saint-Denis took an unreasonable amount of punishment during his loss to Elizeu Zaleski. Referee Vyacheslav Kiselev very clearly failed in his duty to protect Saint-Denis from unnecessary damage after the fighter was essentially TKO’d standing in the second round. The official was justifiably pilloried for his lack of action during the fight and removed from the event shortly afterward.

However, all the blame shouldn’t fall on his shoulders. Saint-Denis’ coaches need to face their fare share of scrutiny and as well, as they too failed their fighter by not ending the fight.

Saint-Denis’ coach Daniel Woirin, could have thrown in the towel at any time after things went south. He could have prevented his fighter from going out for the third round. He did neither. Instead, he tried to justify his inaction.

“Benoit has been able to pull himself together in phases,” Woirin told BoxeMag (translation via MMA Fighting). “He took a lot of punches but he was able to pull himself together, which allowed him to survive. This is the fight, the fight is hard, you must not be... people are too sensitive. Benoit is a warrior, for his first fight in the UFC he will lose before the (time) limit? It’s not possible. We also discussed it after the fight and he told me that I was right not to throw in the towel. It didn’t even pass a second in my head, not even a second and you can see he got back into the fight.”

Parsing that excuse, however, Woirin doesn’t even seem to attempt to make us believe Saint-Denis had a chance to come back and win the fight. Instead, his coach just highlights how his fighter was able to survive.

But, combat sports should not be about surviving. When one fighter is struggling, not to win, but just to hold on? That’s when the fight has gone on too long. When the fight is no longer a competition with victory as the goal, that’s well past the time the contest should be stopped.

“He had a great fight,” Woirin continued. “The guy he took is a top-12, the guy has 30 fights, 14 knockouts. Benoit had a great fight, I’m really happy. In fact you know, when you are in the cage you don’t want to be stopped. That’s why I used to shout at Benoit sometimes to try to stick around and not stay inactive. When you stay inactive, the referee can stop you. Honestly I think if it wasn’t for him, another referee would have stopped him. The fact that he didn’t stop him ultimately made the fight even more interesting as Benoit picked up the pace behind. It was amazing, even I was stunned you know.”

It almost goes without saying, of course, that a fighter shouldn’t ever have a say in when the fight gets stopped. When a referee stops a bout, it’s because the fighter’s immediate safety is in danger. When a doctor stops a fight it’s because the fighter’s safety is in danger not just in the moment, but possibly further down the line. When a corner throws in the towel, it’s because the fighter is in danger. Asking fighters to decide when they themselves are in danger is a near impossible proposition, especially when that danger can be the complete disconnection of the athlete from their senses.

In 2019, trainer Buddy McGirt had to beg and plead with his fighter, Maxim Dadashev, to allow him to stop the fight. Dadashev did his best to shake off McGirt’s request, but the trainer ignored his fighter and stopped the fight.

Three days after the fight, the 28-year-old Dadashev was dead from the injuries he suffered in that boxing match.

“He seemed OK,” McGirt told ESPN after the death of his fighter. “He was ready. But it’s the sport that we’re in. It just takes one punch, man.”

One of the most well-worn tropes in the combat sports world is that fighters want to and should be allowed to go out on their shields. That’s what happens in the movies. That’s not what happens in real life.

In real life, the fighter leaves the arena strapped to a gurney in the back of an ambulance. In the real world, the fighter undergoes emergency surgery to reduce brain swelling. In the real world fighters slip into a coma after surgery. In the real world, that fighter sometimes dies. In the real world, that fighter might live but cannot walk or speak or care for themselves.

Fighting is a dangerous sport, but it is a sport. And the safety of the combatants needs to be foremost in the minds of the officials and coaches. If that’s not the case, those officials may one day wonder if they could have done more to save the life of a person they were tasked with protecting.