Fouls in MMA are a tricky business. While the sport has its fair share of rules, enforcing them often seems more like a last resort than any kind of regularly useful set of standards. That reality has been at the forefront of discussions around the UFC lately, with a couple high profile fouls leading to somewhat different conclusions.
The disparity in rule enforcement seems especially stark in the case of two recent illegal knees. One landed by now-former bantamweight champion Petr Yan in the fourth round of his title defense against Aljamain Sterling—which rendered Sterling unable to continue and resulted in the stripping of Yan’s belt via a DQ loss. And the other, just one week later, delivered by middleweight Eryk Anders to Darren Stewart on the main card of UFC Vegas 21.
Like Sterling, Stewart was unable to continue after eating the knee. But unlike Yan, Anders’ price for delivering the blow wasn’t quite so severe. Instead of getting tagged with a DQ loss, the bout now appears as a ‘No Contest’ on both Anders’ and Stewart’s records. Why would two fighters get a different penalty for what was, in essence, the same foul? UFC VP of Regulatory Affairs Marc Ratner sat down with MMA Junkie Radio to give his thoughts, and explain what Herb Dean’s assessment of the Anders/Stewart fight was in the moment (transcript via BJPenn.com).
“What we start with is the referee’s judgment,” Ratner said of the two fouls. “That’s the most important thing. He’s going to determine, in his mind, whether it was intentional or accidental. It certainly changes the way the fight is scored or the outcome. In the Yan fight, Mark Smith was the referee, and he felt that the knee was intentional. And therefore, because Sterling couldn’t go forward, that became a disqualification,” Ratner said.
“The difference from last Saturday’s fight was Herb Dean felt that maybe (Anders), who landed the knee, (and Stewart), who was putting his hand up and down, kind of baited him into that knee. He felt it was an accident. Therefore it became a No Contest or a ‘No Decision.’ If it would’ve (gone) two rounds full, we would’ve gone to the scorecards.”
It’s hard to see exactly what the major differences were between the two fouls. In both cases, Anders and Yan both appeared to have control over the posture of their opponents, holding them in a kneeling position before throwing the strike. Anders was in a bit worse position to see Stewart’s down knee than Yan was, and Yan appeared to land a little cleaner and harder. But it’s not otherwise clear what Dean might have seen to think Anders had less intent behind his strike, or what Smith might have seen to decide Yan had more.
All told, the situation seems to clearly highlight the subjective nature of enforcement in MMA. Most of the time, judgement over a call lands squarely with the referee and their interpretation of the action in the moment. For fans and fighters, until that somehow changes, incongruities like this one will remain the norm.