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Following the UFC 259 controversy between Petr Yan and Aljamain Sterling, Demetrious Johnson wants a rule change with regards to striking a downed opponent. Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

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Editorial: Petr Yan, Aljamain Sterling and the historical idiocy of grounded fighter rules

A look at the history behind MMA’s controversial grounded fighter rules.

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UFC 259 might have witnessed Aljamain Sterling being crowned bantamweight champion, but it was anything but a bonafide coronation in the Octagon on Saturday night. Instead, it was a familiar, lamentable tune MMA fans have heard time and time again.

Amidst a championship tripleheader, for many, no bout was more anticipated than the much-awaited showdown between Sterling and Petr Yan. By now, you know the story: up on the scorecards with five and a half minutes left, the increasingly dominant Yan flagrantly and mindbogglingly drilled Sterling with a knee that left him splayed out. Referee Mark Smith, who clearly and vocally announced Sterling was a downed opponent, conferred with the ringside physician, and called the bout.

“The Funkmaster” was given the UFC crown in the funkiest of ways, as the first fighter to ever win a UFC title by disqualification.

UFC 259: Yan v Sterling Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

Contrary to so many high-profile cases related to fouls in MMA, where truth and/or justice reside in a nebulous grey area, this instance is surprisingly cut and dry. Illegal and idiotic or not, Yan’s ill-fated knee is just the latest reminder of what makes the Unified Rules’ treatment of knees to a downed opponent so fatuous and aggravating.

In the immediate aftermath, much was made of Yan’s corner yelling at him. While “Punches!” was clear in English, there was debate over whether his Russian seconds urged him to “strike” or specifically, “knee”. After the bout, however, Yan effectively made this a non-issue, stating he was focused on Sterling’s hands and thought his challenger was crouching. He screwed up, he knew he did and was appropriately sportsmanlike and contrite. It’s as much as you could ask for out of a fighter screwing up so royally in such a lofty position.

As we all know, because “Pride never die”, immediately after opining on the lousy outcome via Twitter on Saturday night, I was met with the usual deluge of comments from people chastising Sterling for putting himself in such a position, as if he was intentionally trying to game the system and beguile Yan into fouling him a la Matt Lindland against Ricardo Almeida years ago, and that of course, the Pride Fighting Championship’ rule structure is better. And so, here we go again.

The truth is that a stalling position like Sterling put himself into is only even feasible in the first place because of the absence of knees to a downed opponent; if he knew there was a threat of being kneed like that, he would’ve flopped to a butt scoot again as he had already done umpteen times earlier in the contest. By that same token, Pride also had its own unique variations of this, with fighters driving opponents into the corner of the ring, playing sumo pattycake or faceguarding them, knowing their foe couldn’t rear back and elbow them in the face. Likewise, how successful would even a legendary fighter like Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira’s double wrist control in full guard have been if elbows were a threat? He would’ve adapted in a hurry, less someone like Fedor Emelianenko deliver him an even worse ground-and-pound beating.

There is something more important to consider than the ancient, fruitless argument UFC-Pride rules argument and that is simply how we arrived at either ruleset and the fundamentally different thought and action processes involved.

Pride Grand Prix 2005 - Final Round - Match - August 28, 2005 Photo by Tomokazu Tazawa/Getty Images

First, understand that “Pride rules” weren’t always the way we think of them now. One of the biggest fights in Pride’s infancy and a major milestone moment for the heavyweight division came at Pride 7 in September 1999, when Igor Vovchanchyn became the first man to topple the undefeated “Smashing Machine” Mark Kerr by ruthlessly kneeing his head in from the turtle position. While initially ruled a knockout win for Vovchanchyn, it was then overturned to a No Contest by parent company Dream Stage Entertainment.

While knees to the head on the ground were always legal in Pride, at that time, they were prohibited when an opponent was on all fours, as Kerr was. Fittingly, their rematch 15 months later, in which Vovchanchyn emerged properly victorious, was the last time Pride would utilize this rule. Afterward, all knees on the ground were allowed, except in instances where fighters were more than 10 kilograms (or just over 22 pounds) apart, or in the case of two heavyweights, 15 kilograms (or just over 33 pounds apart), giving the lighter contestant the ability to disallow the technique.

Why at that moment? Following Vovchanchyn-Kerr 1, Pride brass – and fans, of course – saw the amount of stalling going on that happened from front headlock positions and the handcuffs it imposed on fighters, while at the same time, notied the overall efficacy of knees to the head on the ground with Mark Coleman winning its 2000 Grand Prix relying on said knees and fighters like Wanderlei Silva and Heath Herring who were making exquisite use of them. Interestingly, Herring and Silva both specifically likely had a role in when DSE specifically decided to revamp said rule.

At Pride 12, their respective fights showed a silly contrast, as Herring was freely able to crush Enson Inoue from side control with knees, meanwhile, Silva was warned and separated from Henderson after smashing him with a knee from the front facelock. While no one would ever accuse Silva-Henderson 1 of being a boring affair given how explosive its spurts of brawling were, as Henderson absorbed more and more punishment and fatigued, he wantonly shot for lazy takedowns leaving Silva stuck, aimlessly hanging onto a front headlock with nothing to do except stand up, halting any offensive progress. Subsequently, the rule was changed, and just three months later, Silva would ironically use this exact technique to pulverize the company’s biggest star Kazushi Sakuraba.

Meanwhile, across the Pacific, the prohibition of knees on the ground links directly to one particular fight. In September 2000, the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board was provisionally overseeing MMA events in preparation to sanction and regulate the sport, a fact-finding mission of sorts. At International Fighting Championship’s Battleground 2, there was a bout featuring up-and-coming, undefeated Gan McGee — all 6-foot-10, 300-plus-pounds of him — taking on the vastly smaller and woefully unprepared Toughman boxer and Tae Kwon Do artist Brad Gabriel. This single fight was all it took.

McGee, who had wrestled collegiately at both the University of Iowa and Cal Poly, instantly got a snapdown and proceeded to relentlessly smash his patella into Gabriel’s melon in from the front headlock and side control, opening up a gushing faultline in his forehead that spewed blood everywhere. Notoriously no-nonsense NJSACB Commissioner Larry Hazzard Sr. took one look at the carnage that ensued and instantly took knees to the head of a grounded opponent off the table, never to return.

It’s been over two decades now and throughout, fans and fighters alike have constantly made it known they loathe the rule, the extent to which it can grind action to a halt and how it can create unintentionally illegal contact in the natural flow of action. UFC President Dana White has always said he’s open to such a rule change, but characteristically, hides behind antiquated, disingenuous ideas, like “Maybe some day when are more accepting of the sport” or “The athletic commissions make the rules.” It’s 2021, and while MMA may not be everybody’s cup of tea, the public at large is no longer shocked or outraged by it, nor would such a shift in rules prompt any mainstream media firestorm.

Secondly, yes, the UFC will abide by the laws of the jurisdictions they are under. This is the key difference between how Pride was able to nimbly revamp its rules once it noticed a recurring issue and the dilemma the UFC faces. However, no entity in the sport has more influence over said commissions than the UFC itself. Despite the tired refrain of “We run toward regulation!”, seeing the company’s actions during the COVID-19 pandemic, from initially trying to run to tribal land at the Tachi Palace in California, to its Abu Dhabi excursions, to securing regulation in Nevada by reverting to holding the majority of its cards in the state, to reports of the company’s immediate desire to host packed arenas in Texas now that the state has opened up are all indicative of this. If this one particularly nettlesome rule was really something that intimately bothered White or the company at large, the UFC would be on the crusade and there would be change sooner rather than later.

In recent years, the Association of Boxing Commissions have tweaked and tinkered with the downed fighter rule, but this has largely been in an effort to eliminate the nastiness that can result from those “grey areas”, such as transitional knees that may land as an opponent is falling or rising, which come down to a split-second reactions in the heat of battle. While this is admirable, it remains only a half measure that doesn’t address the larger issue. The larger prohibition stymies the natural, logical flow of combat and also allows, as Sterling did, competitors to – and rationally so – adopt such positions to prosper or prolong a bout. It’s a brainless impediment, born out of nothing other than a grisly mismatch over 20 years ago.

If safety is your concern, there is nothing we’ve seen over the years to indicate that knees to the head on the ground introduce an extra level of danger to fighters. Also, consider the fact that a lot of these situations arise when a fighter is fatigued or seeking to eliminate the dominant opponent’s ability to strike. If an already compromised fighter is able to simply extend their cage time by adopting such strategies, rather than being finished off in an inopportune position, they’re actually introducing themselves to greater level of risk based on the actual empirical data we do have.

In fact, when most people bring up particularly scary situations with knees as it relates to “Pride rules”, they tend to bring up two major examples: Mark Coleman caving in Allan Goes’s skull at the aforementioned Pride 13 card, and Kevin Randleman jumping into the air from north-south and jackhammering knees into Kenichi Yamamoto’s head. However, both of those contests were gross mismatches that even the most shameless of promotions would be unlikely to attempt under regulation today. Goes was a career light heavyweight with little experience with such a ruleset facing a ground-and-pound warlord with a massive weight advantage, while Yamamoto was fighting a former heavyweight, when he himself had been recently fighting in the welterweight neighborhood. They’re extreme outliers, the likes of which we seldom see today under even flimsy regulation. It’s not as if fighters in Rizin or One Championship are having their careers jeopardized en masse because of knees on the floor.

UFC 235: Jones v Smith Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

We have seen recent instances that indicate both this rule and point deductions in general have the potential to alter marquee fights. We’re barely two years removed from Anthony Smith nearly becoming UFC light heavyweight champion due to Jon Jones’ absurd illegal knee in a one-sided beating, and less than three months removed from Brandon Moreno salvaging a championship draw against flyweight titleholder Deiveson Figueiredo due to a low blow. Now, there’s little to be done to remove groin shots from the sport, as they’re an unfortunate occupational hazard for fighters. On the other hand, the knee situation can be rectified and likely much easier than people realize. With the amount of money the UFC throw behind a variety of internal projects, commissioning a few medical studies and playing hardball with influential commissions would, in my estimation, expedite the change and make for more logical, legitimate rules of engagement.

The UFC isn’t under threat of illegal knees dismantling its product, but the longer time rolls on without changing the rule, the more of these instances we will have, which ultimately satisfy no one. It’s no secret the UFC is willing to exercise its leverage and capital in a variety of ways, mostly beneficial to nothing beyond its own bottom line. In this case, not only would it be in its own best interest, but for once, the interest of everyone involved in MMA, which would be a spiriting change of its own.

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