Fight Island’s inaugural event UFC 251 was an entertaining commercial success, generating over 1.3 million PPV buys. But there was one particularly hard to watch moment; With 3 minutes left in the final round of the Jose Aldo versus Petr Yan bantamweight title fight, the Russian began pummeling the defenseless Brazilian legend. Punches rained down on a floored, bloodied Aldo causing even the most hardened fan to call for the referee to stop the fight, but he didn’t.
UFC mainstay Joe Rogan echoed the fans pleas complaining “He’s not defending himself” and “They would have stopped this fight in so many other circumstances”. The damaging blows lasted for almost a minute longer than they should have.
Only two months prior at UFC Fight Night in Jacksonville, a similar high profile non-stoppage grabbed the headlines. Veteran fighter Glover Teixeira mauled part-time MMA analyst Anthony Smith in their light heavyweight bout for over 10 minutes before it was stopped. During the mauling Smith even complained that his “teeth were falling out” before handing one of them to the referee. Known as the ‘Lionheart’, it’s little surprise that neither he nor his corner threw in the towel, highlighting the importance of referee intervention.
For a warrior, the notion of falling on your sword is ingrained in their makeup and they have lived by this mantra since time began. Roman military leaders were known to take their own lives by falling on their sword in the wake of a devastating defeat. If you’re going to lose you’ll lose displaying bravery and not cowardice. For some, early stoppages represent the latter.
And there have been occasions where fights have been stopped too early, ruining months of camp work and the spectacle for the fans. 38 seconds into the Cutelaba versus Ankalaev fight this year the referee called a halt to the proceedings to the dismay of Cutelaba. He wobbled after a flurry of punches and head kicks but was still on his feet when the stoppage came. Cutelaba immediately raged at the referee, displaying he had full cognitive control of his body and therefore confirming it was an incorrect decision. After the fight, Cutelaba commented via his Twitter stating
“First thing Monday morning we will be talking to the commission to make the appeal. Hopefully, they see what all fans watching tonight saw and correct this injustice.”
However, as awful as an early stoppage is, there needs to be a common agreement within the media that acts of caution are not heavily criticized. Called out for being mistakes, yes. Vilified like the Cutelaba fight, no. With this caution first approach fighter safety will remain paramount and the immediate focus can be on reducing late stoppages. Because stopping the fight late allows for a number of full force strikes to connect with minimal defensive cover. Each unanswered strike to the head causing the brain to bounce off of the fighter’s skull, increasing the risk of permanent damage.
We all love MMA and want to see it continue to grow and in order to generate further mainstream growth, there cannot be any unnecessary risk or negative press like the early days of the sport. Remember, it’s only recently that the professional MMA ban was revoked and the UFC has been able to put on shows in places like New York (UFC 205, November 2016). When credibility is on the line and not eradicating it could result in life-changing injuries or even death, there is no doubt that late stoppages must end.