Someone could get hurt.
That might seem an odd, almost comically ironic bit of reasoning to support levying punishment upon an athlete for his brutal actions in a sport that is all about punching and kicking and choking, about scrambled gray matter and hard-boiled altercation. But amid all of the chest thumping, we cannot lose sight of the unassailable truth that what happens at a UFC event is sport, not some disorderly brawl in a grim, grubby alleyway. And what Rousimar Palhares did inside the octagon Wednesday night in Barueri, Brazil, was not sport. It was thuggery.
By releasing the Brazilian fighter from his contract the next day, the UFC sent an emphatic message not simply to its feisty fanbase but more pointedly to a general public among which there remains significant wariness of this newfangled sport that to the uninitiated may appear to be nothing but unabated violence. Strategically, the fight promotion's loquaciously unfiltered president, Dana White, went to ground zero of the mainstream sports TV culture, ESPN, to lower the boom on Palhares.
During Thursday's brief interview on Olbermann, White was asked whether the offending action -- in which the submission specialist secured a heel hook on Mike Pierce mere seconds into their bout and did not let go even after the tapout -- gives the UFC a bad name. To his credit, the oft-combative Dana didn't get vein-poppingly defensive, instead soberly seizing the opportunity to address the big picture. "No, I mean, if you ever watch a UFC event," he said evenly, "the camaraderie, the sportsmanship is amazing in this sport."
That, along the unceremonious dumping of Palhares that immediately followed ("He's done"), was White sending a message to still another audience, one that is the lifeblood of his company: the fighters.
The men and women who make mixed martial arts their living know how to defend themselves. That's part of the job description. Also part of it is the understanding that when you're inside a cage with another trained fighter, you're opening yourself to being beaten up. It happens to the best of them, just not as often as it happens to the rest of them. But part of what drives a person to put himself or herself on the line -- along with the opportunity for glorious worldwide recognition and, of course, a fat paycheck -- is the understanding that there are rules in place. The rules make it a fair fight but even more importantly a safe fight. The rules of MMA have saved countless fighters who, notwithstanding all of their self-defense know-how, have been rendered incapable of saving themselves.
That covenant between the fighters and the company that hires them to fight is sacred. That is why Rousimar Palhares has no place in the UFC.
This was not his first offense. In a UFC bout back in 2010, he similarly held a heel hook submission for too long after his opponent's tapout and received a slap-on-the-wrist suspension by the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board. A year later, he failed to let go of a compromised limb during a submission grappling match at the famed Abu Dhabi Combat Club world championships. Rousimar also has exhibited other sorts of bizarre behavior during UFC fights, jumping onto the cage to celebrate a stoppage victory even though his bout with Dan Miller was still going (Palhares eventually would win by unanimous decision) and stopping to complain to the referee while Nate Marquardt was still fighting (Palhares got knocked out). Something happens to this guy when he's in the midst of competition. It's as though he's either unfocused or too focused.
It's not unreasonable, then, to give the troubled fighter the benefit of the doubt when assessing his intention. Although in the leadup to Wednesday night's fight Pierce had characterized him as "definitely a cheat" -- Palhares tested positive for elevated testosterone levels in December -- there did not appear to be any particular animosity on the part of the fighter known as "Toquinho" (Portuguese for "little tree stump"). In the immediate aftermath of his 31-second victory, he didn't taunt his fallen opponent. Instead, he shed tears on the octagon canvas, speaking tenderly of a cousin who recently had died. Backstage, Palhares told a UFC representative that if he won the Submission of the Night bonus, he would donate the $50,000 check to Doctors Without Borders. A noble gesture.
This crazy, dangerous behavior that we see from Palhares seems to come out of left field -- just as the loss of his job did for Rousimar. "He's perplexed," his manager, Alex Davis, told MMAFighting.com. "He doesn't really grasp it. He doesn't really understand that he's doing something overly wrong. He doesn't get it."
Damn right he doesn't get it. It doesn't really matter whether Palhares holds malice in his heart when he's continuing to torque an opponent's joint even after the fighter has tapped, has screamed, and the referee has jumped in. Maybe he's in the zone, that place where an athlete puts on a high-test performance while unencumbered by all external stimuli. He doesn't feel the tap. He doesn't hear the scream. He doesn't see the ref waving him off. It might be naïve to believe any of that is true, but I'm willing to run with that assumption. Based on watching Palhares in the aftermath of Wednesday's fight, particularly in his mournfully soft-spoken interview in the cage, I'm going to say he innocuously gets caught up in the moment.
Doesn't matter. Regardless of your intention, you simply cannot endanger another athlete's livelihood with your irresponsibility. Sure, injuries occur in the normal course of a fight. But there's a mechanism in place that safeguards fighters caught in compromising positions. It's called a tapout. It must be respected. Period. If your mental state is too zoned in to know when the fight is over, you need to find another line of work.
For the good of any potential opponents you might damage. For the good of the sport you're also hurting. And even for your own good.