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Palhares easily wins WSOF bout, but questions still linger

Photo: Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Rousimar Palhares was released from his UFC contract after ignoring a tapout last year.

He was well prepared and on his game, knew exactly whom and what he was up against, and without hesitation seized the moment.

I could be talking about Rousimar Palhares, who got the quick finish in Saturday night's World Series of Fighting main event. But I'm not. I'm referring to referee Yves Lavigne, who is the one who actually finished the fight.

Palhares now reigns as the promotion's welterweight champion after dethroning Steve Carl with an inverted heel hook at 1:09 of the first round. But as shiny as the brass-and-leather belt displayed at cageside was, the tussle for the title likely wasn't the main draw for many of the onlookers at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. Sure, some fight fans care only about what happens between the ref waving the fighters together and waving off the bout. But no doubt a lot of eyes in the stands and in front of televisions were more focused on what danger lay in the long, dark seconds immediately afterward.

Palhares (16-6) was making his World Series of Fighting debut after being banished by the UFC back in October. The Brazilian fire hydrant is different from so many other tough guys who've been cast aside by the Dana White Fight Club, though, in that he was cut loose following a victorious performance, an especially impressive one at that. Mike Pierce is no joke, and Palhares submitted him in 31 seconds.

And he didn't stop there. That was the problem.

A heel hook held too long transformed a winning fight into the loss of a job. Palhares was let go because he didn't let go.

For several weeks after Dana White went on ESPN and announced "He's done," it appeared as though that statement might apply not merely to the UFC employment of Palhares but to the 34-year-old's mixed martial arts career in general. Bellator MMA didn't want him -- its CEO, Bjorn Rebney, said "Fighter safety is paramount to me and my team." World Series of Fighting president Ray Sefo initially balked, too, telling MMAweekly.com later in October, "We won't be signing him anytime soon."

Well, was November soon enough? That's when the World Series relented and welcomed Palhares aboard, though with the proviso that he could be thrown overboard at a moment's notice. "I will not tolerate any of that nonsense that happened before," Sefo told reporters shortly after the signing. "If it happens again, he's gone."

In January, we learned that if there was to be a repeat of Palhares' antics -- which had surfaced not just in the Pierce fight but in prior MMA and jiu-jitsu competitions as well -- it would be happening under the brightest spotlight (flashlight?) the third-tier promotion could switch on. Palhares, it was announced, would make his debut against the company's 170-pound king of the hill.

The thing about Steve Carl (21-4) is that he entered Saturday night's bout on a seven-fight winning streak, and all of those victories had come via submission. So he's not allergic to canvas. Or at least he wasn't.

The fighters went to the mat within the first five seconds, after Carl charged across the cage and flung a right hand that missed, and Palhares grabbed a double-leg takedown and top position. Carl ended up in full guard, and at first he was holding the Brazilian close with both his legs and arms, appearing content to neutralize him and wait out a Lavigne standup. But then, about 50 seconds in, the champ shifted his legs up near the thick neck of "Toquinho" and tried to lock in a triangle choke. Bad move.

Palhares quickly pulled his head and arm out of harm's way and pulled Carl's right leg into harm's way. The veins on his massive arms bulged as he locked down and twisted the ankle.

Carl tried to spin free, but Palhares held firm. Then came the inevitable tap-tap-tap.

Lavigne had been lurking the whole time, and as soon as Carl screamed in agony and started slapping Rousimar's thigh, the ref pounced. He grabbed at Palhares's left arm with both of his hands and tugged. The lock didn't loosen. The ref tugged again, and this time Palhares let go.

It all unfolded within a split second. It wasn't the most blatant case of holding a sub too long. But Palhares clearly didn't ease up when Carl's hand began slapping at his leg, and he didn't let go the first time the ref tried to pull him away. If Lavigne hadn't been right there, and hadn't been so forceful, who knows what might mayhem have happened?

But here's an interesting twist on Lavigne and submissions. Two weeks ago the UFC released a video blog showing fight-night backstage footage, and included was a clip of Lavigne talking with Demian Maia prior to his UFC 170 bout with Rory MacDonald. The ref was giving instruction on subs, and told Maia that if MacDonald should tap, "please, do not let go. Let me pull you off that submission, just to make sure. Because I have to see the tap. If I don't see it and you let it go, I'm like ..." He shrugs. "And if he says, 'Oh, I didn't tap,' you're screwed, basically."

Assuming Lavigne gave the same talk before Saturday night's fight, Palhares was following the ref's instruction by holding on to the heel hook until Yves pulled him away. And it wasn't like he vehemently resisted Lavigne's tug. Within minutes of the finish, Shaun Al-Shatti of MMAfighting.com took to Twitter to report what Palhares told him about the sub: "Palhares says Lavigne instructed him to let go as soon as he stepped in, and he did that." Lavigne retweeted this, apparently in agreement.

Shortly afterward, World Series of Fighting executive vice president Ali Abdel-Aziz insisted that Palhares had let go of Carl's leg as soon as Lavigne touched him. He also confirmed that Rousimar's first defense of his new belt will be against another UFC refugee, Jon Fitch, in July. "People need to leave him alone," he said, "and celebrate him as champ."

That's one way of looking at things. Palhares was a beast in a dominating performance, for sure. But considering what he'd done to Mike Pierce five months ago, was this result at all surprising? And yes, he did do what the referee told him to do ... although that split second when Lavigne had to do a double-clutch in order to unlock the lock had some hearts stopping.

That's all it takes. Rousimar Palhares does not get the benefit of the doubt, even for a split second. He's the victim of the doubt and he will be for as long as he fights.

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