Ben Fowlkes
Monday June 9th, 2008

Moments after being stopped by Fabricio Werdum with only a few seconds left in the first round at Ultimate Fighting Championship 85, heavyweight Brandon Vera did what most conscious fighters would do in such a situation: complain.

He jumped to his feet, got in the referee's face, milked the crowd's sympathy -- all for nothing. Arguing an early stoppage in mixed martial arts is like arguing a pitch's location in baseball. An umpire will never change a strike to a ball, and a batter just looks like a fool for even trying.

But Vera had a legitimate gripe Saturday. His fight was stopped too soon, even if the call did adhere to a hazy refereeing standard regarding unanswered blows.

Per the vague rule, a fighter's failure to intelligently defend himself is cause for stoppage; a fighter's covering up to protect his face from a flood of punches is not. Most of the time the standard is fair. But it caters to a specific situation -- one of many in a sport with numerous fight permutations. One that didn't occur in the Werdum-Vera bout.

Werdum, an excellent grappler, used his edge on the ground to gain a full mount on Vera before landing some punches. Unable to escape from Werdum's hold (as few fighters are), Vera persisted with numerous attempts to get out, all while still protecting his face. Though not damaged by the blows, Vera wasn't even close to arresting them altogether.

Does that count as an intelligent defense? According to calls by MMA referees, in the past, one could argue that it doesn't. But, then again, if Werdum-Vera didn't fall into the scope of the rule, what position would?

Simply put, there needs to be a distinction between lying flat on your back and absorbing elbows (eh hem, Kimbo Slice), and letting a few punches slip through your defense as you look for a way out at the end of the round.

The criterion also doesn't allow for other variables to be factored, like the amount of time left in a round. When Werdum mounted Vera and began landing punches, there was about 30 seconds left in the round -- a long time if the blows are on target. Had there been three minutes left and no possible escape for Vera, the call may have been reasonable. But with just seconds remaining, Vera should have had the opportunity to weather the storm and come back for the next round.

Someone may always be unhappy with a call, and it's inevitable that a fighter will have to eat some punches if he gets himself in a bad position. The refs can't be blamed, they're just doing what they've been instructed to do. The standard regarding intelligent defense and unanswered blows has been reinforced by organizations and athletic commissions alike, with the intent to protect a fighter who is clearly hurt and is unable to fight back.

Sure, Vera may have been on the brink of losing Saturday's fight when it was stopped, but there's no way to know for sure. But if a brawler can take it, the least he can hope for is that an outside call will give him the dignity of deciding how he'll spend the remainder of a round.

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