With Rousimar Palhares, it’s always something. And more often than not, it’s the kind of something that has people shaking their heads. Sometimes in befuddled amusement, like when he celebrated beating Dan Miller on the fence only to realize the fight wasn’t over. Sometimes in genuine awe, like when tapped Ivan Salaverry in his UFC debut. Sometimes in disgust, like on Wednesday night.
At UFC Fight Night 29 in Barueri, Palhares became the personification of good and evil, all in a single drawn-out sequence. Facing a tough and fired up Mike Pierce, the Brazilian Palhares wasted no time in getting down to brass tacks -- he snatched up Pierce’s leg and tried to snap it off his body. This was vintage, no-nonsense Palhares. And Pierce, who’d seen the tape of "Toquinho" doing this to plenty of men before him, had to shoot right past the pride threshold and tap immediately.
Then he tapped again. And again, now screaming, as referee Keith Peterson physically tried to pry Palhares off. Then Palhares gave that ankle one more good torque before finally releasing it. Pierce, having suffered the undue trauma, slowly reached for his leg as Palhares celebrated.
Of course, we’ve seen it all before, the good, the bad and the ugly. Palhares is a beast when it comes to heel hooks. He got Mike Massenzio that way, and David Branch. At UFC 107, he did it to Lucio Linhares. With his massive strength, he’s the best in the UFC at wrenching legs. But after Wednesday night, how he uses his exquisite strength makes him that much more of a monstrosity. He held on to the lock for way too long. He actively ignored the taps and the referee for a couple of long seconds. Forget breaching the rules, he breached the code of honor.
And that, too, has become familiar. The sight of Palhares becoming unmoored in the cage has become its own fight game tradition.
How bizarre, and unrelenting, and otherworldly is Palhares? At UFC 111 in Newark, against Tomasz Drwal, Palhares won via his patented heel hook, but he held it for an extraordinary long time. So long, in fact, that the New Jersey State Athletic Commission suspended him for 90 days afterwards. Lesson learned? Hardly. In an ADCC battle the next year, he did a similar thing to David Avellan. As Avellan clearly submitted, Palhares went about his business of pursuing real damage. Pierce is at least his third offense.
This is the same man who popped hot for elevated testosterone in his fight with Hector Lombard in Australia. MMA has long needed better policing with PEDs, but the last thing the sport needs is guys with no conscience enhancing themselves for the express purpose of, what, debilitating an opponent?
It doesn’t help that this fight was shown on the UFCs new flagship station, FOX Sports 1, which is a lifting the whole thing into greater relevancy (meaning greater scrutiny). After all, this is a falsely maligned sport whose undertones are actually all about respect and tradition, right? The spirit of the fight game is the real hook. And though the literal transaction between combatants is extreme, it has important limits.
A tap is a surrender.
Those taps are what keep the transaction grounded in civility. And when Palhares ignores those taps, it’s the surest way to turn the clock back on the sport’s barbarism (perceived or otherwise). It casts off any notion of sportsmanship, and steers it right back towards the unnerving…or worse, something criminal. More damaging, it undermines all the good things that MMA stands for in terms of discipline, honor, focus and respect. Even when there’s bad blood between opponents, there’s a brotherhood that comes from the shared experience within sport itself.
In short, actions like Palhares’ disgrace MMA, if for no other reason than such actions don’t belong to the concept of "sport" at all.
What will the UFC do? In the past, we’ve seen Renato "Babalu" Sobral cut for holding onto a choke too long against David Heath. We saw Paul Daley, frustrated for three rounds against Josh Koscheck, let go for throwing a punch after the bell.
The promotion is clearly not happy with Palhares right now, and "investigations" are underway. The UFC didn’t award Palhares submission of the night honors, even though he was the only fighter on the card to finish a fight that way. That’s the first good step. After all, Palhares didn’t easily accept Pierce’s submission. And any kind of "honor" is the damndest thing to award the dishonorable.
But at this point, the UFC is dealing with a repeat offender on something that shouldn’t be tolerated even once. Palhares says he let go the second he heard the referee say stop. Didn’t look that way. And it would be well within the UFC’s rights to ignore Palhares’ version of events the way he so defiantly ignored Pierce’s taps while they serve him his walking papers.