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Strikeforce Rules Director Explains the Eye Poke Ruling

Friday night's Strikeforce fight between Marius Zaromskis and Waachiim Spiritwolf was over as soon as it started, with Zaromskis accidentally poking Spiritwolf in the eye just six seconds into the first round, causing an injury that prevented Spiritwolf from continuing.

The fight was officially declared a no contest, but there was confusion about the proper procedures for the referee and ringside doctor to end the bout, with the announcers on Showtime saying the ref improperly gave Spiritwolf five minutes to recover.

In an interview with, Strikeforce rules director Cory Schafer said the ref actually did a textbook-perfect job of applying the rules, and he discussed some of the misconceptions that fans and members of the media have about the rules of MMA. The full interview is below.

Michael David Smith: Were the rules applied properly in the Zaromskis-Spiritwolf fight?
Cory Schafer: Yes.

Mauro Ranallo said on the Showtime broadcast that a groin strike is the only accidental foul that a fighter gets five minutes to recover from, but you told him he was wrong about that. Can you clarify what, exactly, the rule is?
Well, I'm at cage side, sitting at the commission table. My job as rules director is to work between Strikeforce and the commission. I wasn't privy to the commentary on television. Mauro is a world-class professional, he is one of the most knowledgeable people in the sport, he does a tremendous job and I respect and admire him but I think he just misinterpreted the rule or had a misinterpretation of what the rule was. Maybe he had seen another event in another place at another time where they handled it differently. I'm not criticizing him but he was in error in his interpretation of the rule.

It's certainly not just Mauro who thinks a groin strike is the only accidental foul that a fighter gets five minutes to recover from. Where does that misconception come from?
I don't know. Part of it could be that the rule is different on groin strikes. At the end of the five minutes, the fighter must continue. He doesn't have the option of saying "I can't continue" and then the fight goes to the scorecards. If you get a groin strike, after five minutes, you have to continue or it's a TKO, unless the referee rules it a disqualification. But it's a good rule to give a guy five minutes to clear his eye, if he can.

But it is true that groin strikes are treated differently from other fouls?
Only in the sense that you can't measure the extent of the damage. If someone gets a groin strike there's no way to really measure the damage, and we don't want to give a guy an easy way out, to just quit and win a disqualification. So you can't win by receiving a low blow unless, say, the referee had already penalized the fighter for low blows and then disqualifies him.

So the rule is in place that way so that a guy who's losing a fight and gets a groin strike can't just lie on the ground for six minutes and then he wins by disqualification?
Right, that would be a TKO.

So he would lose a TKO even though the final strike he took was a foul?

Who discussed the decision to call the Spiritwolf-Zaromskis fight a no contest?
Nobody. The referee makes the call. The referee has wide discretion to penalize the offending fighter or not, to award the fighter recovery time of five minutes -- he can give five minutes but he doesn't have to give five minutes. He has the discretion to call in the physician to examine the fighter, he has the discretion to call an end to the bout, he has the discretion to order the fighter to continue the bout, or to have the round scored and go to the scorecards for a technical decision, if the foul occurred in the third round of a three-round fight or the fourth or fifth round of a five-round fight.

The ringside doctor came into the cage and examined Spiritwolf. What is his role?
He's going to come in, determine the nature and extent of the damage, and determine, Is it safe for this fighter to continue?

Is the referee required to go along with what the doctor says?
Not required, but it would be a rare, rare instance when a referee would not comply with the doctor. That's a state-by-state issue, whether the fight can be stopped by just the referee or the referee and the physician, but it's almost a moot point because the referee is not going to go against the wishes of the physician.

Are the rules the same for Strikeforce in every state, or do different state commissions have different rules?
Let me start by clarifying a separate issue: Strikeforce petitions each state it works in for one rule exception: To make striking with the forearm, elbow or tricep to the head a foul if either or both fighters are grounded. That is the only single rule exception that Strikeforce petitions for, where ever we go. No elbows to the head if either or both fighters are grounded. That's the only request that Strikeforce makes, and it's never been turned down because it makes the fight safer.

Other than that, the event is regulated by the Unified Rules of MMA, as established by the Association of Boxing Commissions. But from there, I call it an 80-20 proposition, in that 80% of it is consistent from state to state, while 20% is decided by the state commission. Often, this issue of how to handle a fight that is stopped by a foul is in that 20%. But in this case, the application was exactly according to the Unified Rules.

Would MMA be better off if it weren't for that 20%, and it was 100% the same everywhere?
Well, the states want to maintain their control. I give great credit to Tim Lueckenhoff, the president of the ABC, for even getting us to 80% because getting states to cooperate uniformly is a real task. It's tough. Each state has their way of business and their way of doing things. I think considering our sport is about 10 years old in its current form, getting to 80% agreement within 10 years is remarkable, and it's a credit to the ABC.

Would it be better if everyone were on the same page, 100%? Of course. Do I see that happening? Absolutely. But it takes time, particularly because in a lot of states the actual rules for combat sports are written into the law, so changing the rule can take years, through the legislature. In other states the rules are policies just based on a commission vote.

Back to the fight in question: The doctor came into the cage, examined Spiritwolf, left the cage, and then came back in and examined him a second time. After the second examination the doctor said something to the referee and the ref stopped the fight. Was that the right procedure?
It was a great call. The referee examined him, said he wanted to give him a full rest period, see if it just took time to clear his eye. So in the spirit of the competition, the doctor and the ref made a good call to give him the full rest period, then examine his eye again at the end of the rest period and make the final determination.

If the doctor says a fighter could keep going but the fighter himself doesn't think he can, what happens?
It would have been the same result, because clearly it was an eye poke. The referee has the discretion if he thinks someone is faking to tell someone to fight, but in this case it was clearly an eye poke and the referee saw it.

Are the rules online? There seems to be some confusion because the rules listed on the Association of Boxing Commission web site aren't always the exact rules that each state uses.
In this case, Mississippi is using the Unified Rules, so I go to the ABC site.

Should Strikeforce post its rules on its own web site so fans know they have one place to see the rules online?
No, because strictly speaking Strikeforce doesn't have rules -- don't misinterpret that, but Strikeforce applies for that one rules exception (no elbows to the head on the ground) and then it's regulated by the rules of the presiding athletic commission. Fortunately, most states go by the Unified Rules or the New Jersey rules.

What misconceptions do you frequently hear from fans and the media about the rules of MMA?
Well, I wish they understood the nature of scoring better, what the criteria are. And I wish they appreciated exactly how difficult refereeing MMA is. It's such a complex sport with so many skills, and it requires making extraordinary judgment calls, instantly, in such diverse situations. These officials are wonderful individuals who commit themselves, usually for very little compensation, to the safe and fair advancement of an incredible sport.

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