The tough part of hindsight in sports is that it is often too easy to pinpoint the exact moment the tide turned in a contest. In the case of UFC 194's co-main event, that moment came midway through the third round, when Chris Weidman threw an ill-advised spinning wheel kick and Luke Rockhold immediately and deftly took him to the canvas.
Rockhold never gave that position back, advancing into mount then unleashing a hellacious salvo of punches and elbows which left Weidman barely able to answer the bell. Rockhold finished his battered foe one round later, seizing the UFC middleweight strap with a stunningly decisive upset win.
"That was a colossal mistake," Rockhold's head coach at AKA, Javier Mendez, said of Weidman's failed wheel kick on Monday's The MMA Hour. "Because we didn't know what was going to happen when someone was on top of Chris, or if Luke could stay on top of him. Luke proved what he said all along, that he felt he had the best MMA jiu-jitsu out there for top control, and he proved it."
Heading into the contest, many considered the match-up between the two middleweights to be a toss-up. Weidman was undefeated, and had gained his title by twice defeating the legendary Anderson Silva. Rockhold, on the other hand, was a decorated former Strikeforce champion riding a four-fight finish streak against top opposition.
The battle was back-and-forth until Rockhold took Weidman down in the third and started raining down undefended shots from top position. Referee Herb Dean appeared to be on the verge of stopping the contest several times during the brutal sequence, but ultimately allowed Weidman to sustain punishment until the end of the round. Dean has since faced criticism for allowing Weidman to take too much unnecessary damage, and even Mendez remembers being furious about the situation.
"Well, let's put it this way, I was cussing," Mendez said. "I was cussing. I was literally, just, f-ing pissed. And I'm not really blaming Herb, per se. I'm blaming the way the system is. It needs to be like boxing where we as corners don't have to go to the doctor to stop the damn fight, where we just stand up in the cage or whatever and we throw the towel and the fight is over. It should be a simplified rule, just like boxing.
"Who knows the fighters better than the coaches, as far as what the fights can do and what they can't do? Who knows them better? We do. Not the doctor, not the refs. We do. If we see our fighter and we know he's going to take a beating, we should be able to throw the damn towel and without any interruptions from the doctor or anybody. And we shouldn't be reprimanded from it."
While throwing in the towel to stop a fight is not illegal under the Unified Rules of MMA, the actual physical practice of throwing in the towel is technically illegal in specific states, including Nevada. In Nevada, cornermen are required to alert a nearby commission inspector that they wish to stop the fight, then that inspector will pass on the information to the referee.
"If anybody should be pissed it should be our fighters, ‘why'd you throw in the freaking towel,' they'd have to deal with that," Mendez said. "But I'm really angry about that because in Mexico, too, you had poor Scott Jorgensen. He was in the same scenario (against Alejandro Perez), and it's like, goddamnit. This is a sport, and when you see things like that, it doesn't make it too sporting for me. So I'm sorry I'm angry about it, but it just angers me that fighters are getting injured more than they need to because of one stupid rule that prohibits us from just doing a simple thing like boxing does."
As a result of the bizarre inconsistencies of the rule, it is not uncommon for cornermen and fighters to be unaware about whether corners can stop fights at all. For example, following Jorgensen's loss at UFC Fight Night 78, the veteran bantamweight incorrectly tweeted that "corners cannot stop a fight," then told MMA Fighting in a follow-up that he and his team were erroneously informed about the rule after the fight by someone from "the commission."
Mendez, himself, was unsure about the rule prior to Monday's interview. However, he also acknowledged another reason fights are rarely stopped by corners, which is the negative stigma that still exists within MMA that a corner stopping the fight is akin to a fighter quitting, rather than saving themselves from unnecessary and potentially life-altering future punishment.
"It shouldn't be looked down upon," Mendez said. "If that's the official rule, then it should be that, ‘hey, you guys, we encourage you. Know your fighters. Don't let your fighters take the punishment.' In this case, I bet you Ray Longo and Matt Serra were thinking, ‘f**k, I want to throw in the towel.' I bet you they were. I bet you they weren't thinking, ‘come on, Chris, pull out of it.' I bet you they were thinking, ‘what the f**k is going on?!'
"They care so much about their guys and they're such great coaches, I know they were thinking the same thing. There should be a clear understanding of how we need to stop these fights, because Chris didn't need to take that unnecessary punishment. He did not. And I dare anybody to disagree with me."
When asked whether he would have stopped the fight if the roles had been reversed and Rockhold was the one on the receiving end of the blows, Mendez adamantly responded, "hell yeah, I would've stopped it. There would've been no questions asked. I would've stopped that damn fight, and then I would've dealt with the consequences with Luke."
The confusion around the situation was compounded in the moments after the third round, as Rockhold later admitted he believed the fight to be over. He managed to refocus before the beginning of the fourth, but it wasn't easy. Rockhold battled a nasty staph infection on his ankle for two weeks leading up to the fight, and Mendez said he saw right away the draining effect the antibiotics had on his fighter, even before the third-round strangeness.
"After the first round I was completely worried," Mendez said. "I'm like, holy crap, what the hell. I go, oh my god, this staph has really messed him up. Just like I thought. That's why I said earlier, thank God something was wrong with Chris, either the blows that Luke gave him that slowed him or something else. Either way, I'm happy that he wasn't super fresh.
"Luke himself, he said, ‘man, I didn't think it was going to take that much out of me.' He said that after the fight, he goes, ‘man, I was wiped out.' I know my fighters, and with Luke, that wasn't the best Luke. That was the worst Luke. That was the worst Luke you could've seen, and now I think people are going to realize how great this kid is. If he stays mentally focused the way he is, in my opinion, he is on track to being the greatest of all-time in the middleweight division."
Regardless of the circumstances, Rockhold is now unquestionably considered to be the best middleweight fighter in the world, and his options are many.
Yoel Romero is the division's assumed No. 1 contender, having defeated Ronaldo Souza via a divisive split decision at UFC 194. However the win was not without controversy, and Rockhold admitted at the post-fight press conference that he preferred to fight Vitor Belfort, who two years ago knocked him out with a spinning heel kick during the heyday of Belfort's testosterone replacement therapy use.
"In a perfect world, I want Belfort (next)," Mendez agreed. "Because Luke wants him, so I want what Luke wants. So in perfect world, I want Belfort."