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BeardGate: Why are fighters required to trim their beards?

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Emil Meek during UFC 206
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

“There is always a period when a man with a beard shaves it off. This period does not last. He returns headlong to his beard,” wrote French poet and novelist Jean Cocteau.

For UFC welterweight newcomer Emil Meek, that period came unexpectedly and without warning, almost traumatically. He sojourned through the ordeal, but not without the scars and a story to tell.

When Meek showed up on that December Friday morning in Toronto to weigh-in for his eventual UFC 206 bout opposite Jordan Mein, he thought his affairs were in order. He was on weight. Meek had checked with UFC staff in the lobby of the hotel just to be sure. 170.5 pounds, the unofficial scale read. All that was left was to make the bout official with the Ontario athletic commission’s approval and their scales.

The Norwegian welterweight would weigh in without issue, but a strange and malicious demand was issued beforehand from a representative of the Ontario commission: shave your beard or you can’t compete.

“After I had cut weight, I just checked the weight with the UFC commission [liaison team]. I was waiting to get called up to the official weigh-ins. As I was there, the Ontario commission sat there and asked if they could have a word with me. I just sent my cornerman since I was dehydrated,” Meek told MMA Fighting.

“He yelled at me, 'Emil! You need to shave your beard.' I was like, 'Uh, that's funny.'“

At first, Meek didn’t believe his cornerman. This was a prank or practical joke, he thought. What purpose or reason could there be in requiring a fighter to trim a beard? Surely, the commission couldn’t even ask such a thing, could they? And who had ever heard of them doing so? Why would anyone want a peacock stripped of its feathers?

As it turns out, there are lots of reasons, however lame the motivations. Or, rather, lots of reasons are given depending who you ask. The truth is, this discriminatory practice is rooted like many others in MMA, which is to say, borrowed from somewhere else, adapted and ultimately bereft of any clear present benefit.

The rule governing beard length as it’s written in Ontario is from section 13:46-24A.10, which centers on ‘appearance’: “all contestants shall be cleanly shaven immediately prior to competition, except that a contestant may wear a closely cropped mustache.” Notably, Meek - or Dustin Ortiz and Jon Makdessi, two other UFC 206 combatants who Meek says were also required to trim their beards - was not required to trim or shave down to a mustache, but merely lessen the length of his mane. When asked by MMA Fighting about this discrepancy in the regulatory code, Denelle Balfour, Media Relations Officer for the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport wrote, “it is the policy of the Office of the Athletics Commissioner to permit contestants to compete with a closely cropped beard. This policy is consistently applied at all events overseen by the OAC.”

Except, well, it isn’t. At least not all the time. For example, Jon Jones fought Vitor Belfort in Toronto in 2012 at UFC 152, sporting not only more than a well-coiffed mustache, but an near-Amish beard not short on length. He was never required to shave it. Sources tell MMA Fighting the commission did at least consider asking Jones to trim, but never formally required it.

In any case, perhaps the alleviation of the burden to manufacture half a Van Dyke on one’s face feature is for the best. There is evidence to suggest this accommodation in the rules - i.e., explicitly requiring mustaches yet allowing for shortened beards - allows regulatory authorities to avoid potential conflicts with certain religious practices. That there is an aesthetic bonus allowing for the fuller growth of manhood itself is an ancillary benefit.

But even if fighters can grow beards, why must they be trimmed? What is the purpose of requiring taut beards and where does this onerous regulation come from?

According to mixed martial arts referee ‘Big’ John McCarthy, the inclusion of the rule originates in New Jersey, circa 2001. Larry Hazzard, who is the current Director of the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board (NJSACB), also served in that role at the time, included the shaving provision in first Unified Rules the state used to initially sanction professional MMA.

McCarthy guesses the rule was added, despite some objection at the time, as a way to make MMA as palatable to regulatory stakeholders as possible. In the end, it proved quickly worthless. Nick Lembo, current counsel to the NJACB, told MMA Fighting the state has not mandated active compliance since 2008. It “has not been enforced in New Jersey since Kimbo-Mercer, Kimbo-Thompson unless [the] opponent will not waive the rule.”

The basis of Hazzard’s strategy appears rooted in what language could be grandfathered from boxing. USA Boxing requires ‘clean shaven’ participants and the parameter is presently part of various state athletic commissions professional boxing code (to what extent it’s enforced is another matter). In fairness, the requirement makes sense for the sweet science, especially for the amateur variety: per the rules, doctors need the ability to inspect for any cuts or visible medical ailments. All of this technically applies to professional boxers, too, but is routinely less enforced.

Interestingly, however, none of this applies to Meek. He wasn’t told about the need to have a clear line of sight on facial lacerations or visibly broken jaws. “They told me I needed to trim it down to a length where it couldn't be grabbed,” he recalled.

McCarthy explained to MMA Fighting this actually makes sense, at least in part. He’s heard a number of explanations for the trimming requirement depending on who he talked to or where he was, including that it’s designed to prevent a fighter’s beard from being pulled during the course of a fight. Yet, hair pulling is already illegal in sanctioned professional MMA, he observed, and if his experience has shown him anything, it’s that pulling of beard hair is exceedingly rare.

Additionally, there’s scant evidence beard pulling is anything that has ever troubled New Jersey, the MMA originators of the practice. While the state might have been the first to bring codify beard trimming in professional mixed martial arts, pulling isn’t what prompted them to include language about closely-cropped mustaches. “Concern by medical staff back then was that a beard could scratch the eye,” Lembo revealed.

And the list goes on in every direction depending which rabbit hole once wants to explore (California did not return requests for comment, nor did USA Boxing). Other reasons offered for the requirement range from preventing one’s beard from getting in an opponent’s mouth to reducing the chance of a beard rubbing on an opponent’s skin, thereby causing an abrasion or rash. None of these theories appear particularly scientific or, more importantly, buttressed by events as sound ideas.

Worse, it’s not clear how many states or jurisdictions still carry this requirement. While commissions observe many of the same fouls borrowed from the Unified Rules, states have also made subsequent adjustments to their own rules set in an attempt to streamline, modernize or adapt. And even if it’s on the rule books, there’s no telling if the state will enforce it either this time, but maybe the next.

While Meek is the latest fighter subject to the pernicious whims of anti-beard bigotry, his case is hardly unique. Pat Healy suffered the very same fate in Ontario in 2013. Daniel Cormier jokingly tried to get the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation to check the hirsute jaw of Roy Nelson. UFC President Dana White, who recently sported moderately-shaped stubble, once added fuel to Cormier’s fire by declaring “Who would want that thing [Nelson’s beard] laying on their face? Seriously?...That long, nasty, ratty looking thing in your mouth, rubbing on your face? It’s ridiculous. They shouldn’t be allowed to have beards that big. If you want a beard, trim that thing down and make it look normal. It’s disgusting.”

Texas, however, doesn’t adjudicate disputes of normalcy (of all locales, how could they?). Instead, the Lone Star state reportedly issued the most Texas of imaginable responses to UFC Tonight in declaring they don’t regulate facial hygiene.

As for Meek, he’s found a way to cope with the beard animus suffered in Toronto. Now in recovery, he’s pledged to check regulations ahead of time in whatever jurisdiction he eventually competes. He doesn’t care why beard regulations exist, he told MMA Fighting, only that he can’t afford to run afoul of them again. After all, the late UFC 206 surprise did more than alter his appearance for his Octagon debut. For ‘Valhalla’, the entire holiday season has turned somber, his daily view of the world jaundiced by injustice.

“It's better, but it's still bad,” Meek says of the recovering beard. “I kind of mistrimmed it on the one side, so it's got bald spots. It's getting there, but it's going to be a beardless Christmas.”