If MMA’s rowdy demographic ever gets around to making a more sophisticated drinking game, the inclusion of a “shot each time somebody cheats and gets by with it” rule would surely turn things loopy. It’s actually fashionable to slam a knee into an unsuspecting groin to let somebody know they’re in a fight, just as a timely finger into an eye socket these days is smart business. That’s because warnings for cheating don’t show up in the box score. Looked at a certain way, fouls aren’t fouls in MMA so much as prompters to get lit.
UFC 221 in Perth, Australia, had some fine examples that would have left players of such a regal game a little fuzzy come Sunday morning. Yoel Romero — the pound-for-pound greatest rules-skirter the UFC has ever known — didn’t grab the fence during a pivotal takedown (as he did against Jacare Souza at UFC 194), but he did show up three pounds overweight for his interim middleweight title fight with Luke Rockhold. That wasn’t cheating, per se, but it did hoist a red flag over the bout. And he did win, which had plenty of people complaining about residual offenses that went glaringly unpunished, like the time he stayed on the stool for an extended period of time between rounds against Tim Kennedy. Even the soft lips he was kissing Rockhold with just moments after finishing him with an overhand wasn’t a violation in the ordinary sense, but it was in every other.
The point is, Romero is happiest right on the outskirts of the rules. He’s 9-1 in the UFC. Coincidence? Maybe, but he alone could make a participating drinking game audience wetter than he got for that fight with Chris Weidman, when his corner turned him into a human oil slick.
In Perth, there were others around to pick up the slack for Romero’s rare off night. Mark Hunt, who found himself on his back for major portions of his fight with Curtis Blaydes, had his toes in the fence with nary a warning. And Li Jingliang dug even deeper for a victory — deep into poor Jake Matthews’ eye sockets, that is.
During a guillotine attempt he was trying to escape, Jingliang gouged Matthews’ eyes with not one but two fingers, the kind of blatant foul that will make even the most diabolical among us groan (before taking a shot). The referee Mark Simpson, right on top of the action to see the fingers sink into the orifices, swatted at Jingliang’s hands like a grandmother trying to shoo a young one from the cookie jar. No no now, we’ll have none of that.
Jingliang survived the second round, and ultimately to hear the judge’s scorecards.
Not only was Jingliang not docked a point for the violation, he ended up taking home an additional $50,000 for Fight of the Night honors. Justice may be blind, but the 23-year old Matthews finds himself lucky he isn’t. (In fact, he forgave Jingliang in the post-fight interview, saying he held no ill will towards him). Yet as the blood streamed down from Matthews’ eyes after being fingerly probed right there in public, you had to wonder — if that’s not a point deduction, what is? Maiming? Brandishing a shiv? Clubbing an opponent with an amputated limb? At least with the $50k Jingliang can get a nice manicure as a courtesy to the next guy he gouges. When rules don’t apply, give me hygiene.
My former colleague Chad Dundas has a name for the “always cheat” philosophy that has yet to be proven wrong in the martial arts — he calls it “Dundasso.” Always cheat because…well, why wouldn’t you?
Why not grab the fence at the moment you need to most, if there’s no fear of being docked a point? Why not get the party started with a swift kick right to the jewels, or a finger in the eye, or anything that can be classified as inadvertent in the heat of the moment? Say what you want about MMA referees, but they are not thieves. They will not take points from fighters unless you’re Jason Knight trying to bite Gabriel Benitez’s finger off (though Benitez was fish-hooking, remember, so you’re still required to drink).
What they will do is warn fighters to behave. Sometimes they’ll warn them multiple times, as if there’s a parental scale of severity in each “I mean it.” First time: Watch the fingers! Second time: Seriously, keep your fist closed. Third: I’m not going to warn you again, mister! Fourth: I will pull this car over. Fifth: Do it again, I take a point. I mean it.
It pays to cheat. Just ask Germaine de Randamie who clocked Holly Holm after the horn at UFC 208 last year, thus changing the complexion of the inaugural women’s featherweight title fight. She was so contrite after being warned not to do it again that she did it again later on, all her points under the 10-point must blissfully intact. She ended up winning the fight.
Just like Romero did. He came in overweight, yet he won and now he’s — somewhat defiantly — next in line for a title shot. And though Jingliang didn’t get his own arm raised at the end, he cheated his way into surviving long enough to cash a $50,000 check. Ye olde Dundasso. Cash money. Pull the wool.
Each warning is a reminder that there are rules, not necessarily because they matter all that much. Which is to say, bottom’s up.