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Controversial end to Stephens-Emmett makes for a folly of hindsight

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If you tuned in right at the end there for Saturday night’s UFC card on FOX, you might have thought, “well, would you look at that, Jeremy Stephens is on his knees begging for his title shot, he must have kicked some ass!” And he did. He kicked some serious ass. Yet if you tuned in just moments earlier, you’d know he also knee’d some temple while Josh Emmett was down, and elbowed Emmett right in the forbidden area behind his ears, the kind of messy context that makes even the sweetest GSP impressions look funny.

Ugh. I mean…where to even start? There was always going to be a lot to unpack from that main event in Orlando.

Emmett was thrust into the headliner spot on a major FOX show on the strength of his knockout victory over Ricardo Lamas, which became a mild controversy from the start. Josh Emmett a FOX headliner? What sorcery is this? Stephens has been around since the black-and-white days of Ion telecasts, and — though he hits like a truck — has never been a fooking popular fighter. This was the kind of main event that could’ve used Max Holloway on the Jumbotron screaming “it is what it is!” to rev up the crowd at the Amway.

Still, Emmett was doing fine in his big spot, knocking Stephens down in the first. Stephens responded by knocking Emmett down with a killer left hook in the second. While Emmett was scrambling to survive the arriving onslaught, Stephens elbowed him at least twice in the back of the head, and then cued up a knee — a calculated, telegraphed, oh-no-you-ain’t taboo of a knee while Emmett was clearly down — that skidded off the side of his face like a rock skipping across water. Referee Dan Miragliotta stopped the action moments later, when Emmett was good and done from a couple of vicious elbows to his jaw.

Then it was, holy hell, wait? Didn’t…what the…let me see that again.

The hundreds of thousands at home that saw the replay dissected the (presumed) infraction in super slow motion, though some believed the knee didn’t connect (even if it was intended to). The elbows to the back of the head were perhaps only glaring as a parlay with the (possible) illegal knee, especially since Emmett moved into them. It was a lot to consider. Florida was using the new unified rules, but didn’t allow the use of replay — some of the small print that was mentioned on the telecast. From state to state, we were reminded, it’s a crapshoot as to what the hell is legal and what isn’t, and all it takes is one indiscretion to open a peanut can filled with springing snakes.

Only, the gag was on Emmett, who came back to consciousness with a broken orbital and a lot of questions. Some trip to Disney. Upon collecting all the information as to what happened to him he vowed to appeal, which — if history has shown us anything — is like trying to hail a cab from the top of the Empire State Building. Imagine the look on his face when he learned that Stephens had been awarded a Performance of the Night bonus. It must’ve been like he’d just glimpsed the ghost of Li Jingliang.

Meanwhile there was the exchange between the broadcast color man Daniel Cormier and desk analyst Dominick Cruz on the FS1 post-fight show. Cormier pointed out that the knee glancing off Emmett’s head didn’t have to be flush to be illegal, that it merely had to connect to be illegal. Cruz asked where the knee landed as they pored over the replay. Cruz — just as smug as he was back when antagonizing Urijah Faber all those times — asked time and again, “where does it land, bro?” He later switched to, “DC it can’t be illegal if the ref doesn’t call it illegal.”

Though Bisping tried to step in as a voice of impartiality, it was a comically biased moment between active fighters (where biases can’t help themselves). Cruz is Stephens’ teammate, and that fact didn’t get in the way of the pomp. My favorite part was when Cormier said, “But Dominick, I am just telling you that you’re wearing glasses, you can admit, hey, your boy got away with one. It’s like me robbing a bank”…and here Jon Anik looked like he wanted to slip through a side hatch and never come back…“and got away with it.”

And that was how we closed out Saturday night — people debating an illegal knee, its impact or lack thereof, from biased perspectives and from open minds. Some people saw one thing, others saw another. Stephens himself said Mirigliotta told him beforehand that under the new unified rules if one hand was up, he was free to knee away. Was it even illegal? Who the hell knows. The knee appeared to skim Emmett’s head, and it certainly connected on the way back down. Did it have any real impact? Maybe in the hysteria of the moment.

But by mid-next week, when UFC 222 gets to rolling along and fresh faces replace the old, it’ll go down as another win for Jeremy Stephens. Jeremy Stephens fought Josh Emmett on February 24, 2018, and Stephens won. It has to be as simple as that in MMA, because all the details get a little heavy to carry around after awhile.