This weekend, featherweight hitters Jeremy Stephens and Josh Emmett met in the octagon and punched each other a whole bunch, before Stephens knocked Emmett out early in the second round and broke his orbital bone in three places. Emmett—whose entire game is based around landing meaty shots with his big right hand—tried to take Stephens’s head off with said big right hand, only to get caught out by a lightning quick left hook to the chin, crumpling to the ground. And that’s where things got weird.
As you can see, Stephens didn’t finish Emmett with the left hook, and he had to throw a hail of elbows, fists, knees, and ultimately, his entire body weight at Emmett’s face to get referee Dan Miragliotta to call the fight. While Miragliotta did not call them, Stephens landed elbows to the back of Emmett’s head and grazed Emmett with a knee to the head while he was kneeling on the mat. Stephens dropped and finished Emmett with other strikes, but the knee was certainly illegal and the elbows were also probably against the rules, though it’s a bit less clear, since Emmett was moving his head around.
A lack of clarity defines this entire mess, as well as a few similar messes that have marred UFC finishes over the past year. It all starts when the Association of Boxing Commissions approved new rules for MMA combat, including a new definition of what exactly constituted a “downed fighter,” in 2016 and began to implement them in 2017. The new rules stated that a fighter needed to have both hands on the mat to be considered grounded, while previous regulations allowed fighters to be grounded with just a single hand. However, not every state adopted the new rules, so fighters were not just faced with having to adapt to new rules, they were faced with an uneven rulebook that was not universally approved. For example, Stephens’s last fight was in Missouri, which has not adopted the new rules. Emmett’s was in Winnipeg, which has. This happened to be the first UFC event in Florida under the new rules.
Stephens’s finish is not the only controversy that the new rules have sparked. Gegard Mousasi smashed Chris Weidman with illegal knees last April in another fight refereed by Miragliotta, and Weidman eventually lost his appeal. Even when referees get it right, as Herb Dean did when he stopped a Dustin Poirier-Eddie Alvarez fight and declared it a no-contest after Alvarez tagged Poirier with three illegal knees, nobody feels quite satisfied.
And unlike some other state athletic commissions, Florida doesn’t allow instant replay, another uneven quirk that makes everything less clear, so officials couldn’t determine the legality of Stephens’s finish on the spot.
Stephens’s violent finish immediately sparked debate, prompting Dominick Cruz, Michael Bisping, and Daniel Cormier to yell about it for a few minutes. Stephens’s teammate Cruz noted that the illegal strikes don’t matter since Stephens finished him with legal strikes, an idea his fellow UFC vets took issue with.
Stephens will appeal the result of this weekend’s fight, and Team Alpha Male boss Uriah Faber vented at Bisping and Cruz as well.
Making things even more inscrutable, Miragliotta actually clarified the illegal knee rule to both fighters before the fight. However, the rule itself is still thinly enforced and poorly understood enough that Stephens didn’t know his knee was illegal until after the fight. “Dan Miragliotta came in the back. He said this is the new unified rules. He said that if two hands are down, you can lift one hand up to knee. If he’s on his knees, and one hand is up, it’s okay to throw a knee,” Stephens said. Those rules only apply to a fighter who’s standing, and because Emmett was on his knees, he qualified as a downed fighter.
If the winner of a fight isn’t even clear on the rules of that fight after they’re explained to him, then the controversial finish isn’t exactly his fault. MMA is a hectic, violent sport and high-impact finishes like this happen so fast that it’s hard to expect them to be enforced correctly and in real-time if the rulebook itself is a matter of quantum uncertainty. The rules need to be implemented everywhere and enforced evenly, or else there will continue to be mysterious, stupid ends to great fights.