There was a controversial sequence at the close of the UFC on FOX 28 main event between Jeremy Stephens and Josh Emmett. To the untutored eye, it appeared that Stephens landed two elbows to the back of Emmett’s head, and knee to a grounded opponent. Countless fans and no small number of professionals were baffled that referee ‘Big’ Dan Miragliotta allowed the fight to continue.
However, anyone criticizing the ref should consider that after countless slow-motion replays, there is still widespread disagreement. And Miragliotta had to make the decision in a tiny fraction of a second, as he tried to balance a fighter’s livelihood and health. Miragliotta was awesome.
The fouls were not as they appear. The knee did not appear to make any significant impact. After watching the replay, some observers thought it made no contact at all. So remove that from the equation.
The two elbows, too, as not what they seem. The first elbow clearly made contact with the ear, which is a simple way to determine legality. If it is back and misses the ear entirely, that’s not good. If the blow makes ear contact, it’s good.
The second elbow did strike the back of the head, but both players have a responsibility here. To give an obvious example, if two fighters square off, one throws a straight right, and the other turns his head and is hit in the back of the head, there is no foul. Emmett moved his head in closer to Stephens such that the elbow, which would have landed legally had he not moved, did strike to the back of the head.
There was a degree of ambiguity here, it was an exchange that not every referee perhaps would have responded identically to, but Miragliotta’s response was reasonable. Calls for the decision to be overturned are not reasonable.
The standards for overturning a referee’s action are not light. Ordinarily, it is under any one of three conditions – collusion, scorecard compilation error, or misinterpretation of a rule. There was no collusion of course. Scorecard was not relevant. And Miragliotta knows the rules. Some athletic commissions have the statutory ability to overturn a judge’s action if there is an obvious and palpable error, or a fighter can petition the commission to revisit. If you don’t know what you are looking at, it may have looked like Miragliotta made an obvious, palpable error but he didn’t. He made a reasonable judgment call.
The incident does reveal the need for change, however. Instant replay is allowed under the Unified Rules. It’s up to each commission as to whether they want to implement, or not. Every commission should implement, including Florida.
More importantly, there is a new definition of a grounded opponent that was very nearly universally voted in at the last Association of Boxing Commissions convention. Too few states have followed through though, leaving fighters to compete in the blinding heat of the most ferocious moments imaginable, under two rules sets.
Stephens was informed of the new rules prior to the fight, but he didn’t fully understand it.
“Dan Miragliotta came in the back. He said this is the new unified rules,” said Stephens afterward, as transcribed by Anton Tabuena for BE. “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. … I’m not a dirty fighter, I never have been my whole life. I saw an opportunity, and I was looking for it.”
Stephens was confused. The rule he cited is only if the fighter is standing on his feet. A fighter is down when he’s on his knees, and cannot be kneed in the head. Fortunately, the knee did not land with any significance.
Unfortunately, Florida has no instant replay. And unfortunately, unlike Florida, many other states have not implemented the new Unified Rules they voted for, leading to dangerous confusion that makes the sport look stupid.
And lastly, Jeremy Stephens is one awesome, awesome beast.
by Kirik Jenness