If you want to get fans of mixed martial arts well and truly wound up, there are two ways to do it that work every time.
One is the questionable or crooked decision. When they go to the judges’ scorecards and even the “winner” can’t believe he won, you know that the forums on Sherdog, MMA Junkie and ESPN will be full of profanity-laced variations on the theme of “the fix is in.”
The other is the premature stoppage. Not only does it carry the same air of impropriety as the scorecard swindle, it also deprives fans of the fight they spent weeks or months getting excited about and paid good money to see live or on pay-per-view.
It’s the latter that has fans riled up after an otherwise stellar UFC 235 card Saturday night.
Ben Askren scored a technical knockout victory in his debut UFC fight at the Las Vegas event. Askren was the beneficiary of referee Herb Dean’s apparent misinterpretation of the body language of his opponent, Robbie Lawler, as USA Today noted.
The fight got off to a rollicking start, as Lawler’s “welcome to UFC, rookie” pounding of Askren right at the start seemed to foreshadow a rough night for the eventual winner:
— ESPN MMA (@espnmma) March 3, 2019
The stoppage, meanwhile, merits a deeper breakdown:
Here is the stoppage from the Robbie Lawler vs Ben Askren fight.
As Joe Rogan pointed out, Robbie’s arm goes limp. However, as soon as Herb Dean intervenes he’s straight on his feet.
— Steven Rae (@StevenRaeMMA) March 3, 2019
Askren got Lawler into a bulldog choke, and Lawler, who was trying to save his energy, let his right arm go limp rather than ineffectively pull Askren’s head with it once he realized he didn’t have the leverage to attempt a throw in order get out of the hold.
Dean saw it differently, considering Lawler’s arm drop to be a sign that Lawler had tapped out from the effect of the choke.
Thus, he called off the fight.
The moment Dean waved Askren off of Lawler, the “defeated” fighter got right back up, none the worse for wear, insisting that he hadn’t tapped out and that he was perfectly capable of defending himself.
But stopping a fight is like dropping a glass bottle on the ground. You can’t just restore things to the way they were before it happened. The bottle, and the fight, are permanently gone.
Dean appeared to have the decency to apologize for his mistake, according to USA Today, but that did nothing to placate the furious crowd at T-Mobile Arena, nor did it muzzle the boo birds on the internet:
??dammmn. Terrible way to win and a terrible way to lose !
— Chris Weidman (@chrisweidman) March 3, 2019
Fighter Louis Smolka said the Nevada Athletic Commission should nullify the result and schedule a rematch:
— Louis Smolka (@LASTSAMURAIUFC) March 3, 2019
Featherweight fighter Alex Volkanovski pointed out that if Lawler wanted to avoid the stoppage, he should have given the thumbs-up sign to let the referee know that he hadn’t voluntarily submitted:
Give a thumbs up rather than a limp arm!! #ufc235
— Alex Volkanovski (@alexvolkanovski) March 3, 2019
But a commenter quickly claimed that Lawler had done exactly that with his other hand:
He did, check the replay. Gave thumbs up with other hand
— AMG (@WarriorBetMMA) March 3, 2019
Controversial MMA stoppages are nothing new. The sport survives its share of bad decisions, questionable referee calls and dirty tactics because the payoff — great fights like the rest of the UFC 235 card — tend to be worth it.
As for Askren, he wasn’t about to apologize on the referee’s behalf.
Askren: I’m not the referee. My job is to come here and fight.
— Ariel Helwani (@arielhelwani) March 3, 2019
Regardless of whether the result stands as a win for Askren — now 19-0 overall in MMA and 1-0 in UFC competition — fans are likely to get that rematch they’re calling for.
After the fight, UFC President Dana White gave strong indications that he intends to schedule the rematch as soon as possible.
“We gotta do the rematch on that one,” White told TSN. “It’s only fair.”
“I think the ref made a bad decision,” he added. “But that takes nothing away from the fact that (Askren) was able to get Robbie Lawler down in that position.”
So we have the controversy, the outrage, the calls for things to be settled in the octagon and the guy who can make that happen agreeing with the fans.
As potential black marks averted go, this one was textbook. Maybe MMA isn’t the sewer some claim it is after all.
Now it’s time to start getting hyped for Askren-Lawler II.
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