UFC discipline makes strong statement

In the time from pitch to publish, this column has shifted from being a call to action for the UFC to start acting like other major sports organizations and hold their athletes accountable when they cross the line to a nod of approval for what looks to be the beginning of the company doing exactly that, hopefully with more to come.

First came the decision to suspend heavyweight Ben Rothwell for nine-months due to elevated testosterone levels following his UFC 164 victory over Brandon Vera.

The former IFL competitor had applied for and was granted a therapeutic usage exemption from the Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services (WDSPD) the legislative body that oversaw the event in Milwaukee at the end of August, and while the WDSPD opted to issue “Big Ben” an administrative warning, the UFC themselves levied the nine-month ban, which the heavyweight has said he will not contest.

And then came last week’s decision to release Brazilian submission specialist Rousimar Palhares and hit him with a lifetime ban after he continued to torque a heel hook well after his opponent, Mike Pierce, had tapped and the referee had jumped in to break the hold. It was the second such incident for Palhares in the Octagon; he was previously suspended 90 days by the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board following a similar situation against Tomas Drwal at UFC 111.

Taken independently, they are smart decisions and just punishments for two very different infractions (and two offenders with very different histories), but when looked at together, they appear to be the start of the UFC moving towards a more meaningful set of penalties for fighters when they break the rules.

As much as Palhares’ release generated more headlines and garnered more attention, suspending Rothwell is actually the bigger revelation, as the UFC has historically refrained from getting involved in testing-related issues.

The state athletic commissions always meted out suspensions, but when the WDSPD opted against sitting Rothwell down for an extended period of time, the UFC reversed their usual position, and handed down their own suspension, signaling a clear change in policy.

From an “evidence against him” standpoint, Palhares was up against it following Wednesday night’s incident in Barueri – he has a history of holding onto submission longer than necessary, including a previous incident with the same hold in both the UFC and an ADCC submission grappling competition, and was returning to the cage following a nine-month suspension for elevated testosterone levels.

(Mike Pierce screams out in pain as Rousimar Palhares continues to crank a heel hook)

As a repeat offender, you had to expect there were going to be consequences, but perhaps what caught people off guard was how swiftly and forcefully the UFC responded. Observers are so conditioned to the company either holding up their hands and saying, “That’s not for us to deal with” or imposing monetary fines where the dollar amounts are never disclosed that seeing a quick and fitting response was a bit of a shock to the system.

But it shouldn’t be from here on out.

These can’t be one-off situations where penalties are determined on a case-by-case basis, code for “depending on where the offending party rests in the UFC hierarchy.” Similar missteps must face similar punishments, regardless of whether the fighter at fault is a perennial headliner or a permanent fixture on Facebook.

And the organization should look at implementing stiffer penalties for some of the issues that repeatedly present themselves in this sport like in-fight fouls, positive tests for banned substances, and athletes missing weight.

Right now, you can grab the fence, kick your opponent “South of the Equator,” or poke them in the eye without penalty. All of those things can alter the outcome of a fight, and since a point deduction usually only comes after a second or third (or seventh) warning, there really isn’t anything prompting the fighters to keep it clean and operate in complete accordance with the rules.

(A groin shot can greatly alter the outcome of a fight, yet rarely results in a point taken)

But losing $2,000 for every errant kick that presses pause on a fight and prompts Joe Rogan to say, “Let’s see that again” as the replay booth cues up the low blow from every possible angle would sure make fighters pay a little more attention to where their kicks are landing.

Even though they are accidental or unintentional more often than naught, so too are some of the hits the NFL labels as dangerous, and they still carry a fine. Just as a linebacker or safety is going to think twice about leading with his helmet after sending a $10,000 check to the league offices, a fighter is going to be more diligent about the placement of their inside leg kick or keeping their damn fingers closed when pawing with their lead hand if they’ve already had a couple thousand dollars lifted from their wallet in the past.

Making weight is one of the crucial responsibilities a fighter has heading into their bout, and though some would argue a forfeiture of 20-percent of their fight purse is penalty enough, there is a good chance that their opponent would rather have seen them come in on the contractually agreed to weight, since they held up their end of the bargain.

And really, as much as 20 percent is a good chunk of change, all it means is that the offending fighter takes home less than they originally expected. There is nothing about the penalty that has real ramifications beyond that specific fight, and that is a mistake.

Missing weight is akin to being late for work when you had four-to-six month to figure out how to get there on time.

(Thiago Silva missed weight at UFC Fight Night: Maia vs. Shields)

Sure there are valid explanations for why this happened, but at the end of the day, you failed to meet the agreed upon conditions of your fight, and there should be greater consequences for that in addition to a one-time, up-front fine.

Adding a six-month suspension on top of the monetary penalty imposed by the athletic commissions means the offending fighters most likely misses out on an opportunity to compete. So not only are they missing out on money for their current fight, but their failure to make weight takes a future opportunity off the table as well, which should (in theory) put a greater onus on ensuring the scale reads the agreed upon weight each time out.

There should be greater penalties for fighters that miss by an egregious amount too. Coming in a pound or two over is one thing, but missing by four or five pounds (or more) is ridiculous, and puts your opponent who has depleted his or her system in order to reach the divisional limit at a significant disadvantage.

It’s not just the penalties for missing weight that should be revamped either.

As much as the mandatory suspensions attached to positive tests takes a fighter out of the mix for anywhere from 90 days to a year or more depending on the situation, all too often they return at the exact same place in the pecking order they held down prior to their time off.

Since the start of 2011, there have been 12 different fighters that have tested positive for a banned substance and/or elevated levels of testosterone, with two athletes (Thiago Silva and Matt Riddle) having two infractions each.

In those 14 cases, nine times the fighter returned to a main card assignment, including Silva being slotted into the main event of a televised fight card, Alistair Overeem returning to a No. 1 contender bout, and, perhaps the most memorable of the lot, Nick Diaz securing a UFC welterweight title shot following a one-year hiatus.

It begs the question what good are penalties if they don’t have any true impact on a fighter’s place in their respective division?

(Pokes in the eyes are a commonplace, but entirely preventable foul)

The punishments that are doled out at present have immediate repercussions – you lose a percentage of your fight purse, you can’t compete for a specified period – but when you return, it’s as if nothing has changed, and that shouldn’t be the case.

It would be naïve to suggest banishing marquee names like Overeem or Diaz to the Facebook prelims upon their return, but they also shouldn’t come back into the fold and pick up where they left off. They most definitely should not advance a step either.

Hypothetically speaking, if the No.3-ranked (by the media) fighter pops hot and gets suspended, when they’re ready to return, they should no longer be the No.3-ranked fighter in the division – others in that range have likely earned victories that would move them up the ladder, and they didn’t violate any rules in the process.

The suspended fighter has to fall back a few spots, and not be handed a piece of prime fight card real estate upon their return. Testing positive or registering elevated levels should take them out of the running for those types of opportunities, forcing them to starting climbing the ladder from a lower rung once again in order to regain their spot.

Not only does the fighter coming off suspension have to make up ground they’ve already covered in the past, but those that haven’t faced disciplinary action in the past don’t have to watch as someone that has been caught breaking the rules walks back into the division like nothing happened.

It’s any easy position for the UFC to adopt, and they have a “Subject Zero” at their waiting in Rothwell.

As of this writing, his victory over Vera has not been overturned, and there has been no indication that it will be in the future, which means that when his suspension is over, he’ll be riding a third-round knockout victory into his next bout.

While that would normally move you a little further ahead in the pecking order, the fact that he’s coming off a nine-month ban should have greater influence on where he is booked next than the last result on his record. If his victory would customarily move him one step forward, his suspension should move him two steps back, leaving him one step behind his pre-Vera starting point, and likely overtaken by at least a couple fighters that have enjoyed similar success in the cage without incident.

The UFC is clearly taking steps in the right direction, and deserve recognition for that. Let’s just hope they keep putting one foot in front of the other, rather than deciding they’ve already reached their final destination.