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UFC Needs to Address Illegal Strikes After UFC Vegas 51

By Timothy James  |  April 19, 2022  |  1,831 Comments

UFC Vegas 51 was a bizarre Fight Night event which featured multiple fights stopped due to illegal strikes without a single disqualification, leaving many fans feeling that a change to the rules is in order.

There are some grievances in the MMA community that never seem to get addressed. Whether it’s questionable judging, questionable refereeing, problems with the unified rules, or simply inconsistent enforcement of those rules, every MMA event shines a light on one of these grievances in its own way.

UFC Vegas 51 was unique in that it highlighted a flaw in the enforcements of illegal strikes. Points were taken from fighters multiple times due to illegal blows, but the most impactful were the two instances where the fight ended because of them. The result were technical decisions, a relative oddity in the world of MMA.

UFC Vegas 51 is fresh off the heels of UFC 273, which featured the rematch of Aljamain Sterling vs. Petr Yan. Sterling infamously won their first meeting via disqualification when Yan threw an illegal knee to the head of the then-grounded Sterling. It was an odd way to win a belt, to be sure, but it seemed to send a message to fighters: throwing illegal blows can come with the ultimate price, even losing your championship belt.

Disqualifications are relatively rare, but they do happen. We’re all familiar with Jon Jones’ infamous disqualification “loss” against Matt Hammil, which remains the only loss on Jones’ ledger. Technical decisions, by comparison, are unicorns. And it happened twice, in one Fight Night.

If you’re confused as to what a technical decision is, don’t be embarrassed. The embarrassment lies squarely on the shoulders of the refs who arbitrarily enforce the rules. For clarity, the unified rules of MMA defines a technical decision as follows:

If an accidental foul causes an injury severe enough for the referee to stop the bout after ½ of the scheduled rounds, plus one (1) second of the fight has been completed, the bout will result in a TECHNICAL DECISION awarded to the fighter who is ahead on the scorecards at the time the bout is stopped.

The obvious problem therein is what constitutes an accidental foul over an intentional one. For many fans and fighters, it’s a judgment call that leaves too much ambiguity on the table. It requires the ref to read the mind of the fighter who committed the foul and make a determination on whether or not it was intentional.

The other missing piece of the puzzle is, if a disqualification is not in order, why not just call the fight a “No Contest”? We’ve seen fights end in a “No Contest” due to accidental eye pokes and other unintentional illegal strikes in the past, but the way the rules are set up now gives room to go to the scorecards if the fight is in the later rounds.

The first technical decision of UFC Vegas 51 came during the prelims, when heavyweights Chris Barnett and Martin Buday squared off. Buday was winning the fight when he landed an illegal 12-to-6 elbow to the back of Barnett’s head, rendering unable to continue the fight per the ringside doctor’s advice. Barnett wished to continue, but Dan Mirgliotta waved off the fight, leaving it in the hands of the judges.

There’s a whole different discussion to be had about whether or not 12-to-6 elbows should be legalized (they probably should), but Barnett wound up losing the fight via unanimous decision, with all three judges scoring the fight 30-27 for Muday. It was a strange way to end a fight and hearing “Muday was winning anyway” wasn’t a particularly satisfying response. 

Still, it was a prelim fight between two somewhat unknown quantities in the heavyweight division. If something weird was going to happen, better to happen then rather than the main card. And especially not during the co-main event, right?

Against all odds, lightning struck twice during the same Fight Night. And not in a good way, either. Caio Borralho was making his UFC debut against Gadzhi Omargadzhiev and was making a good show of himself. He seemed to be in control of the fight en route to a decision victory. Then, late in the third round, Borralho threw a blatantly illegal knee.

Omargadzhiev was examined by the ringside doctor, who determined that he could continue if he wanted to. However, Omargadzhiev opted not to, prompting the ref to once again deem the illegal strike unintentional, leaving the fight in the hands of the judges. The only punishment Borralho received was a point deduction, which would have been more significant had he not been up on the scorecards in every round.

It’s possible Omargadzhiev assumed that the fight would, at bare minimum, be declared a no contest. Perhaps in the back of his mind he was hoping that he would be granted a win via disqualification. Instead, he wound up losing the bout via unanimous decision, 29-28 on all judges' scorecards.

Borralho apologized during his Octagon interview, stating that he didn’t see Omargadzhiev’s hand and that he didn’t want to win this way. However, many fans, fighters, and analysts weren’t buying it. One of those people was the very man who conducted the Octagon interview, Daniel Cormier.

DC wasted no time expressing his dissatisfaction with the enforcement of the technical decisions, tweeting out “No knock on Caio or Martin but every single time I threw a strike in the octagon it was intentional. They both should have been disqualified!”

He went on to point out the very legitimate point that the rules are written in a way that could encourage fighters to take a dirtier route to victory.

It’s more than a fair point. He’s right, and other fights agreed. UFC lightweight contender Justin Gaethje expressed the same concern, tweeting out “I think at the very least it should be a no contest. Borralho was the better fighter. He committed a foul that ended the fight. You can argue unintentional but it should be irrelevant. I don’t understand. It should go down as a DQ win for his opponent. You’re not discouraging…Others in the future and you are almost encouraging a fighter to take this route. The stakes are too high and [people] cheat. That is why this situation is in the rule book, probably an entire section.”

He went on to comment about how there is no consistency in the rules as they change depending on where the fight takes place.

Other fights who chimed in expressing their belief that illegal strikes are rarely unintentional included current UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou and former heavyweight champ Junior dos Santos. However, the most poignant point was made by the man who understood the fight-changing nature of an illegal strike better than most.

Aljamain Sterling was quick to call out fans who ridiculed him for “faking it” after absorbing an illegal knee from Petr Yan in their first bout back at UFC 259.

He went on to echo similar sentiments expressed by Cormier and Gaethje, going on in a separate tweet “I like Borralho, but how do you get a win here? I’m super confused… sucks that the ref you have for the night pretty much dictates how a foul is interpreted. No consistency. Should be a NC at best.”

He’s particularly right about how so much is left to the interpretation of the ref, who has to make a determination about whether or not a strike was illegal. Being an MMA ref is an incredibly difficult and thankless job, but even the best ref on the planet isn’t a mind reader. What looks intentional to one person will look accidental to the next, leading to an unforgivable amount of inconsistency.

The bantamweight champ wrapped up his comments on the entire affair when responding to a fan, summarizing what is abundantly clear to the MMA community:

A review and overhaul of the unified rules of MMA is something that’s sorely needed, and the results of UFC Vegas 51 are a perfect example of why.

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