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Eye Pokes In MMA; Can They Be Minimized?

Cover photo courtesy of Yahoo! Sports

In the last few weeks MMA fans have seen three big fights killed by an eye poke in the 1st round, two of them major promotion main events (one a title fight, Bellator 226 Bader vs Kongo). All three situations weren’t the same but the result was; no contest. If you’re a big time MMA fan, chances are you’re getting tired of seeing high profile fights stopped due to eye pokes. It’s even worse for the fans who paid their hard earned money to attend the event live. The question is, can anything be done to help minimize eye pokes in MMA?

Accidental eye poke ends Todd Duffee vs. Jeff Hughes in a no-contest 😔(📸: @allelbows) — (@MMAFighting) September 15, 2019

The first issue, which is often brought up by fighters themselves, is the design of MMA gloves. When MMA began there were no gloves and I recall eye pokes being less common. Simply put, free flowing hands are easier to control than hands in tight wraps covered by 4oz MMA gloves. The current design makes it tougher for fighters to keep their palm facing forward with their fingers pointing upward. It doesn’t take an expert to figure out that wraps and gloves also promote more CTE in MMA, they allow people to punch much harder without the risk of breaking their hand. Because of the commissions in MMA I can’t foresee this as a viable solution, but perhaps doing away with gloves in MMA isn’t the worst idea. Joe Rogan is one of the larger advocates of this.

Before fighters enter the cage, backstage they are advised the rules they must abide by. Despite being explained beforehand, it’s rare we see fighters point deducted for an eye poke or any other infraction when it’s their first offense. It’s not uncommon for fighters to keep their lead hand open with their fingers sticking out directly toward their opponents eyes. A good referee, when they notice this, will warn the fighter that they must either close their fist or make sure their palm is facing their opponent with their fingers pointed up. But again, this is just a warning. Despite the plethora of warnings a fighter may be given, if they do commit an “accidental” infraction, they are usually just warned again and the fighter who has been illegally hurt is given 5 minutes to recover. Even if a fighter is able to continue, most of the time they are compromised temporarily and sometimes for the remainder of the fight. Worst case scenario is that they are unable to continue, ruining the fight for the promotion and the fans.

A post shared by Justin Wharton (@justin.wharton) on Sep 17, 2016 at 9:33am PDT

If I were to suggest a change for eye pokes, or any other infractions (including unintentional), I would make the rules more stiff. Treat them less like infractions but like DUI’s or felonies, maybe have a “3 Strikes You’re Out” rule. Fighters are all warned backstage so I would deem that the warning, not give additional room for warnings inside the cage. Make any infraction (eye poke, fence grab, groin shot, etc) punishable upon the first offense. If fighters know any infraction will cause an automatic point deduction, I guarantee fighters and coaches would change how they train and what they are willing to gamble in the fight. Create a heavy incentive to fight according to the rules versus figuring out how you can bend the rules. Deduct a point for the first offense, 2 points for the second and if there is a third you’re disqualified. It’s a simple adjustment that takes away a lot of the gray area for referee’s, simplifying their job. If you’re worried about “what was seen”, change the replay rules. Add a referee specifically for replay (when needed). Spend the money, YOU HAVE IT.

Also apply the “3 Strikes You’re Out” rule to habitual offenders. If you’re disqualified from a fight for having three infractions in a fight, you’re fined the first time. If you have a second DQ due to three infractions in a fight, you’re fined more heavily and suspended a year. For a third DQ a stiffer fee and longer suspension, or perhaps be released from the promotion. MAKE HARDER RULES. With the plethora of warnings fighters are allowed, it seems logical that many coaches and fighters specifically train for that specific understanding of the rules. Some unfortunately use it as an opportunity to cheat without being punished. If the worst case scenario is a warning on your first offense, why not fight however you feel fit until an infraction happens and you receive a hard warning? Make the referee say “This is a hard warning, next time I’m taking a point” before adjusting how you fight. I view this a bit like a “get out of jail free” card, which I would like to see taken away.

A post shared by Fayetteville's Funky YardSale (@ffy479) on Jan 5, 2018 at 9:17am PST

As talented as Jon Jones is, he is often criticized for being one of the worst habitual line steppers in this regard. This is not my opinion, it’s a fact he’s known for it based on evidence from multiple fights spanned over his entire career. I guarantee if the “3 Strikes You’re Out” rule premise existed in MMA, Jon would drastically change how he uses his hands in a fight (especially standing). It’s also very possible it would change how effective he is, I would imagine more fighters would able to encroach his space and land powerful strikes (esp punches) instead of being eye poked on their way in.

A post shared by Jonathan Potts (@pottsbjj) on Dec 26, 2018 at 6:54am PST

Because I grew up with a father who was a Lieutenant in a jail and ran S.E.R.T. (Special Emergency Response Team) for years, I was raised to strictly abide by the rules. If I had an understanding of the rules and broke them, whether intentional or not, I was punished. Because of that I was careful to not make stupid mistakes or commit intentional acts that would get me in trouble. I strongly believe this is the approach MMA needs to take when it comes to infractions in the cage. They also should strongly consider a glove redesign or just get rid of gloves altogether. A broken hand is not nearly as bad as a damaged cornea, let alone CTE concerns that will surely affect many fighters as they age. Sure we love the knockouts, but perhaps we should start valuing people’s brains and eyes over the safety of their hands.

The above ideas are not the perfect solution, in fact they may be terrible suggestions. If those types of rules are put in place, problematic flip sides must be foreseen. Fighters would have more of an incentive to fake being hurt, like flops in soccer and basketball. It would suddenly become very important for fighters to have to prove their injury, which in some cases can be quite difficult. Either way it’s of great value to debate this subject matter and attempt to find adjustments that can be made to make the sport a cleaner. Take the same approach that was taken toward PED use, be aggressive while understanding there is no perfect solution. Any improvement over the status quo would be a big win for clean fighters and would be a detriment to fighters who are constantly taking advantage of the current rule set. ■

Jason Marlowe, UnknownMMA

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