Bloody Elbow Roundtable: Rousimar Palhares leglock crime and suitable punishment.

Disclaimer: This roundtable was conducted several hours before news broke of Dana White announcing UFC had cut Rousimar Palhares during his appearance on ESPN…

By: KJ Gould | 10 years ago
Bloody Elbow Roundtable: Rousimar Palhares leglock crime and suitable punishment.
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

Disclaimer: This roundtable was conducted several hours before news broke of Dana White announcing UFC had cut Rousimar Palhares during his appearance on ESPN on Thursday 10th October, and only offers opinion and perspective the morning after UFC Fight Night 29.

KJ Gould: Rousimar Palhares and his leglock antics is probably the main story coming out of last night’s UFC Fight Night 29 event, with his Submission of the Night bonus being withheld and more punishment likely to follow according to a statement Dana White made to MMA Fighting late Wednesday.

How severe was Palhares actions, and what can be done to lessen the risk of similar instances happening in MMA fights in general?

Fraser Coffeen: As one single isolated incident? It was bad and deserving of a fine. The trouble is, it’s not one single isolated incident. He did the same thing against Tomasz Drwal and was suspended for it.

Add in the fact that he is coming off a failed drug test for elevated testosterone levels and you begin to see a pretty clear pattern. That pattern? A fighter who is unwilling / unable to follow the rules of the sport. I’ve heard a lot of excuses – he’s “in the zone”, he doesn’t understand the referees commands, he’s from an old school Brazilian mentality – but those are all the same thing: excuses.

What it comes down to is that, in a violent sport where rules are there to protect the health and safety of the athletes, Palhares has repeatedly endangered that health and safety through his negligence. So what can be done to cut the risk? I can think of at least one thing that absolutely should be done, today – cut Rousimar Palhares.

KJ Gould: I think the problem with Palhares is more deep rooted and complex than some might realise. His bizarre behaviour isn’t isolated to MMA either, as I documented during the ADCC 2011 Submission Grappling tournament where his match with David Avellan was infamously restarted in a leglock position when both had gone out of bounds earlier in the bout.

The problem with Palhares may have been engineered by his coach Murilo Bustamante who has had his own controversy with submissions in MMA fights, though it was he who was almost a victim of the controversy. When defending his Middleweight UFC title at UFC 37 in 2002 against Matt Lindland, Bustamante appeared to have the match won by submission and referee John McCarthy moved in to stop the fight.

However Lindland protested that he had not tapped to concede the submission, and McCarthy chose to restart the fight. Bustamante managed to get a guillotine choke and tap Lindland again, and it’s speculated Bustamante has had a distrust of the UFC in general ever since. What didn’t help matters at that time was Bustamante vacating his title to sign with Pride Fighting Championship, which only further fuelled various online conspiracy theories.

It may even have been this fight that first encouraged fighters to adopt the mentality of Don’t stop until the referee stops you because of instances of dishonourable opponents ‘fake tapping’ to get out of a sticky situation and continue fighting. As far as I’m aware the mentality has never been an official rule in MMA, but understandably fighters can’t gamble with their careers by trusting their opponents to be sportsmanlike.

Now with Palhares as Bustamante’s protege we have instances of him holding onto submissions for too long and it’s hard not to speculate this is at the insistence of Bustamante because of past grievances. A torn up knee with snapped ligaments is no joke and career threatening, and Palhares does need to be punished somehow. But I’m wondering if Bustamante needs a stern talking to as well.

Maybe the threat of referees disqualifying fighters for failure to follow instruction intended for safety concerns is what’s needed going forward.

Trent Reinsmith: Let’s start with the idea that Palhares is going to receive “additional punishment,” That would imply that he has already received some type of punishment. He hasn’t. Not awarding Palhares an arbitrary bonus (Submission of the Night) is not punishment.

Now that that’s out of the way let’s discuss what is fitting, and in my mind that’s nothing short of release and taking Palhares’ win bonus. Pay him his show money, thank him for his time with the organization and send him packing.

If this was the first time that Palhares held a submission too long I wouldn’t feel so strongly about releasing him, but it’s at least the third time we know that he has done this. He doesn’t get it, and the next time may be the time that leaves his opponent and his employers badly injured.

The UFC doesn’t need bad publicity. There are many ways a fighter can leave the Octagon badly injured, a knucklehead opponent that is clearly ignoring the rules should never be one of those ways.

My fear is that the short attention span of the MMA world will get the best of them on this matter and that nothing will be done. I’m afraid that this will turn into a “we’re still looking into it” situation that drags on long enough that people will forget and that we’ll see Palhares back in the Octagon again.

That shouldn’t happen. The next time we hear or see Rousimar Palhares’ name, the words “released by the UFC” should be in close proximity.

KJ Gould: I’m still unsure about releasing him, since he’s unquestionably a talented fighter. Unfortunately though I get the sense he’ll only be released if it somehow fits the UFC’s or Dana White’s narrative. For example the story Dana White likes to tell of Nick Diaz originally being let go by the UFC for not knowing how to ‘play the game’ after getting into a hospital fight with his opponent from earlier that night in Joe Riggs is meant to be a cautionary one. That Diaz was actually brought back to fight Sean Sherk, Gleison Tibau and Josh Neer is conveniently ignored (and Diaz left on two Wins against the latter two, by finish no less).

If Palhares is to be released I only see it as an opportunity for the UFC to make an example out of him, rather than it being the right thing to do. People could point to the release of Renato ‘Babalu’ Sobral after UFC 74 as a precedent, but Sobral’s mistake was admitting outright he was looking to teach David Heath a lesson because of Heath disrespecting Sobral at the weigh-ins. Palhares’ simple demeanour — whether genuine or an act — has spared him from contract termination thus far.

Fraser Coffeen: Yes but they absolutely SHOULD make a lesson of him. That lesson is –
you can’t do this.

KJ Gould: I’d like disqualifications for this purpose as well, as I think stricter officiating in general is needed to discourage fighters from taking liberties beyond holding onto submissions too long. Habitual pokers of eyes and strikers of groins need to be put on notice also.

David Castillo: This “in the moment” excuse is one of the most halfwit assertions this side of discard-able halfwit assertions.

You know how many fighters are able to let go of their submission or stop punching a clearly unconscious opponent once the referee comes in? 99% of them. You know how many fighters actually have a history of not being able to do so? Exactly. I’ve got no sympathy for Palhares on this one. The guy is no longer the cute, loveable Brazilian ball of boiling leglock rock he used to be. Now he’s just a crazy person with submission skill. And a symbol of a greater problem in MMA.

When I posted my prognostication on the Maia / Shields fight I ended up being impressively wrong on, everyone and their grandmothers complained about Shields’ open hand jabs. And for good reason. The threat of eye injury is real, as we saw in the GSP fight. Just like we need to start punishing fighters for eye pokes, deliberate or not, Palhares should be punished for ‘excessive force’. It’s very simple: the rules are designed for the safety of the fighters. When officials start ignoring them, so will the fighters. Then it just becomes a tactic; dirty, and illegal, but if the risk is never greater than the reward, why not use them as tools?

I’m getting a little off topic,but I’d argue that even a one time offense still deserves review. It’s time to set a precedent.

KJ Gould: The ‘caught in the moment’ excuse should never fly. Shout out to BE community member Grappo for timing the referee intervention and Palhares’ response to him as being approximately 1.7 seconds. While on the surface this doesn’t seem long, a quick online search for average reaction time of human beings suggests a range of 100 milliseconds to a little over 300 milliseconds being typical, making Palhares’ 1700 milliseconds inexcusable.

Bizarrely other excuses lobbied on behalf of Palhares by some fans is that Pierce was being disrespectful prior to the bout. Not only is Pierce’s level if disrespect debatable, it has no bearing on the rules of combat in a professional sport. Your chance to settle any grudge happens within the time limit allowed and up until the referee stops it. That’s it. Ignoring the ref who has officially halted a contest amounts to criminal assault.

T. P. Grant: My first reaction was a fine or some other, similar, disciplinary action by the UFC. But now I don’t think that is enough, Palhares is a repeat offender in different sports. I don’t mind guys going hard on submissions when careers and large cash prizes are on the line, but Palahres is in clear violation of a rule, when the referee says the fight is over, stop. The precedent for breaking this rule is pretty clear in the cases of both Paul Daley and Babalu, being released by the UFC and that precedent should be followed here. Cut Palhares, make it clear that the referee’s ability to stop a fight is absolute and needs to respected.

KJ Gould: Again, Daley and Sobral’s lack of remorse at that time probably factored more into the UFC’s decision than the actions themselves. In the case of Daley I don’t think he even made contact with Koscheck, but his attitude afterwards as described by Dana White was enough to see him booted. I wouldn’t be surprised if an apology by Palhares to UFC brass is enough, even if he is a repeat offender. Plus UFC loves finishers which could unfairly sway their decision to punish as well.

T. P. Grant: Showing remorse is good, but Palhares has committed this foul three times in two different sports. At that point he is sorry he got in trouble, true remorse would result in a change of behavior.

Mookie Alexander: Palhares is a repeat offender of this kind of incident and he’s failed a drug test. This is all within the last 3 years.

I don’t think it’d be a big deal to cut Palhares from the UFC’s standpoint. He’s fun (and bizarre) to watch but he’s also not a TV draw and has historically been a middling fighter. Pierce is by far his best win and even that couldn’t be straightforward.

I’m very concerned that he might cause serious, career-altering damage to an opponent with his refusal to let go of submissions even after the tap and after referee intervention. It’s not worth keeping him if he can’t play by the rules.

KJ Gould: The potential for injury is debatable as it can depend on how fast and hard fighters decide to go for submissions generally. Some might go for a snap the way other fighters go for a Knock Out, and although it seems particularly cruel and visceral, a busted limb in reality is arguably better than brain damage.

But yes, in terms of fair play and sportsmanship, ideally fighters should give opponents not only the opportunity to tap, but without question honour the instruction of the referee in a fight stopping scenario.

Brent Brookhouse: What’s the liability aspect from the UFC’s perspective? Yes, fighters are taking an assumed risk by participating in fights. But if he does this again — and history suggests that he will — and ends someone’s career I’d say the UFC bears some of the responsibility. It’s an undeniable pattern of behavior. Maybe it’s the Bustamante connection. Maybe he has some sort of mental illness. Maybe he’s just a massive jerk. Whatever the issue, his behavior is unacceptable.

Paul Daley is blacklisted from the UFC over throwing a punch where his feet weren’t set and wasn’t likely to do any damage after the bell. Now, I have no problem with the consequences faced by Daley for that, but weigh the long-term risks from both situations and I don’t see how Palhares isn’t on the hook for at least the same punishment.

He’s also not such a great fighter that they have to keep him. I’d suggest Okami is a much more capable fighter than Palhares at the top ten level and his cut was justified with cost and not really bringing in any fans. Palhares is more exciting, but losing him likely wouldn’t affect the UFC’s viewership numbers by a single viewer or their revenue by a dime.

And who cares if another promotion picks him up? They should be vilified if they do for taking unnecessary risks with their own fighters.

KJ Gould: Unfortunately in terms of liability, I can see Dana White deferring to ‘the government’ athletic commissions again, just as he does concerning drug testing. I do think the UFC as the standard bearer for MMA should lead by example in terms of professional accountability though.

Dallas Winston: KJ makes an interesting correlation with Bustamante. In addition to the infamous Lindland incident, Busta had Rampage (Quinton Jackson) in a tight guillotine in the Pride Middleweight GP and there was some minor controversy about the referee intervening to let Rampage pull his drawers back up.

I agree with the aforementioned emphasis on Toquinho’s pattern, but I personally wouldn’t stress anything other than the issue at hand, which is wrenching the hell out of a submission and ignoring the ref and his opponent’s furious taps and cries of pain. This is dirty shit by any standards, but from the perspective of martial arts, it’s embarrassingly dishonorable. It’s shameful.

Let me explain: people despised Mike Kyle for years — some still do — for pounding on Brian Olsen as the ref futilely tried to pull him off, because his opponent was frighteningly vulnerable and his entire career and future was threatened by Kyle’s insolence. You tap to a submission when it’s at the breaking point, i.e. limbs are about snap, joints are about to pop, shit’s about to get wrecked. To not only sustain that breaking point threshold and ignore the ref, but continue to wrench the hold? It’s as low class as faking a glove touch and kicking your opponent square in the balls.

For all the insignificant things fans get upset about in MMA — like fighters shit-talking before a fight or not making weight — pale in comparison to incidents like this. So that’s the severity of it.

Zane Simon: Alright I’m going to be the antagonist voice on this. I don’t really see it. If we’re outraged by the “potential to end someone’s career,” then why aren’t we just banning leg locks altogether. As KJ mentioned above, the intervening time between ref and release was 1.7 seconds. No matter how fast the human brain is capable of reacting that’s still not long. We’ve seen Miesha Tate’s elbow turned inside out and Tim Sylvia’s and Antonio Rodrigo Noguiera’s arm broken in half. What Palhares did was right at the margin of poor sportsmanship (and his record certainly bears that out) but it was also very much in the action of winning the fight. Daley and Babalu are similar examples, but much more flagrant and obvious in their skirting of rules and regulations.

For the threat of a submission to be effective the the threat of injury has to be imminent and I already think we’ve lost some of that in MMA because a lot of people are more likely to give up on a submission than cause real harm to their opponent. Eventually this is a sport in which the way to win is very clearly to do more damage to your opponent than they do to you. It’s not hockey, where fighting has been tagged on as some sort of “tradition.” It is the fight. What Palhares did was very much in the act of winning and the brief 1.7 seconds between ref and release aren’t enough to make me feel like he was way outside the bounds of the sport. I realize a lot of people feel differently (everyone) and I don’t really mind him getting punished, but I don’t see any “solving” this problem without banning “non-choke” submissions. It’s always going to be a fine line, and successful leg lock and armbar specialists are almost invariably going to do a lot of damage to their opponents.

Fraser Coffeen: But no one wants to ban Frank Mir, who broke both Sylvia and Nog’s arms, because he did it legally. Palhares holding the leglock after the bell was illegal according to the rules of MMA, plain and simple.

Zane Simon: I’m just saying that, if it’s just about illegality and not injury (and Brock sure did a lot of complaining about Frank’s kneebar too) then what he did was so close to legal, I mean it legally won him the fight, that I just can’t get that up in arms by the extra 1.7 seconds. I think there are too separate arguments here getting conflated and one is the potential for injury and one is the rule breaking. The potential for injury is instrumental to the technique and I see no good way of combating that even with refs and fines, etc, without banning the techniques all together. The margin for error is too razor thin. And the illegality is more a matter to me of him skirting rules repeatedly rather than this particular incident which I thought, watching it live, was pretty mild.

I think he’s being punished more on reputation than action. There are very few joint lock submission hunters in the UFC, so for those saying “nobody else breaks rules like he does,” very few people continually finish fights in the way he does. Other fighters that do, Shinya Aoki and Masakazu Imanari spring to mind, both have a reputation for hurting opponents badly and aren’t in the UFC. As I say I’m fine with him being punished because he’s a multiple time screw up and he’s walking a fine line, but I think we should be clearer about what we’re incensed about. The potential for injury comes with the technique and its ability to finish a fight. His application of the technique wasn’t illegal or inadvisable, but his continued action for a very brief moment was. That’s bad form, but it’s not the same as Paul Daley stalking Josh Koscheck down and punching him way after the bell, or Babalu choking his opponent until he was absolutely unconscious just to prove to him that he could. It’s close, but it’s just not as egregious.

Brent Brookhouse: That’s the thing. There’s assumed risk involved with fighting. But the risk assumes that the rules are not blatantly broken in extremely dangerous ways. Saying “if they’re dangerous, why not ban them altogether” holds very little weight since we can say that about anything. Keep choking guys after they tap and the ref is pulling you off. Throw a few extra punches after he is out and the ref is pulling you off. Punches are already dangerous … etc.

Torquing a sub after a guy taps and the ref is having to pull you off is a move that is done for no reason at all other than to attempt to injure the other fighter. That’s the issue. There’s zero reason you continue torquing a heel hook after a guy taps and the ref is pulling you off other than to intentionally cause injury by breaking a rule.

Zane Simon: And I see guys throw one or two punches with the ref on them all the time. This kind of aggression happens constantly. Palhares is as guilty as the next guy who is diving in throwing punches while the ref is trying to knock him out of the way. In my mind he’s as guilty as Dan Henderson for kissing his hand and diving in to punch Michael Bisping when he was already KO’d. He’s guilty of bad sportsmanship within that very small window of a fight getting stopped. And it happens too often for me to feel that he was way out of line doing it.

Brent Brookhouse: We must watch different sports. I pretty much never see guys have to have the ref pull them off for several seconds as they continue to throw punches. When that happens it’s pretty globally accepted as wrong. Henderson’s thing was poor sportsmanship but the ref had not stepped in yet and you can argue that until the fight is called off, the fight is on. That’s not what we’re talking about.

Zane Simon: “Several seconds” and 1.7 seconds are two different things. I’ve easily seen guys throwing a shot or two after the end of the round or with the ref stepping in at the end of a fight. And at under two seconds that’s about all you’re talking about.

Brent Brookhouse: 1.7 seconds is from the time the ref steps in. It’s longer if you consider the time that Pierce taps. Once Pierce taps, Palhares should be ready to let go the second the referee steps in. It’s several seconds if you consider Pierce tapping, then screaming, then the ref stepping in and THEN Palhares letting go (it’s about 5 seconds). He knew the tap happened (it happened ON HIS LEG), and chose to continue to torque which…fine, we can do the “until the ref intervenes” thing but then, while fully aware of the tap chose to not let go when the ref intervened. I can’t really think of anything beyond Daley that even compares.

And yea, reputation matters with the punishment. That’s how it works. Patterns of behavior should play into punishment. He should be released, no other respectable promotion should sign him. He should effectively be blackballed at this point.

KJ Gould: Which is why I felt it was worth mentioning the average human reaction time tending to be at most 300 something milliseconds, over 5 times less than it took Palhares to obey the referee.

Zane Simon: So in the Dan Henderson case, it’s all good because the ref hadn’t intervened, even though Henderson could clearly see that he was out. But in this case you’re counting the few seconds before the ref intervenes as time when Palhares should basically be letting go. I think it’s a double standard. Either it’s a fight until the ref stops it, at which point Palhares is out of line but not egregious, or it’s the fighters responsibility to be sporting once he sees his opponent is in real danger of injury.

Reputation does matter, which is why I don’t mind Palhares getting some sort of punishment here, he should know he’s on thin ice. But I think this particular incident is being disproportionately weighted. And that the desire to see a problem solved hits at a lot of small points none of which are terribly clear cut beyond Palhares being a serial screw-up.

Brent Brookhouse: I don’t recall saying it was “all good” in the Henderson case. In fact, I’m pretty sure I called it poor sportsmanship. But you can’t punish a guy for something that didn’t break a rule. At the point Henderson threw the punch the fight had not been stopped. Similarly, I don’t mind that Palhares didn’t let go on the initial tap. The fight was still active. But he was aware of what was happening and should have been ready to release once the referee stepped in. Instead, the referee had to actively pull him off for well beyond a reasonable amount of time. If a ref was pulling a guy off and he continued to throw punches for the amount of time Palhares continued to torque with the ref in his face trying to stop the fight, the reaction wouldn’t be particularly different. Add in Palhares being a multi-time offender, and the reaction is justifiable.

Zane Simon: And I would say that I’ve seen guys throw punches for between 1 and 2 seconds after a fight was stopped or the round ended on multiple occasions without anyone doing much more than raising an eyebrow. As I’ve said all the way through I understand the Palhares punishment because he keeps putting himself in these sorts of situations, but I think people need to be clearer what they want punished and why. At it’s heart I think this is a debate purely about rules and not sportsmanship, or injury. And at that point I understand that he’s a repeat offender on a short leash, but I didn’t find this one instance particularly damning.

Connor Ruebusch: Do you have examples, Zane? I can’t bring to mind any instances in which a fighter continued to throw punches for nearly two seconds after the ref began pulling him off.

Mookie Alexander: Wanderlei/Rampage 3 but that’s about all I can remember.

Zane Simon: I’m thinking of one recently, but I can’t remember exactly what it was. I want to say it was a recent Trujillo / Bowling between rounds 1/2. But my memory isn’t that photographic.

Brent Brookhouse: So you’re not talking about a finished fighter? You’re just saying guys exchanging after a round ends? I don’t think that’s particularly comparable in terms of ability to defend and danger. It’s an issue, but a different one.

Zane Simon: See, I don’t see it as all that different. Fighting is the sport here, any time a guy keeps fighting after the round ends he’s essentially breaking the same rule Palhares did. It’s all dangerous, the sport is about inflicting damage and creating danger. If we’re expecting fighters to react to the amount of danger their opponent is in we get back to the whole thing about guys continuing to punch someone who is out even if the ref hasn’t stepped in yet. It’s not up to the fighter to recognize the danger of his opponent.

Scott Haber:: Is anyone also considering Palhares’s pre-UFC history of holding onto subs too long?

More specifically, his fights against Helio Dipp (Palhares refuses to release a RNC on an unconscious Dipp, and continues to squeeze the choke as the referee yanks on his arms), and Flavio Moura (Palhares gets the tap with a heel hook, and then readjusts his grip and reapplies the heel hook for a second tap).

T. P. Grant: Zane the object of the rules is to provide a safe barrier, separating this as a sport from simple street brawling. There needs to be a line that is not crossed, when a fighter taps and the ref steps in to acknowledge that tap the MMA match is over. As Brent said, the purpose of throwing punches or applying the submission hold has been achieved, the only reason to continue past that point would be to cause injury. The goal of the sport is to inflict injury, to a point.

“To a point” is what makes this a sport. There is a third party in the cage to enforce when that point has been reached and the fighters are to respect his judgement. When you flagrantly and knowingly break that barrier you are stepping outside the sport match context, and Palhares has done it on several occasions. He is at fault for these, there is no misunderstanding as it has happened too many times, and a consequence must be given otherwise it is meaningless rule if fighters can break it at will.

Ben Thapa: I firmly believe that Palhares should be fined, but not cut. However, everyone keeps pointing to the Avellan match at ADCC 2011 as some sort of proof. There is none there. The referee bungled that. Palhares was competing as a normal person in his situation would.

It is the Rafael Lovato Jr. match that happened at the same tournament that shows that Palhares doesn’t respect the tap. Rafael ended up injured much more than David was and on an ankle lock too.

T. P. Grant: Ben I don’t take issue with Palhares finishing the kneebar, it was his stopping after going out of bounds and then twisting again even though the ref asked him to stop.

KJ Gould: The Avellan match stuck out in my memory more so. He was also accused of clubbing in tie ups and being generally too rough at ADCC. Even Andre Galvao mentioned as much after his finals match with Palhares.

Ben Thapa: He was facing the wrong way and the ref went in way too easy without a loud verbal command.

Zane Simon: T. P. , I understand the rule, and it’s application and purpose. As I said, I don’t deny that Palhares broke it, but I would say that it is a rule that is routinely broken to the extent that Palhares did it. I understand the he should probably be punished as it is a rule that he has routinely broken, but I do not think this incident was particularly egregious in the way many are making it out to be. Because he was in the process of going for a submission which few fighters achieve and which is often dangerous to an opponent, I think there is a lack of context at work here in which his actions are seen as more severe than fighters who break the same rule in similar ways.

Ben Thapa: So in essence, we all agree that even within the context of an mma fight there is a duty of care to the opponent, however minimal it may be.

Zane Simon: I guess I’d say I don’t. Or if I do I see it so poorly applied so continuously that I don’t see an incident like this as particularly notable.

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