The UFC did their best to stack the deck for UFC 294. The promotion was heading back to one of their major international hubs, the Etihad Arena in Abu Dhabi. For the occasion they pulled out all their Caucasus stars. Islam Makhachev, Khamzat Chimaev, Magomed Ankalaev, and rising talents like Ikram Aliskerov, and Muhammad Mokaev all pushed into the limelight for a potential to showcase their skills in front of a partisan crowd.
Unfortunately, much of the narrative outside the main and co-main events was marred by an officiating crew that didn’t seem all that up to the task of what a massive PPV required. There were missed fouls, inexplicable medical decisions, and every indication that pre-fight screening was notably lax.
The worst part of all of it though? Unlike stateside shows, where the UFC is governed by an athletic commission, the UFC brings their own officiating to international events. The men and women working UFC 294 are there because the promotion selected them specifically.
It has to be wondered, then, why it seems like the crew on hand felt so inexperienced. Issues first started to come up between Muhammad Naimov and Nathaniel Wood down on the early prelims. Following some early success for Naimov, the Tajik fighter proceeded to land multiple low blows, grab the fence, and his opponent’s gloves. The result? A couple of healthy warnings, and a 29-28 unanimous decision loss for Wood.
It was shortly after that, that things got worse.
Javid Basharat vs. Victor Henry was supposed to be a major highlight on the UFC 294 prelims. A streaking prospect against a seasoned veteran, two exciting styles between two fighters dreaming of a run to the belt. The result? After a simmering first round, Basharat landed a kick to the groin that left Victor Henry entirely disabled and unable to fight.
Henry’s pain was clear for all to see as he writhed on the mat clutching his groin. It seemed absolutely obvious what had happened to all and sundry, even though video replay of the actual foul was obscured by the Octagon padding and by the two men’s bodies. Despite Henry nearly dry heaving inside the cage, however, the cageside doctor wanted more proof.
“It wasn’t your balls,” the doctor told Henry as the fighter sat stunned on the canvas. “He didn’t kick your balls.”
“It was all dick and balls,” Henry replied, unbelieving.
Was Henry about to lose via TKO for what should have been an obvious foul? Thankfully cooler heads intervened among the officiating crew and bout was eventually declared a ‘no contest’. But the doctor involved was just getting started.
The big mistake
Later that night, during a PPV bout between Magomed Ankalaev and Johnny Walker, the Dagestani top contender landed a clear illegal knee with Walker down on the mat against the cage. The blow was ruled unintentional (which is the start of an argument in its own right), but things got a lot more complicated in a hurry when the referee determined that the doctor should be brought in to perform an ad-hoc concussion test on Walker to ensure that he was okay to fight.
On the surface, this seems like a perfectly laudable approach that we rarely see in combat sports. Many fans and pundits have long wished that officials would act with a greater abundance of caution in a culture ruled by its cozy relationship with violence. Tonight we got a sterling example of why that may not always be the best idea.
After stepping in to examine Walker, the doctor asked the fighter a pair of questions. Reportedly consisting of “What country are you in?” and “What round is it?” Walker gave the doctor a dismissive shrug and went back to focusing on his opponent across the Octagon. That’s all it took for the bout to be waived off.
It might be argued as a mark against Walker that, even then, he didn’t seem to have a clue what was going on. It took several minutes of firm explanation after the fight had been cancelled for Walker to understand that they weren’t about to just go restart the bout. But it seemed a lot more indicative of a lack of clear communication in the first place than a sign the Brazilian was too concussed to continue.
By all appearances Walker’s English isn’t especially good. And he seemed so focused on re-starting his fight that his dismissal of the doctor’s questions carried much more firmly the air of someone who simply doesn’t care about the nonsense happening in front of him, rather than someone who can’t clearly respond or answer questions. If the man didn’t understand what the doctor was trying to do from the jump, it’s not all that surprising that he didn’t give the responses the doctor needed.
Does that entirely absolve Walker of fault here? No, of course not. He needs to be at least aware enough of his surroundings to understand that if a fight has been stopped due to an illegal strike, and officials are talking to him, his attention goes to them first and foremost. But it very quickly became apparent to all and sundry that Walker could have kept competing were it not for this over-eager bit of Q&A.
Why is the UFC leaning on inexperience?
Things got bad enough that Dana White had to enter the Octagon to calm it all down. After the event the UFC CEO told reporters that the doctor was inexperienced. But, of course, that only raises more questions.
It’s on the UFC to put together, or at least vet, the staffing for these international events. If they knew this doctor didn’t have the kind of experience needed to be a ringside physician, why did they let him have the job? Alongside the other moments of poor officiating and oversight it’s hard not to feel the world’s largest MMA promotion is running a much more slapdash operation than should be expected of a multi-billion dollar company.
Mixed in with the mid-fight medical mishaps, UFC 294’ spectacularly inexperienced ref team stumbled over a number of fouls and seeming fouls. One referee issued warning after warning in a messy fight where a single point deduction would have dramatically altered the outcome, while another called multiple illegal knees in a single bout only to reverse his decision each time via live replay, taking huge amounts of momentum away from the fighter who delivered said knees on both occasions.
Most egregiously, however, were reports of hidden pre-fight illnesses and one athlete competing with fresh stitches in a lacerated eyebrow. The wound opened up mid-bout, leaving a flap of skin dangling precariously for the bulk of two rounds. The fact that fighter (Mike Breeden) went on to win by KO doesn’t really change the question how any physician could have screened him pre-fight and not seen an injury clearly still in the process of healing.
As for the illnesses? Breeden also admitted to carrying a potentially still active staph infection with him into the Octagon, alongside Victoria Dudakova, who made a repulsive admission to reporters after her win over Jinh Yu Frey.
“My butt is completely bloodied up right now,” Dudakova said in her post-fight media scrum. “I have staph infection in places that it’s not necessarily okay to announce to the whole world.”
Is the UFC disinfecting the Octagon between fights? Because the Russian also admitted that her cyst ruptured mid-fight. And it’s not like Staph isn’t notoriously infectious or anything.
Jump back to the last time the UFC was in Abu Dhabi—for UFC 280 in October of 2022—and while it wasn’t as pronounced, that card also featured notable promotional chicanery. Former champion TJ Dillashaw revealed after his loss to Aljamain Sterling, that he had gone through his entire training camp with a severe shoulder injury. One that rendered him almost entirely uncompetitive once he stepped into the Octagon to challenge for the bantamweight title.
UFC employees told officials between rounds that they had preexisting knowledge of the injury, ensuring that the fight wouldn’t get waived off automatically. But it has to be said, at that point the whole thing starts to feel a bit more like a fix than simple incompetence, at least to my ears.
The real shame to all of this is, that UFC 294 was a fun card. Islam Makhachev got a huge win over a legend in his own time, Alexander Volkanovski. Kamaru Usman showed up and had a fun back-and-forth fight with Khamzat Chimaev. Ikram Aliskerov looked fantastic, as did Said Nurmagomedov and Muhammad Mokaev.
The promotion shouldn’t have to be cutting corners to make good events happen, and the appearance that they’re doing so only raises fears that future international cards will be plagued by more unpredictability and lack of oversight. I know this is cage fighting and all, but that’s the way people really get hurt.
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