MMA Opinion: Are Anticlimactic Wins Still Wins?

MMA Ortega vs Rodrigues
(Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/GETTY)
In a host of sports, there is an option to quit or forfeit. In many, not showing up to actually compete is an automatic loss for the absent competitor and an automatic win for the opponent or team that showed. If you ever played Ping Pong – which of course is distinct from Table Tennis, just ask a Table Tennis player – you may be familiar with a skunk. This is when one opponent reaches a point in the game where a comeback is seen as impossible and therefore the game ends. This phenomenon of a one-sided affair ending in a sort of dignity- saving conclusion can even be called a “mercy rule” in some cases.

Things can get a little murky in Mixed Martial Arts though. Of course we could hit a trail with the rabbits here and talk about how fighters refuse to acknowledge an actual loss – ahem, O’Malley – but that is not our purpose. Is there a forfeit in MMA? Not really. You can tap out, you can not answer the bell, you can have the towel thrown in (well, maybe; depends on who you ask and which commission is in charge), or as was the case recently with Brian Ortega in his fight with Yair Rodriguez or Tom Aspinall versus Curtis Blaydes, you can just... well, stop.

The fans seeing Rodriguez/Ortega on July 16th on Long Island had already had the weirdness of MMA thrown in their face in the co-main event when Michelle Waterson-Gomez tapped to a submission by Amanda Lemos and no one, apparently including the ref, saw it. That confuses the whole discussion because the ref is supposed to stop it and Lemos was kind not to injure her opponent. However, it was possible that had Waterson-Gomez not decided to stop, that fight could have legally continued. The tap is not the final arbiter, the ref is. But this is a digression – only mentioned to say there may have been some fuel for the discussion of let-down endings in MMA.

Why are MMA fans – like those typical ones in the room that night on Long Island or in London - so fiercely frustrated by what might be called an anticlimactic ending (and yes, there are three C’s in that word)? While we do not have a lot of precedent for a legitimate forfeit in other pro sports – have to go back to 1914 in Major League Baseball for example – it is there in the rules. Similarly, it is in the rules of MMA that a fighter can choose to quit an MMA fight – during said fight. He can voluntarily decide to stop fighting and fully expect the ref and commission to let him take the loss. It is in the rule set. It is completely legal to not continue.

There are fans (who probably don’t deserve that moniker) who think a fighter weak when they tap to a submission or even strikes regardless of their actual level of peril. Those so-called fans think that regardless of stakes. But those are not the normal genuine fans of the sport. The normal fan respects the tap that prevents injury or the staying on the stool when there is no chance of victory. But what about those odd-ball cases like Ortega? His shoulder stopped working. His arm quit for him. Why is this so hard to accept for even the legit MMA fan as a legitimate loss? Or worse, how is this not seen as a full-fledged win for Yair? It is in the rules. Did we say that already? The commission, the ref, the judges, the promotion, and usually even the fighters themselves say it is a real win and loss in a real competition.

The fan’s discontentment might be confusing if given some thought. If Rodriguez does to Ortega’s shoulder what Ortega’s shoulder did to itself (or Blaydes’ attacks to Aspinall’s knee), there is no question. But if Ortega’s body quits, it is seen as diminished – or anticlimactic. As obvious as the emotional response may be to the reader, try and put it into words and explain it. When you tap to a submission, you are effectively saying your body cannot take anymore punishment. But what if your body decides that for you? If your body’s bones decide to break? If your body’s ligaments decide to tear? Yes, it is clear that the opponent did not necessarily inflict those on you, but how is that the opponent’s fault? Is that not at least similar to a forfeit?

This could be explored much further. For example, when cheating excludes a competitor from competing and they say they would win if able to compete. How is cheating not seen as a forfeit? How can a fighter like Jon Jones be argued as a GOAT while not competing and while having known illegal substances in his system at the time of competition – again, in the rules, right? If an objective “W” on the record means advancement in rankings, it is strange to say the least that a subjective assessment (that a fight‘s ending was anticlimactic) should have a bearing on that reality. Blame the limits of the human body, not the opponent like Yair who showed up to fight. Even better, let’s figure out what the heck “climactic” even means anyway and why it is spelled like that.

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