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The 2019 Eye-Gouger’s Almanac

2019 without a doubt has been the Year of The Flying Knee, but the Eye Gouge is barging its way into the conversation.

Year to year we see an evolution in MMA techniques and strategies as gyms and trainers gradually explore what is successful and what is not. It is giving birth to generations of pure MMA fighters, training MMA technique, which is an open book with the impact of a technique being its only boundary to inclusion. The copy-cat mentality that permeates the sport is important to its perpetual development and allows for the integration of new and exciting ideas.

Most professional ball sports must begrudgingly labor to adapt and improve their product as their athletes’ skill levels and understanding of the game surpass its original laws. However mixed martial arts by its very nature demands flexibility as it consistently seeks to assimilate new ideas that directly influence its very own fundamentals.

In 2017 we experienced The Year of the Low Leg Kick. It was put on full display in big fights and its impact subsequently put the sport on notice going forward. When a technique finds success at the highest levels, we begin to see its integration at the lower entry levels. The rubric is augmented from top to bottom, and the bar raises with each generation starting off more completely equipped than the previous. And while this is a notion that contributes to the health and growth of the sport, let’s clarify that in the context of the illegal eye gouge we examine it through this lens with levity and tongue planted firmly in cheek (or finger planted firmly in eye).

Obviously, nobody is training the Eye Gouge but the act itself has made similar impact in the narrative of 2019, and MMA overall. It’s not a trained maneuver that’s inclusion changes the landscape of the sport, but it’s impact could be felt through changes to equipment and rule enforcement. Referees may be more inclined to follow through with warnings and be quicker to deduct points for the foul, but the biggest changes will come with the gloves.

The old ‘Pride-style’ gloves featured a forced curvature of the hand that kept it in a balled, fist posture. The current UFC gloves allow the fingers to be fully extended and flat. Nearly a year ago in November 2018, Joe Rogan leaked that the UFC was developing a new glove, but it has yet to be introduced. Bellator made the change back in 2014 and developed their ‘Pride-style’ PowerLock MMA glove. It was first introduced at Bellator 110 and the second fight of the card ended in a ‘No Contest Due to Eye Poke’. This is the type of weirdness that you just can’t make up and is exactly what we live for here at WCR.

While the data on the effectiveness of the new glove in reducing eye pokes remains to be seen it still must be regarded as a step in the right direction. And while stricter officiating and point deductions for any eye poke may be a bit harsh for those that are accidental, it seems likely to be the most effective method for reducing them overall.

No fighter would ever admit eye gouging intentionally, but stricter practices in point deductions would surely have an impact in striking discipline and reduce this phenomenon of ‘accidental’ eye pokes. There is leniency in interpreting the intent of a foul, but even if it is unintentional, a fighter is always responsible for their body and its actions at all times.

Not to be overshadowed by the arguments of intentional or unintentional for the ‘Eye Poker’, there is equal and ample room for ambiguity within the intentions of the ‘Eye Pokee’ as well. As evidenced in the reaction of Yair Rodriguez after his No Contest result against Jeremey Stephens. Rodriguez was visibly upset and lost control of his emotions, hurling slurs and gestures towards the official doctor and commentator Michael Bisping.

With the long camp, adrenaline build up of the walkout, not to mention fighting in front of the home crowd, Rodriguez is looking to uncork this compiled and focused energy, so it is understandable to see such emotion when that release is stymied. It is one thing to question the extent of an injury in the moment, still high in the octagon, but it is another entirely when the benefit of time, reflection and information is available.

According to his coaches his eye was still swelled shut and he was in significant pain in the locker room and even as he left the arena to visit an emergency ophthalmologist. In his post-fight desk interview with Dan Hardy and Karyn Bryant, Rodriguez stated that he would give Stephens the benefit of the doubt, but still inferred that his injury claim was disingenuous. In the replay Stephens does reach slightly more so for the right eye at first, which raised visible suspicion and confusion in Rodriguez as he viewed the tape for the first time.

Regardless Stephen’s injury is obvious and undeniable. As was his commitment to competing in this bout. Jeremy Stephens moved his camp to Mexico to acclimate himself to the elevation and avoid the cardio collapses we have seen in Mexico City. $30,000 later and countless ‘Rocky IV’ viewings with Tony Ferguson, Stephens came to fight, not to quit in 15 seconds. Not to mention in his last fight against Zabit Magomedsharipov, he not only continued to fight after an eye poke, but an eye poke set up with a groin strike. While the enthusiasm of Rodriguez is appreciated, his passion is largely misdirected and clouds his judgement.

And the same would apply to the typical mob behavior of the Mexico City crowd. For a moment, with Michael Bisping comically filming Brendan Fitzgerald hiding under their commentary desk, it might as well been USMNT vs El Tri at Estadio Azteca. The drinks and trash were flying but the zip lock baggies of urine were hopefully too late to the party. It is unfortunate to see this at a UFC event, but it unquestionably typical of Mexican sporting events. Regardless of how it makes you feel, you will definitely being seeing more of it in the future.

Scenes like this are bad optically, but the UFC is already heavily invested in that regional market and must be well aware of its foibles. Following in the footsteps of the Performance Institutes in Las Vegas and China, UFC are breaking ground on a facility in Mexico as well so anyone who thinks this incident will deter them from returning is sorely mistaken. UFC wants Mexico, warts and all.

On the other end of the gouge spectrum we have the previous weeks event UFC on ESPN+ 16 in Vancouver where Todd Duffee made his return to the Octagon against Jeff Hughes. As the first round was winding down and fatigue was beginning to set in Duffee sustained an eye poke from Hughes. The referee paused the fight to allow Duffee is allowed time to recover, but he immediately stated that his vision was impaired.

Every fighter knows in this situation that if you tell the referee that you cannot see, they will be forced to stop the fight. Likewise, every fighter knows to lie to keep the fight going. But in this case Duffee informed the official right away that he was seeing double.

The Official was doing everything he could to not bring the doctor in the Octagon and give Duffee a chance to keep the fight going. Duffee didn’t hesitate to reiterate his damaged eye, but the Official remained reluctant to bring in the doctor. Sometimes fighters will have a sudden change of heart when the enormity of what a loss means sets in. Regret can wash over them and the referee was surely giving him his time to think through his decisions.

A controversial eye or potential ‘nose’ poke set the precedent the previous week at Bellator 225. Double Champion Ryan Bader defended his Heavyweight title against Cheick Kongo and the fight was stopped due to and eye poke, but upon further review of the tape it appears the eye was punched, and a finger probably went into the Kongo’s nostril. The scenes in the Bellator cage degenerated into a farcical scrum with Rampage Jackson and Bader trading threats.

Earlier in the year at UFC on ESPN 2 in Philadelphia, Edson Barboza lost via TKO to Justin Gaethje in the first round. Barboza and his team posted photos of his eye injury and the eye poke he sustained during the fight and insisted that it changed the course of the fight and that it would have definitely lasted longer for Barboza without the foul. With Justin Gaethje now knocking on the door of Lightweight gold, it is another poke that could have been heard round the world and changed the trajectory of the division.

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