By: Jesse Donathan
The Bellator mixed martial arts promotion ran two back-to-back events this past weekend, with Bellator 231 taking place Friday night headlined by former two-time UFC heavyweight champion Frank Mir (19-13, 5 KOs) versus Roy “Big Country” Nelson (23-18, 15 KOs) and Bellator 232 airing Saturday night with a main event showcase between Rory MacDonald (21-6, 7 KOs) and Douglas Lima (32-7, 16 KOs) for the Bellator welterweight title. Both cards were televised on Paramount/DAZN and were hosted by the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut.
Unfortunately, both main event fights went the distance, with Mir upending Nelson by three round unanimous decision and Lima defeating MacDonald by five round unanimous decision.
But there were at least two fights on these cards which I believe highlight a curious trend across MMA promotional lines; fighters using otherwise illegal techniques to gain an advantage over their law-abiding competition. At Bellator 231 on Friday, Jack Hager versus Anthony Garrett resulted in a no contest after multiple low blows from Hager rendered Garrett unable to continue and again, at Bellator 232, where Kevin Ferguson Jr. scored a KO victory after landing multiple shots to the back of his opponent’s head.
Even the most casual of fight fans have likely heard of the YouTube street fighting internet sensation “Kimbo Slice,” the well-known nickname of the much more ordinary sounding Kevin Ferguson. Unbeknownst to most however is that Ferguson had a son, Kevin Ferguson Jr., aka “Baby Slice,” who is also a professional mixed martial artist much like his now unfortunately deceased father. “Baby Slice” (4-2, 2 KOs) competed on the Bellator 232 card this weekend against opponent Craig Campbell (2-4, 0 KOs).
The fight was a short one, lasting just 38-seconds with Ferguson Jr. taking home a KO victory after referee Bryan Miner stopped the contest following numerous shots to the back of Campbells head that were dangerously close to being illegal. Not only were they close to being illegal, at least some of them were in fact illegal, clearly originating from the type of situation, area of placement and angle (12 – 6 o’clock position) responsible for the rule to begin with, though none of them seemed to catch the referee’s attention beyond the scope of stepping in to call a halt to the contest.
As originally published in a July 29, 2018 MMAWeekly.com article titled, “The 12-To-6 Illegal Elbow Explained,” author Jeff Cain writes, “The Unified Rules used by Nevada lists 31 fouls. “Striking downward using the point of the elbow” is listed as number 10, but doesn’t mean exactly what it says.” According to the report, “All elbow strikes are legal except for an elbow that is thrown in a downward trajectory (hand traveling from 12 o’clock to 6 o’clock). Any elbow thrown with an arc is a legal elbow. The point of the elbow may be used as striking instrument as well as the forearm or the triceps area of the arm.”
Referencing the long time MMA referee “Big John” McCarthy, the MMAWeekly.com report went on to quote McCarthy as stating that, “You have all these different organizations, and you have all these people with what they want to be able to do, so it’s tough to get people to agree on things.” According to McCarthy, “Finally, one of the things that was brought up is in one of the fights a fighter took another guy’s back and tried to sink in a choke. He couldn’t sink in the choke, so he started taking his hand and bringing it up and elbowing to the back of the guy’s head and neck.”
And here is where things begin to cloudy for me, because in boxing shots to the back of the head, also known as “rabbit punches,” are illegal according to Boxrec.com. The website goes on to define a rabbit punch and briefly explain the dangers associated with the technique, stating that a rabbit punch is, “A punch delivered by a boxer to the back of the neck of his opponent. It is illegal to use because of the potential for serious injury it can cause. It is derived from the blow used by a rabbit hunter to kill the animal.”
As many long-time boxing fans are aware, boxer Prichard Colon was left in a permanent vegetative state following numerous, repeated shots to the back of the head in his October 15, 2015 bout in Fairfax, Virginia against opponent Terrel Williams. According to a May 3, 2017 ESPN.com article titled, “Parents of ex-boxer Prichard Colon seek more than $50 million in lawsuit,” author William Weinbaum writes, “Beginning with the first round of their bout at EagleBank Arena, Colon gestured repeatedly toward the back of his head and complained that Williams was striking him there.”
Weinbaum would go on to write that, “In the fifth round, Colon had two points deducted for hitting Williams with a low blow that referee Joe Cooper ruled was intentional, after a grimacing Williams went down. And in the sixth, after another low blow by Colon — who then gestured about being struck by rabbit punches, Cooper called time and warned both fighters against low and behind-the-head shots.”
As tragic as this story is, the illegal shenanigans didn’t end there either. According to ESPN, “Then, in the seventh, Colon landed on the canvas after taking Williams’ overhand right to the back of his head and neck. Cooper again called time, advised Colon he had up to five minutes to recover, and deducted a point from Williams for the illegal blow.”
Not only does this story highlight just how dangerous blows to the back of the head and neck can truly be, but it also brings into focus the roles of those responsible for the fighter’s safety play in the potentiality for tragedy in the ring or cage. But somehow in mixed martial arts, the discussion centering around the legality of shots to the back of the head seems to constantly come back to the twelve to six o’clock position argument, when its recognized by numerous authorities on the subject that the genesis of the entire debate originally centered around the safety of striking opponents to the back of the head and neck.
According to the MMAWeekly.com report, “The doctor from New Jersey had a conniption about it. He said I will never ever pass something that allows that type of strike. That could be life threatening,” explained referee John McCarthy, seemingly in agreement with the BoxRex.com synopsis of the lethality technique. Continuing, “Big John” went on to state, “And he started going into his thing, and so the one elbow they took out was that elbow, that type of position. The way that they wrote it up, you could interpret it a ton of ways, but the true position they were talking about was the hand coming up to twelve o’clock to six o’clock.”
Luckily, we have a pretty good historical account of who, when, where, why and how this particular rule came into effect. According to a February 16, 2006 MMAWeekly.com article titled, “-Big John Explains MMA Rules,” author Jeff Cain writes that, “There were various organizations that all met together in New Jersey. Larry Hazzard is the one that put it together so he could clarify his rules. Marc Ratner was on a phone line for it, and they ended up having everyone sit there and try to come together with what they could be happy with,” MMAWeekly.com reports.
Somewhere along the way however, the concern for fighter safety and the debate on whether or not blows to the back of the head should be legal have gotten lost in the trajectory and angle of attack. Apparently, there was nobody in the room that day familiar enough with combat sports to suggest it’s the area and placement of the shot that really counts, not the particular part of the body used or the geometry and angle of attack. A blow to the back of the head is a blow to the back of the head, no matter if it’s coming from the 11 o’clock to 5 o’clock position or some other similar angle in between. Yet, time and time again when this topic arises it seems to get lost in the 12 to 6 argument, common sense be damned.
In conclusion, rabbit punches or punches to the back of the head are dangerous and as such have been ruled illegal in boxing for good reason. Somewhere along the way in mixed martial arts when the unified rules were put together and ultimately adopted, the New Jersey State Athletic Commission, to include Larry Hazard, Marc Ratner and everyone else involved in the matter understood that the potential dangers associated with the technique, but the ultimately delivery and interpretation of how that idea should be conveyed and enforced was lost in the geometry and angle of attack rhetoric.
For over 18-years now this insanity has persisted, yet little to no change appears to be on the horizon to address and amend what is a hole big enough to drive a semi-tractor trailer through in the rule books. Suffice to say, one does not need a PHD to identify what constitutes a shot to the back of the head and its well past time for the unified rules to be amended to reflect as such. It’s time to stop deferring to those who convolute an otherwise straight forward and simple topic and start relying on common sense to identify what it is right in front of our very own eyes.