In the midst of a cage fight in front of 18,000 howling people, after absorbing dozens of punches to the head while clinging precariously to consciousness, drowning in both adrenaline and exhaustion: this is probably not the best situation in which to be parsing the subtleties of a rulebook. When someone has been battered as much as Eddie Alvarez had been battered by Dustin Poirier last weekend at UFC 211 one has to assume a kind of physical desperation takes over, along with a pinhole reasoning that places animal survival over every other instinct, even the ones governing sportsmanship and decency. Eddie Alvarez is a good man and a good sport and god knows we expect a lot of superhuman behavior from our mixed martial artists, but even they are subject to humanity's primordial impulses, far beyond morality, so how can we fail to forgive them in dire circumstances for unconsciously prioritizing staying alive over doing the right thing?
Especially when the rules governing what those right things are are so damned hard to remember, even for a fan watching from the safety of her couch, even for a referee, whose only job is knowing the rules and enforcing them—but far more so for a fighter barely walking the line of consciousness and self-control. Which is how we got the mess that ended the otherwise beautiful fight between Poirier and Alvarez on Saturday night. Alvarez, after somehow fighting his way back into contention after getting pounded on by Poirier, got his opponent to the ground and delivered two knees to his head that forced referee Herb Dean to step in and stop the fight. But those two knees were illegal—the first came while Poirier still had a hand on the ground, the last while he was on his knees—meaning the fight couldn't be called for Alvarez.
But should it have been called for Poirier? That's the question now, after Dean declared the fight a no-contest in the ring, leaving both fighters and every fan watching dissatisfied, and after Poirier responded today by saying that he plans to file an appeal with the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation to change the decision from a no-contest to a disqualification victory for him. He has a point, though it's lost in mist and confusion. Under the unified rules of MMA, a referee must declare a fight a disqualification if he decides a fight-stopping foul was intentional but rule it a no-contest if he determines the foul was accidental. The Alvarez situation gets even murkier when you consider that last year the Association of Boxing Commissions and Combative Sports (ABC) changed the rules governing knees to the head of a downed opponent to say they are illegal only when the fighter being kneed has both hands down on the canvas along with his feet, whereas the old rule required only one hand on the mat to makes knees to the head illegal.
And things gets much, much murkier when you learn that Texas is one of the states that hasn't adopted that new rule yet, which means that in the middle of a blazing and bloody fist fight, Poirier and Alvarez, not to mention Dean, had to remember that they were fighting in a state that goes by the old rules. Clearly Alvarez forgot where he was, as did Dean. Poirier, meanwhile, remembered, or maybe he was just keeping one hand on the mat out of muscle memory and unconscious self-preservation.
Regardless, the real problem isn't the inscrutability of the rules but the vagueness of intentionality. No one believes Alvarez (a fighter with no history of dirty behavior) acted with the intent to break the rules or gain advantage from their breaking. Not even Dustin Poirier believes that. But that doesn't change the fact that he intended to knee Poirier in the head and that he did so either without bothering to realize those knees would be illegal or without understanding the rules he was breaking.
All of which may relieve Alvarez of any moral responsibility but it doesn't wipe out his intention to do what he did. Or, as Dustin Poirier himself said it, far more succinctly than I have, "Any time somebody strikes somebody with a blow, it's intentional."
And since those knees turned out to be fight-ending (as opposed to, say, an accidental finger poke or groin strike that merely delays a fight), Herb Dean was forced into the untenable position of trying to interpret Alvarez's motivations and desires, to understand the human heart and its wants—a difficult job in the best of circumstances, an impossible one in the heat of a cage-fight, surrounded by 18,000 fans waiting with knives out. History's greatest moral philosophers, judges, and sages would never have attempted such madness. Rules like the downed-opponent rule put referees in the awful position of trying to gauge motive, of looking inside a fighter's soul and heart to declare in front of god and man, "This man knowingly cheated" or "This man is pure at heart." And what kind of responsibility is that to put on somebody's shoulders? Isn't it enough that we make referees responsible for fighter's lives? Now we expect them to be interpreters of their souls as well?