It took the authorities in New York State nearly 20 years to allow professional mixed martial arts within its borders, but it only took them a single event to show they'll be governing the sport with an iron fist.
Today the New York State Athletic Commission announced it had suspended UFC middleweight Yoel Romero 60 days for hopping over the fence following his knockout victory over Chris Weidman at UFC 205 earlier this month. After landing a flying knee to Weidman's head the Cuban-born fighter, nicknamed "Soldier of God," leapt over the Octagon with joy and proceeded to march and salute his way around the outer perimeter of the cage before coming back in for the fight's official announcement.
Leaving the cage is generally frowned upon by athletic commissions and may even be forbidden by some, but they tend to look the other way when a fighter is suddenly overcome with the desire to celebrate with his teammates or salute a crowd. This is a sport after all. Former UFC featherweight champion Jose Aldo famously ran into the adoring crowd at the HSBC Arena in Rio de Janeiro after knocking out Chad Mendes on January 14, 2012, but all he got for his sins were the disgruntled looks of the security officers charged with getting him back. Yoel Romero is the first fighter I've heard of earning a suspension for such a violation, but then UFC 205 was the first-ever MMA event regulated by the New York State Athletic Commission, and whether their intent is to always be this fanatical or if their actions were like those of an overeager rookie schoolteacher going overboard on the first day of class out of fear and confusion remains to be seen.
As things stand now, though, it doesn't look good for any potential rule-violators, duty-shirkers, and other miscreants hoping to fight in New York in the future. In addition to suspending Romero for celebrating outside the lines, the New York commission also suspended two fighters for screwing up their weigh-ins, another violation that older, calmer, more experienced regulatory bodies tend to punish with a fine and a sternly worded letter.
The first to fall was welterweight-soul-in-a-middleweight's-body Kelvin Gastelum, who announced on social media Nov. 11 that he wouldn't be making weight in time to fight Donald Cerrone at Madison Square Garden on the 12th and then simply didn't show up at the weigh-ins later that day. The fight was cancelled and 10 days later the New York State Athletic Commission suspended Gastelum for six months. Which was shocking in itself—there have been numerous instances of fights getting cancelled after a fighter failed to make weight, none of which led to a suspension—but the following day his suspension was entered into the Association of Boxing Commissions and Combative Sports (ABC) database, meaning it will extend outside the boundaries of New York.
The state's eager commission also suspended Thiago Alves three months for failing to make weight for his Madison Square Garden fight against Jim Miller. That fight wasn't cancelled, however, as the two men were able to fight at a catchweight, which explains why Alves' punishment was smaller than Gastelum's. No word yet whether Alves' suspension will be enforced by other states.
As the various and inevitable appeals start coming in from fighters protesting these and other suspensions (Gastelum has already filed his) and as more time passes and the regulating of MMA becomes less terrifying for New York it's likely that the state will take a less punitive approach to athletes. After all, life is hard enough for fighters who've failed to make weight, what with the loss of pay and the loss of opportunity and the scorn and shame of their fellow fighters and the fans. A suspension seems like adding unnecessary injury to insult.
As for Yoel Romero, he might be as much a victim of his own lousy timing and cultural deafness as an overzealous regulatory body. UFC 205 came not a week after the election of Donald Trump, an election that struck fear in the hearts of many Americans worried that a new era of fascism could potentially follow. That Romero chose that week to goosestep his way around a cage in the most liberal, multicultural, Jewish city in the country couldn't have looked great in the eyes of an already suspicious athletic commission. Remember when Romero got in trouble last summer for maybe possibly accusing America of turning Jesus gay during a post-fight interview not 36 hours after the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage? Well, I'd be willing to bet that whole controversy was a misunderstanding built on a language barrier, just as I'm willing to be this one was a misunderstanding built on one part cultural misapprehension and one part post-election oversensitivity. Regardless, Romero has a real gift for doing and saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. It's a gift that's quickly turning him into the best post-fight attraction in the sport.