Call it the knee-pop heard ’round the world.
It all took place over 31 frantic seconds on Oct. 9 in Barueri, Brazil. Entering the Octagon at UFC Fight Night 29, Rousimar Palhares had lost two straight bouts and desperately needed victory against Mike Pierce. In less time than it took weighing-in, Palhares won that fight but lost the MMA world’s goodwill. What went wrong in just over half-a-minute?
The answer is a textbook heel hook. Clamping down on Pierce’s exposed ankle, Palhares forced the tap with that dangerous maneuver. Over the next 3.08 seconds, “Toquinho” (Portuguese for “little tree stump”) didn’t release his vise-like hold. Instants later, his win plummeted from triumphant into tainted.
So much vanishes in those excruciating moments – wealth, glory, adoration. The extra suffering Palhares inflicted that night cost all three. Despite scoring UFC Fight Night’s only submission, “Toquinho” forfeited any and all bonuses for “unsportsmanlike conduct.” One day later, the UFC cut him for the same reason. Even if they hadn’t, glancing at any MMA forum shows backlash against Palhares is harsh, shrill and ongoing.
Overall, such punishments outweigh the crime. At 8-4 inside the Octagon following his heel hook debacle, Palhares is clearly UFC-caliber talent at 33 years old. Though he definitely sinned against Pierce, is it worth excommunicating “Toquinho” from the world’s top MMA organization for several seconds in error? The evidence points towards “no.”
For starters, the mental pressure Palhares likely suffered on fight night was equal or greater than the torque exerted on Pierce’s limb hours later. A career middleweight, “Toquinho” entered their standoff as a new welterweight. Having lost two bouts prior, the heat was on for Palhares’ reinvention at 170 lbs. Given three losses often earn UFC competitors walking papers, only debuting successfully could have saved Palhares from unemployment.
UFC Fight Night 29′s venue added extra tension. A native Brazilian, Palhares was defending his country’s honor against a foreign invader in America’s Pierce. In a country where fight fans chant “you’re going to die” in Portuguese at outsiders, failure isn’t an option for hometown heroes like “Toquinho.”
The icing on the cake was the fight itself. Prior to submitting Pierce, Palhares lost another potential leg-lock. In a sport where heart and willpower are all, no one goes quietly into the night. MMA lore bursts with comebacks – Jon Jones storming back against Alexander Gustafsson, for example – and defeat tastes especially bitter when cooking victory first. “Toquinho” is no exception, and he (understandably) wanted an indisputable finish against Pierce when sinking the heel hook in.
UFC Fight Night 29′s other players influenced its outcome for Palhares too. Take his bout’s third man – referee Keith Peterson let “Toquinho” crank his heel hook two whole seconds before jumping in. Though Palhares worked the hold another 1.08 seconds, Peterson has remained largely free of criticism for his oversight. This is troubling for two reasons. First, Peterson was nowhere near either fighter to quickly end the submission; second, he arguably assisted two-thirds of Pierce’s excessive imprisonment.
Pierce, meanwhile, came unprepared for Palhares’ grappling. Counting Pierce, “Toquinho” has taken 11 of 15 wins via submission, eight by leg-lock variation. In those 31 seconds, Pierce showed no takedown or submission defense for stalemating such proven specialization. Though Pierce is an excellent welterweight, the only reason fight fans are discussing his loss is that he couldn’t prevent it.
Cutting Palhares afterwards, the UFC cited his 2010 submission of Tomasz Drwal at UFC 111 as a factor in its decision. In that bout, Palhares also locked Drwal in a heel-hook past the finish. Old crimes, however, don’t always predict present behavior. “Toquinho” served a 90-day suspension for that transgression; more importantly, he also submitted David Branch and Mike Massenzio cleanly before facing Pierce.
This means 82% of Palhares’ submissions are by-the-book overall. His missteps against Drwal and Pierce are perhaps less habitual offenses and more isolated incidents. Though the UFC also cited elevated testosterone levels at last year’s UFC on FX 6 in dismissing “Toquinho,” it’s worth noting he tested clean after UFC Fight Night 29 as well.
It’s thus possible the UFC made an example out of Palhares as he wronged Pierce on free TV. MMA is still shedding its “human cockfighting” past; it hasn’t accrued enough social capital for blatant cheaters and possible PED users. Even if it has, Palhares’ eternal knee-crank seems more death match than legal sport.
None of this changes the legitimate danger Pierce faced in those tortuous seconds. MMA’s failure since is applying justice proportionate to that time. As of this writing, Pierce’s loss against Palhares has neither shortened nor stopped his MMA career. Banishing a fighter like “Toquinho” from the UFC – the sport’s highest peak – achieves exactly one or both those outcomes should he never return.
At day’s end, the UFC overreacted by disciplining Palhares before the full extent of Pierce’s injury (if any) emerges. It could most fairly punish “Toquinho” by suspending him in proportion to Pierce’s recovery time. At day’s end, an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind – and one combatant should only lose legs to stand on in the UFC if they undoubtedly take another’s first.