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On UFC 199, Luke Rockhold, Dominick Cruz, and the Nasty Phenomenon of the “Sore Winner”

Urijah Faber Dominick Cruz UFC 132
(via Getty.)

By Asaph Bitner

Society tends to deride those who remain defiant even after a decisive and fair defeat. Someone who’s beaten and fails or refuses to accept this is looked at with pity, even anger. George Carlin already eloquently expressed a counter to this view, and so I’d like to highlight the inverse of this phenomenon, which can actually be a severe problem. I speak, of course, of the sore winner.

Generally (and, ok, a bit trivially) speaking, victory is power. When winners, specifically in sports, and even more specifically in MMA, cross a certain line of decency and abuse that power, we encounter what is perhaps the most unsportsmanlike behavior of all. There aren’t necessarily scientific tests for determining sore winner status in MMA, but here’s one fairly reliable-looking indicator: the winning fighter using their victory to violate the losing fighter’s dignity in some way.

That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with trash talk before a fight, or in its resumption once the immediate post-fight haze has passed. Conor McGregor and Chael Sonnen, two prodigious talkers of trash, pour industrial amounts of verbal acid onto their opponents before and after fights, but they always seem to have a sense of respect for the man they’ve just pummeled in the immediate moments following a win.

UFC 199 is next weekend, and its main and co-main events are likely to exemplify how a winner should act right after winning. While UFC middleweight champion Luke Rockhold and challenger Michael Bisping are quite bitter rivals, you can bet whoever wins their fight will honor the other with praise and a modicum of real affection after it’s all over, as was the case after their first fight in November 2014: Rockhold won by submission, and gave Bisping some handsome praise.

In the UFC 199 co-main, surprisingly-mean-at-times bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz is expected to wipe the floor with his long-time rival Urijah Faber. And still, you can bet your bottom dollar that if he does, he’ll smile and give the 37-year-old “kid” from California some just props (after all, that’s what happened after their second fight at UFC 132, which Cruz won by unanimous decision). And if Faber pulls out the W, does anyone really doubt he’ll give Cruz a hug and refer him to his favorite cornrow specialist?

Sadly, this basic decency is absent in some occasions, and from the minds of some fighters.

When Shinya Aoki broke Mizuto Hirota’s arm in December 2009 and then proceeded to flip off Hirota and perform other belligerent antics towards the crowd, he was rightly criticized for it. It’s not just that Aoki was happy in victory, but that he saw a beaten man before him, and chose to kick him while he was down (metaphorically, that is. Ironically enough, physically kicking Hirota while he was down during the actual fight would have been perfectly fine).

These cases can involve a lot of subtlety, as many winning fighters walk a fine dignity preservation/violation line. When Tito Ortiz did his “grave digger” routine, it was really a show of flair for the crowd. Ortiz would generally dig an imaginary grave for the other fighter, and then proceed to shake hands, hug, and show genuine respect to him. Post-fight celebrations are perfectly natural, and highly expected. In general, these celebrations only get really ugly when they’re pointed at the defeated fighter in a goading fashion.

If Michael “Venom” Page were to do his silly victory dances to himself in the middle of the cage, I doubt many would be bothered. The reason many are is presumably because Page chooses to direct his dances, like his fists, straight at his opponent’s face.

Perhaps the worst offender of this kind in recent memory is none other than former UFC women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey. Rousey’s public behavior in general seems to indicate that she is a childish, cruel, stubborn, and vindictive person, which is probably part of the reason for at least two ugly post-fight incidents in her recent past.

When Rousey knocked out Bethe Correia in 34 seconds at UFC 190, she proceeded to tell her “Don’t cry.” It was a callback to Correia’s taunt at Rousey at the previous day’s weigh-ins, and would have been quite appropriate if this were a movie and the villainous Correia had actually wronged the champion. But in fact, Correia was just an athlete competing in a sport, and was lying on the ground in a semi-conscious state while a woman who had just punched her very hard in the face added insult to literal injury.

But Rousey’s worst infraction came before, at UFC 168. Rousey fought the woman who is probably her biggest rival, Miesha Tate, at that end-of-the-year event. Tate and Rousey had a long-standing rivalry even then, and tensions were high. Tate and Rousey had fought nearly two years before, with Rousey submitting Tate and taking her Strikeforce women’s bantamweight title. Their second fight was dominated by Rousey, as Tate attempted several takedowns only to be reversed and easily controlled on the ground by the stronger champion. Tate mostly struggled for survival for two rounds, before once more falling prey to Rousey’s signature move – the armbar. Tate had feared this scenario, exaggeratedly proclaiming beforehand that she’d shoot herself in the face if she submitted to another such Rousey joint lock. The champion had seemingly broken the woman known as “Cupcake” down, both physically and mentally.

Rousey had just maintained her hold on the UFC title in dominant fashion. But when Tate went and offered Rousey her hand to shake, in an attempt to reconcile, even if just slightly, the champion simply turned away. Rousey’s refusal to show her defeated opponent the minimum of courtesy and charity in the immediate aftermath of a crushing loss is perhaps the most discourteous act I’ve seen in a sport where people regularly engage in limb twisting and face hurting of the very violent kind. Tate was coming to Rousey humbled, extending her hand in a gesture of peaceful, defeated acceptance, and Rousey just swatted her away.

Rousey later said this was a reaction to Tate insulting her family, but as far I know, all that means is basically a few silly jokes aimed at her coach (to whom, as far as I am aware, she is not actually related), Edmond Tarverdyan. This should not excuse Rousey’s behavior towards Tate in any decent person’s mind. Showing a minimum amount of politeness to a defeated foe who’s reaching out to you is mercy. What Rousey did to Tate after that fight was cruelty. Honestly, while I think the people who directly taunted Rousey after her loss to Holly Holm were acting horribly, and while I’m saddened and worried by the fact that she felt suicidal in its aftermath, when keeping this incident in mind, it’s hard not to see much of the hate towards Rousey as a product of her own actions.

A big loss, and not just in MMA, can be devastating. The emotional low someone who’s just been beaten in a high-stakes contest often feels, especially if they were bested by a bitter rival, is immense. Those who choose that moment to treat their defeated opponents with malice should rightly be scorned by all.

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