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Point/Counterpoint: “Playing the Game” and Whether Selective Enforcement of the Rules is Good for MMA

(“No, God Damn it, we’re on the Y part of the song, not the A! Have you guys even heard The Village People before?!”

We’re only three weeks into the NFL regular season, yet fans all over the country have become infuriated with the league over the blown calls and inconsistency of the replacement referees who have been officiating games during the referee lockout. The fact that last night’s Seahawks vs. Packers game was literally decided by the poor interpretation of the league’s simultaneous catch rule has been the focus of water cooler discussions all over the country – even here. Yet this inconsistency is hardly unique to the replacement referees, or even professional football. As MMA fans, we see this all the time.

Case in point: During the main event of Saturday’s UFC 152, Vitor Belfort threw a kick at the head of a “downed” Jon Jones. Despite this being against the rules, ”Big” John McCarthy simply said to Jon Jones “You wanted to play the game.” Is this selective enforcement of the rules good for our sport? Today George Shunick and Seth Falvo will make the arguments for and against this practice.

The Argument For, by George Shunick:

Let’s get this out of the way; the phrase “you’re playing the game” stems from a fundamental dissonance in the Unified Rules of professional Mixed Martial Arts. Namely, that stomps, soccer kicks and knees to the head of a downed opponent are maneuvers that should be allowed in accordance with the philosophy of the sport, but can’t due to certain political realities and, arguably, health and safety concerns. So certain situations arise, like Vitor Belfort throwing a head kick at a crouching Jon Jones, which defy the rules, but not the spirit of them.

Even though it has its detriments, it’s because of this that “you’re playing the game” is an acceptable resolution to this dissonance. Its main problem is that there is a certain gray area that stems from it. Let’s concede that a legitimately wounded fighter, or a fighter who has been forced to an inferior position by his opponent, cannot be kneed in the head, stomped on or soccer kicked. That is, certainly, the intended effect of the rules as they are. However, certain fighters seek to exploit those loopholes in a manner that is arguably antithetical to the ideals of the sport – by removing an aspect of their opponent’s arsenal not through their own abilities, but by the manipulation of regulatory measures. Despite Rich Franklin’s advice, there just is something fundamentally wrong if the perfect defense in a combat sport for a head kick is actually making you more susceptible to them.

But where is the line? That’s a little more difficult to ascertain. However, there are incidents that unquestionably merit a stern “you’re playing the game.” One that springs to mind is Paul Buentello putting his hand on the mat while getting kneed by Cheick Kongo. Kongo had Buentello in a front headlock and began kneeing him in the head. Buentello, understandably less than thrilled about his situation, put his hand on the ground, legally declaring himself down and rendering any knees thrown to his head illegal. Kongo became enraged by this gesture and attempted to throw knees to Buentello’s groin, as Cheick Kongo is wont to do in these situations. He missed however, and hit Buentello three more times in the head. Herb Dean stopped the fight, but only to warn Buentello about “playing the game.”

It was the right call; Buentello positioning had barely changed. If anything, he consciously made a decision to impede his own ability to defend himself in order to take advantage of the rulebook for his own benefit, a behavior which is antithetical to the idea of combat sports. This is, unquestionably, a correct application of “you’re playing the game.”

So what of Jones’ incident with Belfort? Well, Jones has used this crouching stance for a number of fights to get closer to his opponent, and backing them up towards the cage, without fear of being hit. If you watch his fight against “Rampage” Jackson, you’d think he’d discovered some ancient Buddhist unhittable stance, because punching someone who is 3 to 4 feet lower than you is actually fairly difficult and Rampage couldn’t really do anything before Jones got up and pushed him into the fence.

Of course, the opposite is true; Jones is quite hittable in that stance, because it’d be much easier to kick him in the face. It’s only because of the rules that he becomes virtually untouchable. And that’s what “you’re playing the game” is designed to be used for; when a fighter utilizes the rules to his own benefit and his opponent’s detriment in a manner that subverts the spirit of the sport and the very intention of the rule itself. This is exactly what Jones was doing, and it’s why John McCarthy’s use of the phrase was justified. Things would be very interesting if Belfort had actually connected with the kick, of course, but it seems McCarthy would not have chosen to punish him, which would be the correct call in this instance.

Certainly, there are scenarios where the line between “playing the game” and violating the rules becomes blurred. What happens if an opponent gets hit with a knee, and then drops to a knee to avoid more? It’s not as overt as planting your hand on the ground but it has the same effect. Then again, perhaps the positional detriment is deemed a sufficient sacrifice on the part of the fighter. It’s difficult, but then again, it’s not the only application of the rules that has a grey area. (The definition of the back of a fighter’s head seems to change with every referee, but this rule is rarely considered something that needs fixing.) MMA referees aren’t perfect, but they’ve historically done a good job of interpreting this rule. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best way the sport has to uphold its rules while living up to its standards.

The Argument Against, by Seth Falvo:

Like seemingly everyone else at this website, watching Jon Jones crawl at Vitor Belfort at the start of Saturday night’s main event infuriated me. It was amateurish. It was bush league. It had no business in our sport’s highest level of competition.

That being said, the only thing more infuriating to me was watching “Big” John McCarthy write off a blatant violation of the rules as one fighter “wanting to play the game” just seconds later. A referee ignoring the rules he’s supposed to enforce because he doesn’t like the fight he’s watching doesn’t even deserve to be dignified as bush league – that’s downright Memorial Day Softball Game territory.  If you ‘ve ever wondered why many people still regard MMA fans as mindless meatheads, just watch as nearly 17,000 people that night cheered when one of our sport’s most respected referees essentially said “Sure you broke a rule, but he deserved that kick!”

This isn’t to say that I necessarily blame the fans that night for cheering what essentially ended Jones’ crawling-at-Belfort nonsense. The fans wanted somebody – anybody- to stop Jon Jones from shamelessly avoiding the heavy hands of The Phenom, even if it took a creative interpretation of the rules to prevent this. Just as I’m sure many NHL fans wouldn’t have minded this being ruled a penalty, even though at the time it wasn’t against the rules:

Renowned smartass Sean Avery, partaking in the tom-foolery that would lead to the NHL creating The Sean Avery Rule.

It isn’t too far of a stretch to compare Jon Jones’ antics to those of Sean Avery during the infamous Rangers/Devils series in 2008, in the sense that both men effectively capitalized on a loophole in their respective sport’s existing rules. When Sean Avery turned his back to the play in order to distract the legendary Martin Brodeur, hockey fans were sickened by the display – especially since there was nothing that the league officials could do about it. Avery was innocent based on a technicality, so the NHL immediately enacted “The Sean Avery Rule” to outlaw such blatantly unsportsmanlike behavior from catching on.

Of course, here is where the comparison ultimately falls apart, and why MMA referees have no business ignoring blatant violations of the rules, even when one fighter is simply “playing the game” to avoid getting hit in the head: The Unified Rules of MMA don’t have to specifically outlaw putting a hand on the mat to avoid contact, because there’s already a foul that the referees could be calling. Observe:

Timidity (avoiding contact, consistent dropping of mouthpiece, or faking an injury).

This is what ultimately makes it so frustrating when referees justify an infraction with “Hey, you asked for it.” If the referee was doing his (or her, Kim Winslow) job in the first place, it wouldn’t be coming to this. All Big John had to do when he saw Jon Jones crawling at Vitor Belfort – or any of the referees in Bones’ previous fights, for that matter – was stop the fight and say something along the lines of “Jon, if you don’t want to risk getting kicked in the head, take up a different line of work. Next time I see you blatantly put your hand on the mat to avoid a kick, I’m docking you one point.” That’s it, problem solved.

Instead, Big John chose to make Jon Jones the scapegoat for his own refusal to do anything about the questionable technique, which makes about as much sense as Spiderman blaming the NYPD for failing to stop a bank robbery that he watched transpire. Selectively enforcing the rules in order to compensate for one fighter’s “creative interpretation” of them is a dangerous mentality that’s going to get someone badly injured.

And just think of the slippery slope here. What would have happened if, after watching Vitor Belfort pull guard in order to avoid getting hit, Jon Jones kicked The Phenom’s head? Does he disqualify Jones, even though he essentially allowed the same thing earlier on in the fight when Bones went to the ground to avoid a head kick? Does he allow it, because, hey, we all decided mid-fight that we’ll be ignoring that rule? For that matter, what would he have done if Vitor Belfort, frustrated by all of the damage he had taken throughout the fight, began crawling at Jones?

The bottom line here is that it’s never in the best interest of any sport to allow its referees to selectively enforce the rules. It’s confusing to the fans and fighters alike, and makes mixed martial arts in general look more like a circus sideshow than a legitimate competition. Which, you know, we don’t exactly need right now anyways.

Cagepotato Comments

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wholemkt7- October 2, 2012 at 6:55 am


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enrikk- September 28, 2012 at 12:15 pm
Good catch, GoM. Cheers.
Get Off Me- September 27, 2012 at 12:55 pm
looks like were both right re:Jones crawling out vs rampage.
KarmaAteMyCat- September 27, 2012 at 12:17 pm
Enrikk for comment of the week!!!!!
enrikk- September 27, 2012 at 2:00 am
Great job, by the way, CP. Great read to break up the usual media nonsense.
enrikk- September 27, 2012 at 1:58 am
Both sides have great points, and no one is arguing that Jones' move was acceptable... but I think Seth wins here because he makes a great point about the "timidity" rule which almost never gets used like it should (Condit, I'm looking at you). It's a perfect solution that addresses George's criticisms while also removing uncertainty in reffing.
Cestus84- September 27, 2012 at 1:29 am
" A referee ignoring the rules he’s supposed to enforce because he doesn’t like the fight he’s watching " Is Seth Falvo basing his entire argument on an assumption that BJM wasn't liking the fight¿ first off, did I miss something¿ Did BJM actually say he didn't like he fight¿ Mind you, Bones did this crawl at the very beginning of the fight, they hadn't even engaged yet. I'm assumig Salvo meant BJM didn't like what Bones was doing. As in "playing the game". By playing the game, BJM meant that at certain times during that crawl, Bones hands were acutally off the canvus, making the kick totally legal. By his comment BJM was saying that he nor Vitor were going to "play that game" w/ him, the game of making sure Bones hands were off the canvus at the time of the kick since Bones placed his hands and removed them from the canvus w/in a matter of seconds a couple of times during that crawl. So BJM and Vitor weren't going to be he judge of that if Bones wanted to play that game alone.
frndlylion- September 26, 2012 at 7:57 pm
Not sure if your blind or just plain stupid. Vitor timed that kick as Jones hands wee coming of the matt. I saw it. Big John clearly saw it. Where the fuck were you?
JayJitsu310- September 26, 2012 at 6:28 pm
Intentionally "grounding" yourself should be illegal, we'll call it the JBJ rule.
KarmaAteMyCat- September 26, 2012 at 4:12 pm
Spiking rules go as so; If you force someone to hold onto you then you can't spike, however if someone chooses to hang on while you drill them head first into the mat. Then its legal. So yeah.
bustacaps- September 26, 2012 at 3:48 pm
What about when Jones was spiking Vitor in the armbar, isn't spikeing an illegal move? didn't even hear a warning
KarmaAteMyCat- September 26, 2012 at 1:47 pm
If a referee wants to be ignorant and choose to ignore a rule that put my life in danger then sure why not. I'm all about getting that paper, I'm not ragin, Im just saying Brah.
dranokills- September 28, 2012 at 7:32 am
there is no way you can sue a ref. You wouldn't have a leg to stand on dude....seriously. The judge would verbally kick you in the head.
shatterproof- September 26, 2012 at 12:46 pm
Karma -- Is this your fighting stance, brother?

Ha. I kickboxed semi-pro for 13 years and never met anyone who said they would sue a ref. No ragin, just playin son ;)
memling- September 26, 2012 at 9:36 am
Jesus Christ, I had a stroke while reading the counter-argument.

There was NEVER any "blatant violation of the rules". I could literally feel my blood pressure skyrocket while reading that BLATANT bullshit statement. Being both an opinion writer and a huge MMA fan myself, it pisses me off to no end to read junk like this. To reference Cage Potato itself, this article is completely garbage-ass and should have never been published.


Nowhere in the unified rules of mixed martial arts under the definition of fouls will you find any language related to "attempting" an illegal maneuver, and nowhere else in the entire rules except this section.

"If a contestant injures himself or herself while attempting to foul his or her opponent, the referee shall not take any action in his or herfavor[sic], and the injury shall be treated in the same manner as an injury produced by a fair blow."

This is the only part of the unified rules that relates at all to "attempts to foul". Everywhere else you will see the words "FOULED BY BLOW" or equivalent language.

The kick has to land for it to be a foul. If you throw a kick and it does not land on his head or it lands ANYWHERE ELSE THAT BESIDES HIS NUTS, IT IS NOT A FOUL. PERIOD. THERE IS NO FUCKING ARGUMENT, NO POINT/COUNTER-POINT.

Big John is not selectively enforcing the rules. Why don't you actually read the rules, learn them, and if you have any further questions about the rules, why don't you e-mail Big John? I'm sure he would be happy to answer your questions about the rules, considering that he fucking wrote them. Then you can go ahead and write an article about the rules and you can post it on the internet and it won't be a shitwritten poorly researched hack job like this one.
JayJitsu310- September 26, 2012 at 6:22 pm
Point, Game, Match. We have a winner, You can all STFU now
JayJitsu310- September 26, 2012 at 6:14 pm
Falvo is a moron
SethF- September 26, 2012 at 12:37 pm
tl;dr. Y U mad, bro?
KarmaAteMyCat- September 26, 2012 at 9:17 am
@Nomad; I'll tell you what. I'll ask some people their opinion actually in the profession but as it stands. If you throw a kick at the head of a downed opponent and hit him even if he picks his hands up to move, it's still got intent behind it. See that's the important part the INTENT, I am sure this is something that if it had happened would have been a disqualification. If it had not been it would have become a very interesting court precedent I'll tell you that much.
JayJitsu310- September 26, 2012 at 6:15 pm
That is BS
intercept440- September 26, 2012 at 9:07 am
let me explain it you all..vitor knew jj was going to come out and act like a monkey for the first3 to 5 seconds. he also knew that at some point he had to get up. what vitor was TRYING to do was to time the kick for that moment so as it WOULD have been legal.alas he didnt time it right and jj moved away any how... case closed. vitor wasnt trying to deliberatly break the rules. he was trying to use jones penchant for comeing out like that against him.
JayJitsu310- September 26, 2012 at 6:20 pm
Intercept440 is another person who actually understands what's going on, the rest of you are apparently impaired when it comes to evaluating the situation. "vitor knew jj was going to come out and act like a monkey for the first3 to 5 seconds" and he planned accordingly, it was an attempt to at the very least capitalize on JJ's shenanigans, and force him to think outside his comfort zone. idiots
El Famous Burrito- September 26, 2012 at 8:50 am
If Vitor had landed that head kick it would have been the greatest moment in the history of the UFC.

The inevitable rematch would have done huge numbers.

the arguements on the internet would have been glorius.

Plus, seeing a guy get kicked in the head is what I'm watching for in the first place. Put your hands up, dummy!
dheinig- September 26, 2012 at 8:12 am
he wasn't downed...his knees were up and he was advancing.
RearNakedSpoon- September 26, 2012 at 6:44 am
Jones starts out like that to force his opponent into some form of unconventional reaction. Vitor swung a leg at him to force a reaction as well and it got Jones to jump up. Jones wanted to play the game and Vitor won it.
BJM was flawless in his interpretation of the situation.

Maybe "every round starts standing up" should be a rule rather than a mantra.
halfbreed23- September 26, 2012 at 6:33 am
I'm an atheist so I don't believe in rule "spirit". Rules are usually pretty cut and dry with little room for interpretation. For instance, a kick to the head of a downed opponent is not a "game" it is illegal. As noted, Vitor's kick did not land so it is not illegal. If it had landed it would have been illegal no matter Big John's silly remark. One can form their strategy based on rules and altering interpretation or "spirit" is not adhering to the rules.
Anhonestmoose- September 26, 2012 at 7:50 am
What you are is a retard. When someone says "spirit of the rule" they are referring to the meaning that was intended when the rule was written, rather than the way it is interpreted so that a loophole can be applied. No one believes there is some magical being who wrote the rules of MMA and is floating above the matches screaming "NO! THAT'S NOT WHAT I MEANT FUCKERS!" Atheism has nothing to do with anything.
Get Off Me- September 26, 2012 at 5:55 pm
The real question is, What is the difference between Spirit and Soul? Only Vitor knows...his post fight press conference.
ag82- September 26, 2012 at 6:23 am
If Vitor connected on his kick then it's a violation, he didn't so there are no provisions in the rules about an attempted kick. No harm no foul here. In the way that Jones was "playing the game" so was Vitor. Whiff a kick over his head, why not.
NomadRip- September 26, 2012 at 5:58 am
Karma, since you've read all the rules so many times and are the expert: does the rule state that you cannot strike an opponent, attempt to strike a downed opponent, or begin an attack while three or more points of contact are made with the mat?

It's an important distinction, since if you watch the fight, he starts the kick when Jon has his hands on the mat, but by the time it reached the vicinity of his head, Jones had his hands off the mat. So had contact been made with that strike at that point, he would not have hit a downed opponent.

Since he did not even make contact, there really was no way for BJM to take a point or otherwise penalize Vitor unless the rule says you can't even *initiate* a head strike attempt on a downed opponent.
Clyde- September 26, 2012 at 5:43 am
I don't agree with selective enforcement. I'm generally speaking a fan of Jon Jones but I do hate the Mad Monkey Kung Fu(C) start to his recent fights.

The thing is, as long as the rule is there, he should be protected by it, just as he should be able to expect his opponent to not be allowed weapons, a suit of full body armour, or to bring in their attack dogs to maul him. Because those are the rules and they both agreed to them.

What is needed is a change to the rules as in the Sean Avery situation. We have a rule which is questionable, and we need to change it so that it's acceptable to everyone, or at least the majority. There is a reason to not allow a 250lb athletes to stamp on each others faces; it's fucking dangerous, even by the standards of the sport they do.

When Jon Jones is in the patented Mad Monkey stance, he is not defenceless, and he has no more claim to be so than when a fighter drops their guard and invites their opponent to "take their best shot". It's his risk and if it backfires, then there's only one person to blame. But as long as the current rule stands, he should expect it to be obeyed.
Nippletwist- September 26, 2012 at 4:07 am
its a really stupid rule, if i was in a fight and dude was crawling towards me the first thing i would do is kick him in the face, why not? a guy shouldnt put his head out in front of you undefended like that. that silly crawling stuff that jones does is really stupid. i like how big jon handled it, but i see youre point about the timidity rule, i would actually liked to see timidity called more. they shouldve called timidity on guida in the maynard fight and condit in the diaz fight and of course starnes in the quarry fight, stop guys from running away avoiding contact.
shatterproof- September 25, 2012 at 10:19 pm
lol @ 'I'd sue a referee'. Good shit.