In the aftermath of Rousimar Palhares’ controversial heel hook over Mike Pierce at Ultimate Fight Night 29, questions are being raised about the UFC’s decision to ban him for life.
In the story that is being told by the media, there are several accepted facts. First, fighters have no obligation to release a submission until the referee signals an end to the fight. Second, Palhares held on to the submission at least a second after the referee intervened. And third, Palhares has a history of holding on to submissions a little too long.
The video evidence is clear: Palhares held on to the submission against Pierce after the referee intervened. In fact, not only did he continue to hold on, he appeared to apply extra torque. There is no question that this behaviour is unacceptable for the sport, and warrants punishment. And of course, given Palhares’ status as a repeat offender, it only makes sense that he be given a harsh punishment.
The problem? Palhares’ status as a repeat offender is dubious.
The first alleged infraction came against Flavio Luiz Moura in 2007. Palhares applied a heel hook, and his opponent began throwing illegal axe kicks. Moura proceeded to tap out, however the referee was more concerned about punishing Moura for the kicks, and was oblivious to the conceded submission. The fighters were stood up, and a yellow card was given to Moura. Let that sink in for a moment. Moura could then not continue owing to the damage the heel hook did to his knee, which was entirely the result of a legally applied submission.
The second alleged infraction came against Helip Dipp in 2007. This one is a little less favourable. The video evidence shows Palhares choke his opponent unconscious. After he goes unconscious, the referee intervenes, and it takes Palhares a little bit longer than it probably should to release the choke. This is an infraction.
The third alleged infraction came against Tomasz Drwal at UFC 111 in March 2010. The media seems to be conflating two different things: The fact that Palhares received a suspension and actual wrongdoing. While it’s true that the time from when Drwal tapped out to when Palhares released the submission was unacceptably long, the fault on this one goes to the referee. It took the referee several seconds to intervene after Drwal began tapping, and any damage that may have been done to Drwal’s knee should properly be blamed on the official. The problem? There’s no evidence that any damage was done to Drwal’s knee. He fought six months later against David Branch. This whole incident was blown out of proportion then, and it’s being exaggerated now.
The fourth alleged infraction came against David Avellan at ADCC 2011. Palhares applied a legal heel hook, and Avellan defended by rolling off the mats. Confusion erupted, as Avellan was effectively hoping for a restart, while Palhares continued to apply the submission. Given the strange scenario, the match was restarted in the middle of the mat, and Palhares was allowed to start with a deep heel hook. As soon as the referee signalled for them to begin, Palhares applied the technique. Avellan quickly tapped, and Palhares quickly released. Nothing in the sequence suggests Palhares did anything wrong, and he was not given any punishment for the sequence.
Lastly, we are left with a failed drug test at the beginning of 2013 in a knockout loss against Hector Lombard, and the Pierce incident.
The only question that remains it the appropriate punishment for Palhares. There are a range of acceptable options. However, in defense of Palhares, I leave you with a short list of serious infractions that did not result in lifetime UFC bans:
Takanori Gomi continuing to punch Luiz Azerado at PRIDE Bushido 7 as the referee held him back.
Norifumi Yamamoto continuing to punch Tetsuo Ketsuta at Shooto – Treasure Hunt 10 as the referee held him back.
Quinton Jackson punching an unconscious Wanderlei Silva at UFC 92 as the referee was holding on to him.
Nate Marquardt punching Ricardo Almeida at Pancrase – Hybrid 10 after he submitted and the fight ended.
Gilbert Yvel knocking out a referee at Fight Festival 12 (and eye gouging Don Frye at Pride 16, and biting Karimula Barkalaev at IAFC 1998)