As Michael Bisping's finger dug into Alan Belcher's eye socket at UFC 159, audible groans could be heard in the homes of hardcore mixed martial arts fans the world over. Part of the reaction was sympathy for Belcher, a fighter who has already had surgery on his right eyeball and certainly could have done without the eight stitches that followed Bisping's blatant foul.
But Belcher's injury, as grisly as it was, was simply a prelude of what was to come. We braced ourselves, not for replays of the eye poke, but for the storm we knew was imminent—UFC announcer Joe Rogan on his soap box preaching the gospel of "new gloves."
If you've watched enough UFC fights, it's a rant you can practically repeat word for word. Here's how Rogan addressed the issue in 2011, after Justin Wilcox got poked in a Strikeforce fight with JZ Calvacante:
"There's always going to be a problem with open handed gloves, but I was wondering if there was a solution where we could develop a glove that covered the tips of the fingers and kept them all together like a speed bag glove,” he wrote on The Underground.
“We would still have to worry about the thumb, but I think it could prevent at least some of the eye pokes from open hand pushes. What I was thinking was a thin leather cover for the 4 fingers with some elastic on the sides so that it could spread out a bit to adjust grip."
It's now a mantra, one Rogan is sure to repeat at each and every opportunity.
But in my mind, the issue is two-fold. First and foremost, there is no eye-poke epidemic requiring a massive reevaluation of MMA equipment and rules. Fellow MMA scribe Mike Fagan acquired the data that clearly shows eye pokes are not a rampant problem that require drastic or immediate action:
I asked Rami Genauer of FightMetric what sort of data they had on eye poke rates in the UFC. While they don’t have complete data, they did find 32 eye pokes (that led to a pause in the action) from a sample of 1333 fights, and Rami estimated you’re likely to see an eye poke in 3-4% of UFC fights. Taken at the high end, you’re likely to see an eye poke once every 25 fights or so.
...Basically, if you want a sport where you can both punch and choke, you’re gonna have to accept eye pokes as a necessary risk.
Yet, conservatively, 96% of all fights transpire devoid of eye pokes. To add perspective, Rami estimated that groin shots are twice as common as eye pokes.
In the wake of Belcher's injury, when the MMA media was rampaging about an issue that doesn't really exist, UFC president Dana White was quick to add some broader context to the discussion. White was right on the money when he suggested there isn't a glove in the world that would fully prevent a thumb in the eye. Even giant boxing pillows don't eliminate the risk entirely.
"Let's say you had gloves with fingers on them, you could still poke people in the eye with them," White said at the post-fight press conference. "With a boxing glove, they used to have problems back in the 70's and maybe early 80's with guys getting thumbed in the eye. Those old Everlast gloves used to look like a lobster claw, and guys used to get thumbed all the time, then they made the attached thumb to it. I just don't know how you would do it in MMA with the grappling."
Second, eye pokes are an issue of intent, not of shoddy equipment. Rogan and his announcing partner Mike Goldberg are always quick to suggest that an eye poke was unintentional, that the finger in the eye was the result of an equipment issue and not a result of anyone's gross misconduct or rule-breaking. In fact, I can't recall a single time Rogan pinpointed an eye poke as being an intentional foul.
Sherdog's Chris Nelson disagrees with that premise, as do I. A finger in the eye is a predictable and preventable result of a fighter pawing at his opponent's face with an open hand and should be treated as intentional in most circumstances:
...fighters need to be held accountable when eye pokes happen. Even at the highest levels of MMA, we hear referees constantly telling guys to keep their hands closed when striking. This is not an accidental low blow, where a fighter might throw a low kick at the same time as his opponent, or his opponent changes positions mid-strike and catches one on the cup. If a fighter is striking with an unclenched fist, or sticking out an open hand to catch a punch or push off, that’s a choice they’re making. If a finger from that open hand pokes his or her opponent in the eye, maybe a point needs to be taken away.
Yet, despite the lack of a compelling need, or a clear-cut solution that would allow MMA to continue to be MMA, the UFC is apparently in the process of developing a new glove. While details were sparse, White told ESPN radio that this new glove could be a huge improvement over the Century-manufactured gloves the company currently uses—the same gloves that are approved by the athletic commissions around the country for use in MMA action:
We actually have started to work on a new glove that actually curves your hand. Like the glove is curved like a "U," so you can still open your hand, but your fingers don't point straight out.
For MMA purists, that's a very scary proposition. For many fans, the beauty of mixed martial arts is in its utility, its ability to weed out the combat techniques that don't work in real life and concentrate on the ones that do.
Sometimes that leads to bouts that aren't the most exciting visceral spectacles the world has ever seen. Much of the high-level action in MMA involves thoughtful, tactical and efficient fighting. The UFC Octagon is the ultimate proving grounds, not just for an athlete, but for a technique or fighting style. That's what makes the sport so interesting—the constant reevaluation of what works and what doesn't.
But there is a class of casual fan who doesn't care about any of that stuff. Famously represented by the "Just Bleed" guy, they just want to see two fighters punching each other in the head. Some event staffers caught on a live mic at UFC 159 explained why they prefer boxing to MMA:
It's because they spend so much time on the ground not doing anything. I don't find it very exciting. It's like 'Oh look, they're hugging and rolling around on the floor.'...It seems a little gay to me.
It's a mentality that prevails among the lowest common denominator of UFC fans—and, in some cases, in the corporate office as well. It's a mentality that allowed Leonard Garcia to lose five fights in a row before finally, mercifully, being cut from the promotion.
Garcia proved, definitively, that he didn't belong with the best fighters in the world. But his defense-light, haymaker-heavy slugfests allowed him to survive the Darwinian world of the UFC despite all his obvious flaws. Even as late as last year, after Garcia lost his fourth in a row, so deep on the undercard his bout was broadcast on Facebook and not on television, cutting him seemed impossible to the UFC brass:
“Sean Shelby, one of our matchmakers, came to me during the fight sometime and, I guess Leonard Garcia was in a situation to be cut if he lost tonight, and (Shelby) came to me and said, ‘Dana, I don’t wanna cut this guy,’” White said at the UFC 155 postfight press conference. “I said there’s no way in hell we’re cutting Leonard Garcia!”
Could a new set of gloves, designed with strikers and striking in mind, continue the "Leonard Garciazation" of the sport? Would they lead to more sloppy "stand and bang" contests featuring a level of technical prowess that would see the fighters laughed out of many tough man contests, let alone boxing gyms?
A lot of fans would like that. To me, it's a slippery slope. Any gloves that further shift the balance of power towards striking and away from grappling, anything designed to artificially decide which techniques and strategies work best in a real-life confrontation, are bad for MMA.
Not to mention a monumental betrayal of the principles and beliefs this sport was founded and built upon.