Tonight (June 25) in Oklahoma, UFC lightweight Kevin Lee submitted Michael Chiesa inside the first round but still found himself booed due to the controversial nature of the finish.
That’s not to say Kevin Lee did anything wrong. Far from it. He brilliantly synched in the rear-naked choke, having set it up for some time, and undoubtedly had Chiesa on the brink of either tapping or passing out. The problem, however, was the speed with which Mario Yamasaki, the referee, moved in to break the choke and therefore end the fight. This, unlike Lee’s performance, was far from perfect. It was hasty, mistimed and one that confused all who witnessed it.
You occasionally see stoppages such as the one Yamasaki produced when two fighters are striking on their feet. Yet, in that instance, there is no option to tap (which is to say concede defeat). Consequently, a referee needs to err on the side of caution and is well within his or her rights to make an instinct call. The problem with applying the same theory to a submission, though, is there is less of a grey area. It’s black or white. Either a fighter taps or goes ‘out’ or they continue trying to fight off the choke. There is no middle ground, no point at which a referee can assume what is going to happen next or save a fighter from the indignity of tapping or going to sleep.
As it happened, based on the position and tightness of Lee’s choke, it’s highly likely Michael Chiesa was about to visit the land of nod in a matter of seconds. Body stretched out, limbs going limp, his expression had gone from one of fight and determination to one of defeat. His eyes were all of a sudden vacant. He prepared himself for what was to come.
Yamasaki, stood nearby, saw all of this. He saw everything we saw and was presumably concerned the way we were. He, like us, knew what was about to come.
However, it never came. Not the tap, nor the passing out. Instead, when Yamasaki decided to intervene and break the choke attempt, he was greeted by a raging lightweight from Colorado adamant he was not only okay to continue but that he would have soon miraculously found a way to wriggle out of the choke and get back in the fight.
Chances are, had Yamasaki allowed the fight to continue, Lee would have choked Chiesa out anyway. But we needed to see it unfold. The result needed to be clear-cut.
Now, because it wasn’t clear-cut, we’re left with a situation whereby Lee should be celebrating the best win of his five-year MMA career, but is actually having to bat away questions pertaining to the stoppage and, worse, having to consider a rematch with Chiesa for December time, a fight that would have been off the table had Yamasaki just stepped away and allowed the action to conclude on its own terms.
“If he wants to do it again we can, but it was just going to be four more rounds of that,” said Lee, 16-2, afterwards. “He damn sure didn’t want me standing up.
“I want Khabib (Nurmagomedov) in December in Detroit; I’m headlining that card. If Khabib don’t want it, Mike can get it in Detroit.”
“I was just trying to gut it out, elbow down, scramble out,” said Chiesa, 14-3. “I’m not going to say any choice things about the officiating. But, Kevin, I will see you in December in Detoit for the rematch. Let’s keep the hype alive.”
Here’s the one saving grace: on the evidence of the four minutes and thirty-seven seconds they spent together in the Octagon tonight, a rematch, whether warranted or not, won’t be a fight anyone will begrudge, nor refuse to watch.
The two scrappy lightweights set off at a blistering pace and traded takedowns and positions in the early going. There were slams, triangle attempts and a prolonged period that saw Lee take Chiesa’s back and try to soften up the 29-year-old with hurtful punches around the side of the head. Heating up nicely, the fight was enhanced by an ebb and flow that made it hard to predict what would happen next. But then it happened. The stoppage. And with it came an abrupt, unsatisfactory end and a whole load of boos.
“It was coming anyway,” Lee, 24, said. “I didn’t feel or see the tap. I never do. I just stopped because Mario (Yamasaki) told me to. I listened to the ref.
“I’m a smart fighter. He was expecting me to come out like a juggernaut and I was on my toes moving. I threw him off. I did whatever I wanted. I was never in any danger. It was just going to be four more rounds of that.”
In all likelihood, it probably wouldn’t have happened like that. In fact, it might not have gone much longer than four seconds, let alone four rounds. But the beauty of a fight sport lies in its ability to offer a definite conclusion – one way or another – and tonight Lee, Chiesa and everyone watching a great fight unfold were unfortunately robbed of that.