Watching Rousimar Palhares attack with his jiu-jitsu skills is an educational experience to be sure, but what goes on in his head is God’s own private mystery. Now that he has been banned from the UFC for life, one wonders if he is looking at his past actions with the same kind of bewilderment as the rest of us.
There has always been something about him—an edge that clearly cuts both ways. On one hand, his aggression toward ending the fight speaks directly to the heart of combative sport, which is good.
On the other hand, his ownership of those moments, when he has the finish, has always seemed unpredictable. It is almost as if he is locking on a submission for the very first time; ignorant of anything around him save executing the move to the fullest.
And therein lies the problem; a fundamental truth to combative sport is that it is sport, nothing more and nothing less. As a professional fighter, the goal is to secure victory, not injure.
Amid all the hype, intensity and adrenaline, there is a trust involved; a safeguard based upon the assumption that both combatants will recognize surrender and cease their aggression. Call it fair play, chivalry, code or whatever suits you, in the end, it’s known as something else—adhering to the rules.
It’s easy to dismiss the actions of Palhares. To wave them off as nothing more than a byproduct of adrenaline and the heat of the moment.
When looking at the submission in question, the time from the moment of the referee intervention to his release of the hold is approximately 1.4 seconds. Additionally, from the moment of the first tap to time of release is approximately 2.3 seconds; when broken down like this, it doesn’t seem all the unforgivable.
But the problem is that it is unforgivable.
Palhares is a guardian of a very special kind of knowledge. The ability to do serious harm is ideally only given to individuals who have mastered themselves to the fullest. Their application of such knowledge is supposed to be weighed in equal opposition to their understanding of their immediate situation.
The skills Palhares has are akin to a very sharp knife: It started off as dull steel, but it was placed in his hands and honed to a razor's edge because he’s trusted to know what he is doing. In many ways it’s a terrible responsibility, but it is one he took upon himself willingly.
If surgeons employed their skills the same way Palhares does, they would be engaging in exploratory vivisection when only minor surgery was needed.
Martial arts are great, but fighters don’t magically receive the moral convictions needed to master themselves when they’re handed a black belt. Indeed, such an accomplishment is usually a sign that they have (ideally) discovered these convictions along the way—they were instilled in them, lesson after lesson, year after year.
None of this is to say that Palhares is some kind of wanton thug with no appreciation of the skills he has and no value of his fellow man. Outside of competition, he is probably a very good man with friends and family that would swear by his good nature and personal honor.
But within the world of combative sport, he is simply lacking that which is necessary to uphold the rules and the virtue of good sportsmanship. As an experienced fighter in the sport, not to mention an accomplished practitioner of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, he knows exactly what he is doing, at least on a technical level.
Yet outside of the technical, something is wrong. He is either willfully ignoring the rules or he is simply not up to the task of complying with them in a sport that has always been about mere inches and split-seconds.
Even though there are other organizations that would be happy to sign him, one has to wonder just how hard it will be to get him fights. No one likes the thought of fighting a man who cannot seem to abide by the rules. Given that his signature move—the heel hook—is one of the most potentially damaging lower body submissions in the game, fighting Palhares is a great risk to a fighter’s career.
If he wants to continue fighting, he is going to have to do some serious soul searching in addition to coming up with an explanation for his actions. Given that his actions at UFC Fight Night 29 make him a repeat offender of this kind of behavior, anything less than an open admission of wrongdoing and full acceptance of responsibility are not going to cut it.
Odds are he will never fight in the UFC again; the fighters under the Zuffa banner would be well within their rights to refuse a fight against a man who cannot control himself at such a high level. In addition, if they did bring him back and he did it again, they would look like fools who have no true concern for the well-being of their fighters.
But all of these consequences are to be expected when a fighter violates the trust intrinsic to the system of honest competition. Until he finds a way to prove otherwise, Palhares is going to be seen as a man who can be expected to uphold the lowest of expectations—looking in from the outside.
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