Should MMA Ban Elbows to a Grounded Opponent's Head After Fighter Death?

Jordy McElroy@ IMarch 7, 2014

April 13, 2013; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Urijah Faber lands an elbow on Scott Jorgensen during the TUF 17 Finale at the Mandalay Bay Events Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

MMA fans are accustomed to seeing fighters dust off brutal knockouts as if they never even happened. Tragically, this was far from the case when professional fighter Booto Guylain suffered a TKO loss back on February 27. 

The 29-year-old was pronounced dead on Wednesday as a result of severe head trauma sustained in an MMA bout for the Extreme Fighting Championship in Johannesburg, South Africa.

According to a statement released on EFC Africa's official website, Guylain was transferred to the hospital, where he was treated for swelling and bleeding of the brain after taking multiple elbows to the head in his bout with Keron Davies.

“We are devastated,” said EFC Africa president Cairo Howarth, after hearing of Guylain’s passing. “This is a huge loss to the sport and to all who know him. Our thoughts are with his family in this trying time.”

Guylain’s tragic death dispels any preconceived notion that MMA is a "safe" sport.

May 15, 2012; Fairfax, VA, USA; The Korean Zombie (top) lands an elbow to the temple of Dustin Poirier (bottom) during the Korean zombie vs Poirier event at Patriot Center.  Mandatory Credit: Rafael Suanes-USA TODAY Sports
Rafael Suanes-USA TODAY Sports

Still in its infancy, the sport will need to consider making concessions as it continues its fight for mainstream acceptance. The key could lie in banning elbow strikes to the head of a grounded opponent.

There truly is no comparison to the potential trauma an elbow strike can leave. They are particularly hard to defend against because the fighter on top doesn’t need a lot of space to generate the momentum required to cause serious damage.

Former UFC light heavyweight champion Mauricio "Shogun" Rua learned a lot about controversial techniques in his three-plus years with Japan’s Pride Fighting Championships organization. In an interview with MMA Junkie, the MMA star claimed elbows were more dangerous than the foot stomps and soccer kicks allowed in Pride.

“I think that the rule set from when I fought in Japan was safer than today’s rules. Elbows hurt a lot more than stomps,” Shogun said.

Retired UFC welterweight Nick Diaz echoed Shogun’s feelings about elbows in multiple interviews. In a one-on-one with MMA journalist Ariel Helwani, Diaz paints a dark picture behind the glitz and glamour of fighting—one that fans don't get to see: 

It’s very dangerous. It’s not like you’re not scared to fight. You’ve got to be stupid. It’s a very scary situation you’re in when people are trying to manipulate positions so that they can smash your face with an elbow or elbows and just rain it down. It’s hard times dealing with that idea of what might be in front of you for your whole life, one after another sort of thing.

Diaz further discredits elbows in a dual interview with his brother Nate Diaz for Fight! Magazine. Nate refers to the utilization of elbows as classless, while Nick adds that fighters are literally fighting for their lives under the current rule structure.

An elbow strike is more likely to leave a fighter concussed than a closed fist, and is often the culprit behind large cuts that lead to premature stoppages. While elbows may not be the only strikes capable of opening a fighter up, they dramatically increase the chances of blood spilling onto the canvas. 

Depending on the severity and placement of a cut, referees are allowed to defer to the cageside physician, who then makes the final decision on whether the injured fighter is able to continue.

In addition to putting fighters at a greater risk of injury, let's not forget that fighters log countless hours in the gym, suffering through long-winded training camps to prepare for upcoming fights. Promoters put a lot of money and effort into selling fights and maximizing media exposure. Fans spend their hard-earned money buying pay-per-views.

Aug 28, 2013; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Blood drips from a cut on the face of Martin Kampmann during UFC Fight Night 27 against Carlos Condit at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports
Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports

No one ever wants to walk away from a fight feeling cheated, which is generally what happens from cut stoppages. What fighter wants to go through a rigorous training camp only to lose a fight in the first round from a cut? What fan wants to pay money to see that?

A cut stoppage may be counted as a finish, but it doesn't produce a completely deserving winner. While it goes down in the books as a TKO, it's more comparable to a draw or a win by way of freak injury.

UFC Hall of Famer Randy Couture made a living off taking people down and running elbows into their faces. In David Mayeda’s book Fighting for Acceptance, Couture likened the technique to the old adage of living and dying by the sword.  

While elbows are an incredibly effective tool, there is always the chance of ending up on the wrong side of them.

“When you can take a guy and ram him into the bottom of the fence and limit his mobility to in some ways defend himself, the elbow strikes sometimes open cuts, and you don’t always see the best fighter come out of it in that situation,” says Couture (per Mayeda). “I’ve been on both sides of that. I’ve won fights that way, and I’ve lost fights that way.”

Former UFC light heavyweight champ and current Bellator star Quinton “Rampage” Jackson also shared his thoughts with Mayeda on the issue. His concerns seem to run much deeper than Couture’s and more along the lines of what the Diaz brothers had to say. 

“No elbows to the head. The elbows don’t really knock people out too often. They can knock you out, but they are mostly designed to cut people up. And you can get scarred for life. I don’t like that too much,” said Jackson.

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - DECEMBER 07:  Antonio 'Big Foot' Silva of Brazil looks on in his heavyweigh fight against Mark Hunt in theri heaveyweight fight at Brisbane Entertainment Centre on December 7, 2013 in Brisbane, Australia.  (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty
Chris Hyde/Getty Images

Alex Davis, the manager of UFC heavyweight Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva, put everything into perspective in a post on The MMA Underground (h/t MMA Mania):

I also think that elbows on the ground should not be allowed. For the most part, they cause cuts, which are different then KOs, TKOs or submissions. They also tend to make a bloody mess, sometimes from relatively minor damage, and this does not help MMA as it tends to alienate many people to the sport.

Over the years, promotions such as Pride and Strikeforce have delivered spectacular shows without the usage of these elbows. One could even argue that elbows stunt ground battles. Fighters on top can essentially just hold their position for extended periods of time, creating minimal space to sneak in an elbow every now and then.

If forced to throw punches, fighters will have to posture up more to score points. The extra space will give the guy on bottom a chance to be more aggressive with sweeps and submission attacks, ultimately making the product more exciting for viewers. 

MMA is an ever-evolving sport still in its early stages, and changes will have to be made if it ever hopes to cast a wider net. Guylain’s untimely death and blood-soaked mats are not a good look.

No one can say for sure whether athletic commissions will make the necessary changes to shore up MMA’s "just bleed" image, but if there is a chance a ban on elbows could increase fighter safety and help bring about mainstream acceptance, why not give it some consideration?


Jordy McElroy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. He is also the MMA writer for Rocktagon.


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