World Series of Fighting has done something very few other promotions have done in MMA history: It has earned respect from fans and media.
Fans are always rooting against non-UFC promotions, be it consciously or subconsciously. It's hard not to. Watching Fedor Emelianenko in Strikeforce, at the time, felt like watching Tom Brady playing in the Arena Football League. Fans want to see the best fight the best, and they don't want imaginary things like "companies" and "contracts" getting in the way of true sports.
So the fact that WSOF, home to legitimate top 10 fighters and uber-prospects like Marlon Moraes, Tyrone Spong, Yushin Okami, Justin Gaethje and Nick Newell, isn't ruthlessly criticized by fans the way other promotions have been in the past means it is doing something right.
Unfortunately, you're much more likely to take risks when you have secure footing. Enter Rousimar Palhares. The Brazilian leglock specialist found himself very publicly out of a job after he gave Mike Pierce's knee an extracurricular twist not long after getting popped for elevated testosterone levels.
It will likely follow him around until he reaches retirement, and rightly so.
So when Rousimar Palhares faced off with WSOF welterweight champion Steve Carl, slapped on a leglock in the opening minute, forced a tap and didn't quite let go, you can understand why some fans would instantly restart calls for his head.
You can watch the bout here.
Palhares works for the leglock, seals it up tight and applies pressure. Carl clearly and adamantly taps. The referee quickly intervenes and begins tugging at Palhares' hands to free the submission attempt. Palhares finally lets go after a couple of pulls.
This sequence of events wouldn't be especially controversial for any other fighter. It might generate a few sighs of relief while also raising some eyebrows. It wouldn't, however, result in any legitimate outcry.
With Palhares, though? It was a clear sign that all the heat he has taken over the last five months just didn't sink in. If it had, "Toquinho" would've released the submission as soon as he felt and/or saw Carl's tap.
He didn't, though.
Palhares and the World Series of Fighting dodged a bullet here, but they don't seem to realize it. WSOF's president, Ray Sefo, went into full Dana White mode on Twitter to defend his new welterweight champ:
People @Steve_Carl didn't once complain about submission n when the referee intervened Palhares let go end of story!!!— Ray Sefo (@SugarRaySefo) March 30, 2014
Of course, it's not even a little surprising that Palhares isn't changing. With fines, suspensions and more suspensions, he technically should have learned his lesson years ago. He hasn't.
For the World Series of Fighting, though? This is a troubling, unnecessary about-face.
WSOF has earned a lot of respect from fans by avoiding the traps Bellator has habitually fallen into. Unlike the Bellator vs. Eddie Alvarez saga, the WSOF let one of its top stars go when he chose to walk away from the promotion. They have scooped up skilled UFC castoffs like Jon Fitch and Yushin Okami while avoiding the likes of Brett Rogers and Maiquel Falcao.
That deserves commendation. However, if Carl hadn't walked away from the submission attempt unscathed, discussion would immediately turn to whether or not Palhares would ever be licensed again by an American athletic commission.
WSOF, one of the few UFC alternatives that has avoided ugly, credibility-destroying controversies, would have its reputation irrevocably tarnished. Unwavering support of Palhares when he dives right back into that gray area in his first fight back does not help its situation.
What's worse is that WSOF has some big things in its near future and is jeopardizing its potential by backing Palhares. Just ask former Strikeforce President Scott Coker how many post-fight controversies it takes for an MMA promotion to get booted off network TV, and ask what are the odds that Palhares does something again?
Depending on when and where it happens, that could be it for WSOF, and it makes dealing with Palhares a dangerous proposition.