Rousimar Palhares proved he’s still an elite welterweight on Saturday at World Series of Fighting 9, taking the company’s 170-pound title from no-name champion Steve Carl in 69 easy, breezy seconds.
The 34-year-old leg-lock specialist showed he’s also still a lightning rod for controversy—both real and imagined—when referee Yves Lavigne needed two quick tugs to break the inverted heel hook that forced Carl to tap. Palhares turned the submission loose in a timely manner, but it still left Carl in a familiar pose for the Brazilian’s opponents: writhing on the mat holding his knee.
There was no real hullabaloo to be made here (even Carl immediately stood and limped over for a congratulatory hug), but MMA pundits beat the war drums a bit nonetheless. It has been a bit more than five months since Palhares was deemed too dangerous for the UFC, and it seems that reputation followed him across the aisle to WSOF.
His camp was quick to call shenanigans.
“Negative stuff always sells better than positive,” manager Alex Davis said, via MMA Junkie’s Ben Fowlkes. “People try to make him a villain because it sells. I’ve said this a thousand times. It gets hits on their sites.”
Silly indictments of the media aside, Davis is right about one thing. The process of being drummed out the Octagon and vilified as an unsportsmanlike, dirty fighter has unwittingly fashioned Palhares into one of MMA’s most must-see attractions.
In the coming months that infamy should serve both the fighter and his new promoters well.
They can publicly disparage it if they like, but privately they should be embracing it.
And really, they should be thanking their lucky stars.
Palhares is slated to defend his new championship against fellow UFC expatriate Jon Fitch this summer, and suddenly that fight shapes up as one true fans won’t want to miss. Everybody and anybody in the MMA community will be marking their calendars for Fitch vs. Toquinho for the same reason many of us tuned in to see the Carl fight this past weekend.
We want to see what Palhares will do next.
Fitch was dismissed from the UFC in February of 2013, most likely for commanding too high an asking price after going 1-2-1 in his last four appearances there. The 36-year-old American Kickboxing Academy product has long been maligned as boring and predictable but was a perennial title contender for much of his stint in the Octagon.
He’ll be a good first test for Palhares as WSOF champion. If the Team Nogueira wild man can dispatch Fitch with the same effortlessness we've seen in his first two appearances at the weight class, we’ll have no choice but to recognize him as one of the best welterweights in any organization.
If the mere presence of Palhares can make people honestly intrigued to tune in for a Fitch fight, well, that will be a major accomplishment in and of itself.
Palhares has always had the skills. Now he's got the notoriety to go with them.
After going 7-4 in the UFC middleweight division from 2008-12, he dropped to welterweight in October of 2013 and established himself as an instant contender with a 31-second tapout of Mike Pierce.
Or at least he would have, if the end of the fight weren’t marred by his refusal to immediately break the hold when referee Keith Peterson intervened. It was far from Palhares’ first offense. He did the same thing against Tomasz Drwal at UFC 111 and had a couple of similar incidents earlier in his career.
After the episode with Pierce—who suffered a sprained MCL and a torn ligament in his ankle—UFC President Dana White dubbed it “really despicable” and banned Palhares (who had also tested positive for elevated levels of testosterone after a 2012 loss to Hector Lombard) from the company.
"He won't be back,” White told MMA Fighting’s Ariel Helwani. “He can go fight with another organization. We don't put up with that stuff here."
And thus, in the weird, backward logic of the fight game, a star was born.
Palhares now occupies a strange and delightfully sordid position in MMA. He is regarded as among the most volatile and legitimately dangerous men in a sport full of them. As if professional cage fights needed added suspense, his bouts boast a titillating extra layer of unpredictability and menace.
Most fights end when a submission-hungry Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt gets a hold of his opponent’s legs. When Palhares is involved, that’s just when things get interesting.
His camp obviously thinks that’s unfair, but the truth is, his reputation has been well earned. What is more, it’s actually transformed him from being a bit-part player in the UFC into a marketable oddity on the independent scene.
Think of how unusual it is for a fighter to be released from the UFC under less-than-honorable circumstances and then go on to refashion himself into a bona fide draw in another organization. Now Palhares has pulled off that trick, adding himself to the very, very short list of interesting attractions in WSOF.
His fight with Fitch may well end up on the company’s July card, alongside Justin Gaethje's lightweight title defense against Nick Newell and the return of Tyrone Spong. That would likely make WSOF 11 far and away the promotion’s most appealing and best-rated event to date.
If Palhares winds up on the marquee as one of the show’s biggest drawing cards, it won't be in spite of his bad reputation, but precisely because of it.