Last Saturday night in Albuquerque, Bryan Caraway picked up what was undoubtedly one of the biggest wins of his career—but the victory that came with a burst of controversy in the aftermath.
The The Ultimate Fighter alum derailed highly touted prospect Erik Perez in a hard-fought bout where Caraway earned the submission finish in the second round. That said, no sooner was Caraway's hand raised inside the Octagon than pictures of him fish-hooking the Jackson/Winkeljohn-trained fighter surfaced.
The incident occurred during the opening round, when the two fighters were battling for position on the canvas. The Xtreme Couture fighter had taken Perez's back and was attempting to work his hands through to lock in the choke. During his efforts to obtain position, the fingers on Caraway's left hand latched onto the corner of "Goyito's" mouth, which resulted in the fish hook being applied.
The maneuver is a staple on the list of prohibited moves in mixed martial arts and can result in a one-point deduction or disqualification based on the referee's judgement. But the incident was not seen by the official during the bout between Caraway and Perez, and the action carried on for another round and a half—until "Kid Lightning" locked on the fight-ending rear-naked choke.
Immediately following the bantamweight tilt, social media lit up with pictures of the incident, which brought it to the attention of the fighters and the teams involved. Caraway issued an apology to Perez, who wasn't aware the situation even happened during the fight. Nevertheless, Caraway's infraction became one of the major storylines to come out of an Albuquerque card that was littered with curious happenings.
In the days that followed, MMA sites throughout the community ran stories detailing the events that went down between Caraway and Perez. Despite the incident occurring in the first round and the fight ending in the second, some were of the mindset that the fish hook allowed Caraway to lock in the choke and force the submission.
Robert Follis, who coaches Caraway at Xtreme Couture, acknowledges that people are upset, but is quick to clarify the fish hook was accidental and played no part in the outcome. Furthermore, he has set his sights on one MMA outlet in particular for running what he deemed to be "misleading" headlines.
"Accidents happen during fights," Follis told Bleacher Report. "Bryan wasn't even aware that it happened during the fight, and neither was Perez. We talked to Perez afterward because Bryan saw a picture of it and wanted to apologize. He told him he never meant to do that and it was a genuine apology. If you watch the video, if he was truly trying to fish-hook, he would have pulled his head the other way. Perez turned into it, and his hand slipped off. I think the picture looked worse than what it really was. The biggest thing is that it had nothing to do with the fight. It didn't stop him from turning. It didn't happen at the time of the choke.
"The funniest thing to me is that a few of the websites—BJPenn.com in particular—posted some very misleading titles that led people to believe it was the fish hook that set the choke. I think their first piece was 'Bryan Caraway Fish Hooks Perez Before Choke,' which is an accurate statement, but very misleading. Their second article followed that same line but managed to be more disrespectful with the headline, 'Watch Miesha Tate's Boyfriend Fish Hook Perez.' Seriously? Are you trying to tell me you couldn't even use the guy's name and you are going that route?
"I know B.J. Penn personally and I love the guy," he added. "I have gone to his site for years, and I hope he catches wind of this, talks with those people and tells them that isn't the right way to do things. I would love to see them do an apology to Bryan for being misleading like that. Those headlines definitely led people to think it was something it wasn't in the actual fight. Some of the things people post about him are just absolutely ludicrous, and that is crazy with how much anti-bullying is at the forefront of things these days. And when the journalism starts jumping on that bandwagon to get clicks, reads or ratings; I think that is a shame."
Controversy aside, Caraway's victory over Perez puts a serious charge into his run through the bantamweight ranks. The Washington native has found victory in four of his five showings since his time on The Ultimate Fighter, with his only setback coming in a razor-thin split-decision loss to Takeya Mizugaki back in March 2013.
He's been successful in back-to-back outings since his bout with the Japanese contender, and his victory over Perez will certainly warrant a bigger challenge in his next fight. Follis believes Caraway is exactly where he needs to be and wants his next opponent to come from the upper tier of the 135-pound division.
"Bryan is putting together a great run," Follis said. "We have good momentum right now and we are planning on continuing it. I'd personally like to see him fight Mizugaki again and get that win back. I'd like to see that fight on our home turf, but really, any of those guys in the top 10 will be a fitting next step. Let's make a good matchup and the UFC always does a good job doing that. Whatever they bring to the table, we are really prepared for. There is nobody we think we need to avoid to get there. Any of these guys are fine with us.
"Our goal is to go out there and keep performing. People can say what they want. People say he's just a ground guy and has no stand up, but he actually has good stand up. I think that started to show through in the second round of the Perez fight. If he wasn't looking legit standing, then why was Perez shooting on him? His style is unorthodox, but that doesn't mean it is not effective. I think people are underestimating him, and if his opponents are going to do that....hallelujah."
Caraway's record is certainly a reflection of the hard work he's invested inside the cage, but there is no denying that he doesn't hold the best relationship with the MMA fanbase outside of the Octagon. While fighters dealing with the harsh scrutiny of a passionate fanbase is nothing new, shaking those things off can be a different type of battle—one Caraway is all too familiar with.
Nevertheless, the surging bantamweight has his focused locked on climbing to the top of the 135-pound division, and Follis is confident his fighter has what it takes to not only keep what matters in focus, but to become the bantamweight champion as well.
"Don't get me wrong, everybody wants to be liked," Follis said. "Nobody is going to enjoy having people talk trash about them all the time and Bryan is no different. Anyone who knows Bryan loves him, and that's all that matters. We tell him it doesn't matter if people love him or hate him, people are watching him fight. That is what counts and when we win the title it won't matter."
Duane Finley is a featured columnist at Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.