The worst foul in modern MMA history occurred in Portland, Oregon, on Aug. 29, 2009.
Chris Tuchscherer's heavyweight bout against Gabriel Gonzaga that night at UFC 102 had just begun when Gonzaga threw his 6'2", 264-pound frame into a kick aimed at the inside of Tuchscherer's thigh. Unfortunately, Gonzaga missed his mark, and the full force of his kick landed squarely on the UFC newcomer's groin.
Tuchscherer's mind told him to fight on, but his body failed him. He collapsed in a heap and spent the next few minutes writhing and dry heaving on the Octagon floor, surrounded by cageside officials. The scene at the Rose Garden in Portland descended into chaos as everyone tried to determine what should happen next.
"I got sick to my stomach," Tuchscherer tells Bleacher Report. "I was gagging. I thought I was going to throw up."
Despite the fact Tuchscherer now says the kick put him "in La-La Land," he eventually elected to continue the bout. Immediately following a restart, Gonzaga kicked him again, this time to the head. After just two minutes, 27 seconds of total fight time—still bewildered and in terrible pain—Tuchscherer suffered a first-round TKO loss.
Nearly nine years later, questions still swirl: Should Tuchscherer have withdrawn after the kick? Should Gonzaga have been disqualified? What should be done when a foul, even if unintentional, ensures an easy victory?
Gonzaga's crippling kick was clearly illegal, yet he suffered no official penalty. He won the fight, was awarded a hefty win bonus and went on to fight 12 more times in the UFC until finally exiting the promotion in 2016.
And Tuchscherer? All he got for his trouble was the unenviable legacy of taking perhaps the worst groin kick of all time. In 2011, he retired from MMA on the heels of a 1-3 UFC stint. Now 40, he owns a seed and farm chemical supply company in his home state of North Dakota.
"In some ways, I think that [kick] set the stage for the rest of my career," he says. "I had that loss, and it just kind of trickled into my other fights. Before that fight, I was 20-1. I had a full head of steam. I was rocking and rolling and beating the s--t out of guys. Then I had that happen to me, and it just seemed like I lost confidence in myself a little bit."
Tuchscherer still works out relentlessly and says he'd love to get one more shot in the UFC. With each passing year, however, that chance becomes more unlikely.
While an extreme example, his story underlines an uneasy truth: Rulebreakers often prosper in MMA. And the people who get fouled often wind up on the short end of things.
While longtime referee Big John McCarthy says fighters who intentionally cheat are gambling with their own careers, the reality is that as long as fouls look relatively accidental, guilty parties seldom suffer any repercussions beyond a warning—at least for a first offense. Meanwhile, their opponents deal with pain and occasional impairment as referees attempt to divine both intent and damage in real time.
With that reality in mind, Bleacher Report recently set out to survey fighters, analysts, coaches and referees to ask whether it really pays to bend (and sometimes break) the rules in an MMA fight.
While those interviewed told us few fighters set out to explicitly commit fouls, most conceded that one of the oldest adages in the sport dictates: If you ain't cheating, you ain't trying.
"It's not basketball, you know?" says former Bellator MMA bantamweight champion Joe Warren. "You're getting two men locked in a cage. It's the most unpredictable place in the world. There's a lot at stake with us, so we're not thinking about rules. We're thinking about how to physically hurt the other person."
And they'll do it any way they can, up to and including a shot to the pills.
Eye pokes are among the most common and controversial infractions in MMA.
Common, because the sport's fingerless, four-ounce gloves allow for athletes to use an open hand to parry and dictate range while striking.
Controversial, because digits on those open hands can lead to serious, permanent damage.
"The eye pokes and eye gouges concern me," says former UFC lightweight Kenny Florian, now a Fox Sports analyst. "I feel like those can really change a fight."
On the other hand, some experts regard the eye gouge as a savvy veteran move and note that a well-timed eye poke can buy a fatigued fighter some time to rest or get them out of a tough spot.
"I might use an eye poke if I'm in big trouble," says Warren. "Not because I'm thinking about it, but because my mindset is live-or-die in that cage."
To understand the effectiveness of the eye gouge, look no further than Jake Matthews' welterweight scrap with Li Jingliang at UFC 221 in February. Early in the second round, Matthews had Li in a deep guillotine choke in the middle of the cage. It looked like it might be curtains for Li until the 30-year-old Beijing-based fighter reached up with both hands and dug his fingers into Matthews' eyes so hard he drew blood.
"I mean, this was pro-wrestling bad. This was Abdullah the Butcher throwback stuff," says broadcaster Jimmy Smith, who called the fight for Fox Sports 1. "I went, 'Oh my God!' and the ref didn't even take a point away from him."
Matthews released the choke, and Li survived the bout's final nine minutes before conceding a unanimous decision. Not only was Li not punished inside the cage, he and Matthews were each awarded $50,000 Fight of the Night bonuses by the UFC as well.
Be warned, though, potential eye-gougers. Along with perhaps causing irreversible damage to your opponent's sight, it's also a good way to get yourself disqualified (or worse) if an official suspects it might have been intentional.
"If I'm your referee and I think you poked somebody in the eye on purpose, I guarantee you just lost that fight," says McCarthy.
The groin strike is such a well-known weapon in the arsenals of some fighters that the opposition has started specifically training for it. This was the case for former UFC heavyweight champion Frank Mir heading into a fight against Cheick Kongo at UFC 107.
Kongo, a 6'4", 234-pound kickboxer from France, had earned a reputation for letting his leg kicks creep into the crotch.
"We trained knowing that," Mir says. "When I was hitting pads in training, every couple of sessions [my coach] would kick me in the balls. One, to make sure I was always wearing a cup. Two, to see how I was going to deal with that, knowing it could come at any second in the fight."
Mir's preparedness may have helped stoke confidence in his standup game, as he stunned Kongo early with a punch and choked him unconscious in just one minute, 12 seconds.
Like the eye poke, a judiciously timed groin shot can earn a drained or injured fighter a bit of time to recover. It can also force the fouled fighter to soldier through considerable pain and humiliation.
Just ask Tuchscherer how effective a well-placed low blow can be.
Also like the eye gouge, groin strikes can backfire badly when employed incorrectly.
McCarthy likes to tell the story of refereeing a fight for Bellator MMA at Pechanga Resort & Casino in Temecula, California. In that fight, a seasoned wrestler spent the first two-plus rounds grinding his opponent into the mat. After nearly 15 minutes, the opponent was exhausted, fed up and maybe looking for a way out.
With the action back on the ground, the wrestler on top of him and McCarthy standing nearby, the downed fighter decided to take drastic action.
"He takes his left hand, reaches back and lands two shots—Boom! Boom!—right into his nuts," McCarthy says. "Then he looks at me and he goes, 'I didn't mean that!' I looked at him and I said, 'Yeah, my kids lie to me all the time, too.'"
McCarthy took two points—for intent and damage—and the fighter lost a lopsided decision.
Holding the Fence
In the hierarchy of fouls in MMA, techniques like holding the cage to prevent a takedown or grabbing your opponent's gloves to control their hands are considered the least serious. These techniques don't cause immediate harm to an opponent, but there's no doubt they can have a dramatic effect during competition.
Take Jose Aldo's first-round knockout win over Chad Mendes at UFC 142 in January 2012. With a fairly even first round drawing to a close, Aldo stopped a timely takedown attempt from Mendes by extending his right arm and looping his fingers through the chain link. Thirty seconds later and just a tick before the end of the first round, Aldo wheeled around and knocked Mendes out with a knee.
The victory was Aldo's third successful men's featherweight title defense, but without that cage grab...who knows?
"Depending on the night and depending on the referee, you might get three or four real good cage grabs during pivotal moments of a fight," says longtime MMA journalist Jordan Breen.
Fighters grabbing the fence happens so often that it barely elicits a response in fight circles. Often, it's shrugged off as unintentional or what McCarthy calls a "motor-reflex response" to a fighter starting to lose his balance.
Sometimes, the fighters don't even know it's happening.
Smith points to one of his own MMA fights in the King of the Cage promotion in 2005. During that bout, Smith got deep on a single-leg attempt and into a position in which he normally completed the takedown. This time, however, his opponent launched him through the air and dumped him onto the mat with a throw.
Smith won the fight via armbar from the bottom but couldn't figure out how the guy had managed to throw him until he went home and watched the film.
"I saw that the dude just flagrantly grabbed the fence and launched me. He just flung me," Smith says. "The referee just didn't see it. Nothing. I was a little upset. If I hadn't won, I'd be even madder."
Slipping your fingers inside your opponent's gloves is an under-the-radar but effective way to control a foe in the clinch or in grappling situations. Xtreme Couture coach and gym manager Eric Nicksick says it's one of his favorite techniques. He often grabs his fighters' gloves in training as a way to prepare them for how to respond when it happens in a real fight.
Also, because Nicksick just loves to do it.
"I'm a glove-grabber, bro," he says. "I love grabbing the gloves. I'm a glove-grabbing fool. I'm going to grab that glove honestly until they say something or until the referee sees it."
Perhaps the most talked-about recent instance of glove-grabbing occurred during a middleweight bout between Tim Kennedy and Yoel Romero at UFC 178 in September 2014. That bout—one marred by a pair of bizarre fouls—saw Kennedy appear to loop his fingers inside Romero's gloves while simultaneously stunning him with a series of punches at the end of Round 2.
Romero might have been done if not for a bit of clever trickery by his own team (more on that later). It's still unknown if Kennedy meant to hook his fingers into Romero's glove or if it merely happened by accident in the heat of battle.
Still, it is interesting to note that Kennedy appeared to grab Romero's glove in the exact way Nicksick says he advocates his own fighters do it.
"It's best to hook your fingers where the glove connects to the wrist," Nicksick says. "If you hook your fingers further down the hand, it's easier for the referee to see. If you do it right, you can probably get a couple good strikes off from there."
Greasing the Body
In grappling, lubricating your body to make it more difficult for your opponent to hold on to you is a time-honored tradition dating back to wrestling's rough-and-tumble early days. In MMA, fighters mostly use it as a way to escape submission holds.
The most infamous modern allegation of greasing came after Georges St-Pierre's TKO victory over BJ Penn at UFC 94 in January 2009. Following that fight, Penn accused St-Pierre of employing a lubricating agent, though nothing ever came of it.
Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belts Mir and Florian say they have never encountered an MMA opponent they thought was greased.
On the other hand, Warren says the practice is fairly commonplace in his experience as an MMA fighter and international wrestler. At times, he says, the preparations can get quite intricate.
"[Other wrestlers] would get in a sauna before the match and lube their whole body up with some kind of baby oil," Warren says. "Then they would go out in the cold [to dry] and get toweled down. So before the match would start, you'd feel nothing on them, but then when they started sweating, you couldn't grab anything."
After Kennedy nearly stopped Romero with strikes near the end of the second round of their UFC 178 fight, Romero returned to his corner looking exhausted and hurt. Keeping him in the fight was going to take some radical measures.
"Romero is basically out on his feet," UFC color commentator Joe Rogan said on the broadcast. "Saved by the bell!"
Luckily, Romero's corner was up to the challenge. The group took its time clearing out of the Octagon before the third round. As a ringside official and McCarthy attempted to shoo his team away, they simply left the fighter sitting in his corner on the stool. Seeing that his opponent was getting an extra breather, a frustrated Kennedy stalked across the cage and raised both arms before McCarthy urged him back.
A ringside official then had to summon one of Romero's cornermen back into the Octagon to retrieve their "forgotten" stool. One of Romero's coaches came back in and toweled him off as McCarthy checked the still-seated fighter to see if he could continue.
"This is ridiculous," crowed Rogan on the broadcast. "Why isn't he standing up? Why don't they get that stool out of there?"
McCarthy finally had to pull Romero to his feet so the commission official could carry the stool away. By the time the third round began, Romero's team had bought him nearly 45 seconds of extra rest.
"That's life-saving time," Smith says.
In the third round, Romero rebounded to defeat Kennedy by TKO. and both guys received Fight of the Night bonuses. Did the few extra seconds Romero had on his stool pave the way to victory? Well, they certainly didn't hurt.
The sheer diversity of action in an MMA fight means there are myriad ways to cut corners. The more creative you can be, the more you take your opponent—and the ringside officials—by surprise.
"One thing that makes cheating in mixed martial arts so seductive is the fact that there's so many ways to do it," Breen says. "It's all about putting your toe right up to the line until you hear, 'This is your last warning.'"
Fighting Human Nature
So, how big of a problem are fouls in MMA, really?
McCarthy says there will always be potential tweaks to the rules and the way fights are officiated, but he thinks things mostly work well.
Fighters seem more open about suggesting fixes.
Warren points to his experience fighting in Japan, where athletes received yellow cards for stalling or breaking the rules. Those penalties usually came with monetary fines, and Warren says they were effective in getting fighters to mind their manners.
"I hate to say this, but we're prizefighters," he says. "The only thing that makes any sense to us is money. If they take that away from us, then it might change things."
Breen says changes to MMA's scoring system may also help. Under the current 10-point must system, deducting a point in a three- or five-round fight dramatically changes the outcome. That makes referees reluctant to take points for all but the most serious and obvious fouls.
Breen contends that something like allowing referees to deduct half-points from a fighter's scorecard might make the rules more enforceable and go a long way toward cleaning up the sport.
Then again, any time two athletes are locked inside a cage and fighting over an agreed-upon sum of money, perhaps cheating will always be a factor. It could just be human nature.
"Humans are just an impressive species, man," Mir says. "We're always finding ways to overcome. That's the thing about us that makes us so successful. Think about it: We have no claws, our teeth are tiny, our bite strength is next to s--t, but we're the top of the food chain. Why? Because of our minds, our brains.
"We know how to use leverage and strategy to figure out how to do the most we can with our tools."
Legal or not.