In the realm of professional sporting competition, the concept of sportsmanship entertains a wide range of concrete expressions. From trash-talking athletes that harp on colleagues and officials to highly-respected individuals that are distinguished for their game-time etiquette, the idea (or perhaps ideal) of good sportsmanship occupies its own niche in every particular sport.
One activity common to all sporting endeavors is that of conceding defeat to your opponent. In a combat sport, such as mixed martial arts, this can take many forms. Graciously accepting defeat in a postfight interview, acknowledging the better man on that day, and not making excuses, are but a few of the verbal forms that conceding defeat might take.
However, there is a more conclusive method of admitting defeat, and it is a feat that has come to symbolize the definitive way of losing a match: tapping out. The act of submitting to an opponent, either verbally or using one’s hand (or foot) has been practiced for centuries.
Whether it is a scuffle between siblings (where the term “uncle” is often employed to signify giving up) or a contest between two highly-skilled warriors, there is no more satisfying feeling than knowing that you made your opponent give up willingly (or unwillingly, as the case may be).
MMA is advertised as a sport where two world-class athletes enter the cage and proceed to punch, kick, elbow, and knee each other in the face for 15 minutes, before embracing at the end of a hard-fought battle.
There is no doubt that MMA has showcased some of the greatest sportsman-like gestures in all of sports throughout the past decade and a half. Many top fighters and champions are exceedingly humble and gracious to their opponents, more so than can be expected.
But I raise the question: Is refusing to concede defeat to your opponent, when they have rightly deserved it, a form of unsportsmanlike conduct itself? In other words, is it disrespectful or unethical to not tap out from a submission that you cannot escape? Better yet: Do fighters have an obligation to surrender when they have been placed into a compromised position?
Some fighters may refuse to tap because they see it as dishonorable, and some don’t do it because they don’t want to give their opponent the satisfaction of beating them definitively. Many also think that they can escape the submission, or try to wait until time runs out (more on this point later).
Yet, isn’t there a set of unwritten rules hidden in the martial ethos that is adhered to by millions of practitioners worldwide that places an emphasis on honor and virtue? After all, it is difficult to disagree with the outcome of a basketball game when you have lost by 20 points.
So why is it hard for some fighters to admit losing in a legitimate manner by tapping out, when they are clearly in no position to dispute the fact? I would say that refusing to tap out is more dishonorable than trying to reject the fact that one has lost.
It is obviously more difficult to accept losing than winning, but still, it is a test of the character and integrity of an athlete to lose in a gracious and praiseworthy manner. And MMA offers an outlet (tapping out), which makes this much easier than other sports. But some fighters refuse to play by the unwritten rules of single combat, which has proven costly in numerous cases.
There are many instances of fighters refusing to submit to their opponent, for whatever reason. Perhaps the most graphic example is when Frank Mir trapped Tim Sylvia in an armbar at UFC 48 and broke his arm in three places when Sylvia didn’t tap. Fortunately, referee Herb Dean was quick to recognize what happened and stopped the fight before further damage was done.
Sylvia later remarked that Dean had saved his career. But what would have happened to his arm if the match had continued? It was a title fight, and Sylvia really wanted to win back the belt after it was stripped from him for steroid use. But that doesn’t mean that he shouldn’t have played it safe and tapped.
You can hardly blame Mir for what he did, because when you get somebody in that position, you expect them to submit. And if they don’t, then naturally enough you are going to increase the pressure, because your goal is to win the fight and the opponent ought to know when to quit after getting caught in a submission like that. It’s not jiu-jitsu practice; it’s a fight, and the proverb “tap or snap” applies in this context.
Jorge Gurgel is still feeling the effects of his match against Masakazu Imanari in 2003. Imanari, a leglock specialist, caught Gurgel in a heel hook, and cranked it when the tap didn’t come. This caused Gurgel to cry out in pain, holding his newly-shattered knee. To this day, Gurgel’s busted knee affects his movement inside the cage and his training regime. If he had tapped sooner, all of that wouldn’t have happened.
Heels hooks are banned in many jiu-jitsu and Sambo competitions for a reason, but fighters need to be educated about the effects of all kinds of submissions and learn to tap accordingly.
Many fighters have been injured due to various kinds of leg locks. Some didn’t have a chance to tap because the submission came really quickly (and the damage is done before you feel anything), but others refused to submit because they were stubborn and paid the price for it.
Some competitors want to exude an aura of invincibility or toughness, and refuse to tap after getting caught in a rear naked choke. Others simply want to go down fighting, simply not tapping and consequently falling into unconsciousness.
Many fans consider this an authentic display of heart or grit, and a choke is definitely much safer than an armbar. There are many such examples of this phenomenon in MMA. Such finishes include Phil Baroni vs. Frank Shamrock, Takanori Gomi vs. Marcus Aurelio, and Josh Koscheck vs. Drew Fickett.
Still, the fact remains that these fighters refused to acknowledge defeat after getting caught in a position from which they weren't able to escape. “Going to sleep,” as it is colloquially known, might make you look tough, but is not a sportsmanlike gesture by any means, and robs the winner of his due.
The whole point of mixed martial arts is to determine who the best fighter is, so if somebody gets you in a submission that you can’t escape, shouldn’t you acknowledge that you lost in an honorable manner? The goal is to incapacitate your opponent and make them unable to continue fighting, so fighters should grant their opponents the victory when they have earned it by locking in a submission.
And the image of fighters getting choked unconscious has done nothing to make the sport more attractive to mainstream audiences or quell the assumption that MMA is a blood sport (a misconception that is still held by many detractors).
What about the time Joe Riggs caught Jason Von Flue in a triangle choke, and the latter flipped the bird before tapping out? It wasn’t the most appropriate message to send to younger audiences, but at least Von Flue conceded defeat in the end.
It may not be MMA, but an example from jiu-jitsu competition will help illustrate my point. At the 2004 Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Mundials, in the Absolute Division final, Ronalda "Jacare" de Souza fought Roger Gracie. Gracie caught "Jacare" in an armbar and broke his limb when the latter didn't tap. However, "Jacare" was able to "evade" Gracie for the rest of the fight, and consequently won the match via points.
There are many fans in the jiu-jitsu community who believe that the match should have been stopped and Gracie awarded the winner, because he got "Jacare" in a submission which ended up breaking his arm.
Putting your opponent in a submission is the purpose of jiu-jitsu competition, and when the fighter can't escape, shouldn't he tap and concede victory? But there are also those who believe that "Jacare" won the fight, so it really depends on one's own interpretation of the rules and what criteria constitute the winner of a match.
Frank Edgar was on his way to a decision victory over Tyson Griffin before getting caught in a kneebar with one minute left in the third round. Edgar held on and won the fight. But did he prove that he was a better fighter than Griffin? After all, Edgar was saved by the bell after being put in an inescapable situation. If there was no time limit (like in the early UFC days) Edgar would have had to tap and lose the fight.
A similar incident occurred between Josh Barnett and Antonio “Minotauro” Noguiera, when the latter was put into a kneebar but was also saved by the bell. Barnett received the decision victory, but he was also the one who got Nogueira into a position where only the clock could rescue him, and for all intents and purposes, Barnett won that fight (it can be argued that Griffin “beat” Edgar as well, not officially, but technically speaking).
So did Edgar, Noguiera, and "Jacare" show themselves to be better competitors, even though they were “submitted?” I am not suggesting that fighters should tap out every time they get caught in a submission, but I am trying to analyze fights from a purely combat-oriented perspective with an eye on what defines who the true winner of a match is, despite what the scorecards might say.
And if you get saved by the bell, from a certain point of view, you “lost” the fight.
Of course, fighters should do everything they can to escape a submission, but I am talking about a refusal to tap (when they aren't able to escape) which seems futile, unnecessary, dangerous, and which is at odds with the martial spirit within which MMA is supposed to be practiced (at least ideally).
There is no need for heroism and broken limbs in the cage, and safety needs to be paramount. Most fighters cannot afford to get injured and sidelined, and they are allowed to submit at any moment during a fight, for their own good. And MMA is still in its infancy, so we surely don’t need a serious incident inside the cage from somebody playing the role of the tough guy.
On the other hand, mixed martial artists really shouldn’t be holding submissions after the other fighter taps out, but that goes without saying, and could serve as the subject matter for an article on its own. But here I just wanted to raise awareness about an issue that plagues modern MMA and remains a sticking point in the discussion about ethics and sportsmanship in contemporary athletic culture.