It was bad. Not soccer bad, perhaps, but still ugly.
Not Lima, Peru, 1964 bad, when over 300 fans died in a riot after a referee call, or Moscow, Russia, in 1982 bad when another 340 soccer stadium fans were killed during another riot stemming from a referee’s decision.
The scene in Mexico City on Saturday as the evening’s UFC card drew to a close was more on par with Detroit Pistons fans starting a brawl by pouring beer on player Ron Artest in 2004. Or, with the injured San Francisco 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman getting trash thrown at him by Seattle Seahawks fans as he was carted off the field.
In Saturday’s UFC co-main event, former world champion Carla Esparza gutted through several third-round scares to win a decision on the strength of her performance in the fight’s first two periods. Then, she was booed while thanking the fans and giving credit to her opponent Alexa Grasso for nearly finishing her.
A few moments later, Esparza says, fans threw beer on her.
The next fight revealed even more cruelty among those in attendance. About 15 seconds into their main-event tilt, Yair Rodriguez raked his opponent Jeremy Stephens in the eyes.
Stephens could not continue and the fight was called by referee Herb Dean and deemed a no-contest. A subsequent medical examination of Stephens showed he suffered a corneal abrasion from Rodriguez’s eye-poke, and he’s been medically suspended for 180 days unless an ophthalmologist clears him before that.
Before the fight was even called, fans began to boo Stephens for taking time to see if he could continue, as the referee and a ringside physician examined him. After the fight was waved off due to his injury, the stadium crowd erupted into an even louder chorus of boos and hurled trash into the cage.
— CANCHA (@reformacancha) September 22, 2019
As Stephens and his team made their way from the ring back to the locker rooms, they, like Esparza before them, had things thrown at them by the crowd. What made this all worse was that other UFC fighters joined in on the mob action, or even arguably led it.
Rodriguez appeared inconsolably mad when the fight was called. He jumped up on the fence, raised his fist in victory and shouted in the direction of the crowd.
Then, he continued to lash out at those around him verbally, clearly upset that the fight was aborted due to the injury Stephens suffered as a result of his foul.
Rodriguez’s frustration could be understood in the moment. It had nearly been a year since Rodriguez had fought, leading up to the bout Stephens had taunted him as not fighting “like a man” and the Chihuahua native was competing in front of a Mexican crowd for the first time in years.
Perhaps fellow elite UFC fighters Cain Velasquez and Brian Ortega’s shameful antics ringside could also be forgiven in the moment. The two callously joined the stadium crowd in taunting, en masse, the injured Stephens with a misogynistic and homophobic slur, caught on tape and celebrated by Ortega’s own Instagram account.
In the heat of the moment, Rodriguez, Ortega and Velasquez all leapt into a mob mentality. It wasn’t a sympathetic look.
If only it had all ended, there. Later, Rodriguez attempted to deflect from his clear fight-ending foul and instead cast doubt on whether or not Stephens — who has fought for over 15 years as a professional, and went the distance against Donald Cerrone with an injured orbital — was truly injured or if he simply did not want to fight after investing a month and a half in a training camp in Mexico that Stephens says cost him $30,000.
“The only one that has to live with that in his mind, that ... doubt is him. It’s only him. He’s the only one who knows how he feels. I have never been poked in the eye but I have had a really bad eye. In the Frankie Edgar fight my eye was completely closed. I couldn’t see nothing but I was willing to keep on going,” he told reporters, afterward.
“But not everyone is the same.”
The next day, Rodriguez and Stephens both reported that they got into a verbal and physical altercation with one another in the JW Marriott hotel, though they disagree who was at fault and on some details of the interaction. Stephens claims that Rodriguez approached him and began talking trash, at which point he pushed the 26-year-old away.
Rodriguez told ESPN that Stephens pushed him and then that he verbally lambasted the Iowan. “He pushed me like a little bitch," he is quoted as having said.
"And I just told him, you will live the rest of your life with that in your head ... if you could continue and didn't. Shame on you."
Rodriguez went on to say, "I'm ready for the tests and the proof [of Stephens’ eye being injured by his poke].
"If I'm wrong, I'll apologize in public, no problem."
Well, the tests have been reportedly done, and the results are in. Stephens suffered a corneal abrasion from Rodriguez’s foul and so he is medically suspended.
There is no controversy as to whether or not he’s hurt. There is no controversy as to whether or not that injury is the result of Rodriguez’s foul.
Rodriguez’s anger at not fighting longer on Saturday is understandable. So is Stephens’.
Again, Stephens says he spent $30K on training camp in Mexico to acclimate to the altitude he’d face in Mexico City, and he was the one fouled. All in all, Rodriguez should be happy that he didn’t lose by disqualification (which would have netted Stephens his win-bonus for the night) because MMA referees believe they can discern intent of fouls, and that Stephens is willing to rematch.
Instead, Rodriguez is disparaging Stephens and saying that he’s not sure if he’s willing to fight the “Lil Heathen” again.
All of that is human, but none of it is a good look. It’s strange, and it’s not disconnected from the mob action in the arena on fight night.
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