Filipino slugger Nonito Donaire lived up to expectations Saturday night at the Mandalay Events Center in Las Vegas, Nevada and cemented his position near the top of the pound-for-pound list of boxers competing today with his brutal TKO win over Mexican Fernando Montiel. There's a question, however, about the stoppage of the fight and whether it was appropriate for referee Russell Mora to allow the fight continue after Donaire's left hook left Montiel literally twitching on the canvas. Michael David Smith of MMA Fighting believes this is a clear case of MMA's rules for defining victory being safer than boxing's. To wit:
"You got to give a champ that type of respect," Jones said. "You got to give him that much respect. ... It says a lot about Montiel, to show you how game he is. It says a lot about Montiel. He's a great fighter, a great champion."
It also says a lot about boxing that the mindset in the sport is that the way to "show respect" to a fallen fighter is to give him more opportunities to have his brain damaged by an opponent who has already knocked him down and badly hurt him.
People who like boxing and dislike MMA often point out that in boxing, it's two men standing toe-to-toe, and when one man goes down, the other man gives him a chance to get back up. MMA, those boxing supporters say, is a vulgar brawl in which a man can get punched when he's already on the ground.
But the reality is, MMA is safer than boxing exactly because the fight can continue on the ground, and a fighter who's on the ground and unable to defend himself is finished right then and there, and not given more time to get hurt. The MMA way is the safer way.
I generally agree MMA is safer, but trying to make the case by isolating circumstances in a single boxing bout doesn't compellingly move the needle. There's much more about evaluating safety than comparing how the two sports view what is and isn't an appropriate stoppage.
Roy Jones, Jr, who was commentating the bout for HBO gave praise to the stoppage, but it's not as if Mora's decision to let Montiel stand is being praised as universally correct. Some fans have spoken out against Mora and ESPN's Dan Rafael called the decision "not a good idea". Mora let something similar happen in the case of Andre Berto vs. Freddy Hernandez, where a fighter who was badly rocked was allowed to at least try and stand to evidence their ability to continue. Translation: part of the cause and timing for the stoppage is Mora's decision and Mora's alone. It's regrettable some in boxing are seconding the move, but this is as much about Mora's dubious discretion as it is boxing's rule set.
I generally agree with Smith that the rules governing fight stoppages in MMA once a fighter like Montiel crashes to the canvas are preferred, but MMA's underdeveloped architecture makes that safer preference harder to come by. There's a reason why MMA's deaths have happened in regional and amateur shows and not the UFC. Poorly trained, negligent or ignorant referees often let fights brutally continue long after fighters should be protected from further damages. Unscrupulous promoters, or simply those who operate in places where safety precautions aren't heavily enforced like West Virginia, don't properly screen fighters for HIV, steroids or other communicable diseases. Athletic commissions, underfunded and operating with minimal state oversight, allow fighters who necessitate more serious brain examination before competing to unknowingly risk their health. There isn't even federal oversight of MMA.
Boxing's amateur and regional systems aren't without fault. it's not as if undertaking a boxing career is somehow risk free. But there are more structured, regimented legal safeguards in place to protect fighters. There are also many more officials at every level of the game with the requisite skills to competently carry out the duties of their role. Boxing may be more savage than MMA generally, but modestly-regulated boxing is far safer than the uneven state of regulated professional and unregulated amateur MMA.
In other words, what defines safety in much more than which stoppage method is better at protecting a fighter's health. It's difficult to argue Montiel should've been allowed to continue, although as we've seen some will try. Instead, safety is about assessing a much larger balance of goods, including state oversight, resources and officiating competency. Amateur MMA is a disgusting mess and more fighters will die or be seriously hurt very soon. Regional MMA in the professional realm is somewhat better, but still hugely problematic.
Montiel didn't get the best treatment from referee Russell Mora, but at least he was in Las Vegas. His fight happened in the public eye, under an athletic commission able to review Mora's decision, and I'm sure he received proper medical attention post-fight. MMA fighters in Altavista, Virginia who compete in unregulated amateur MMA aren't nearly as lucky.