This past weekend the UFC in Norfolk Virginia was not without controversy as Ion Cuteleba’s rope-a-dope strategy backfired. This light heavyweight main card contest was one that I was very much looking forward to, as Cutelaba is always entertaining and his opponent Magomed Ankalaev is a very good technical striker so on paper this one was going to be very entertaining.
The fight was entertaining for as long as it lasted, it almost kicked off before the opening bell as Cutelaba stormed across the octagon during the introductions. The 2 fighters actually made contact as Ankalaev double under hooked the brash Moldovan and quickly shoved him away.
As much as I enjoy those kinds of antics, I do find it strange, you are about to fight anyway so what’s the point of trying to get your hands on your opponent just before the fight is going to start. In my mind it just risks the fight being thrown out altogether if it had caused a reaction that resulted in a brawl, then there are suspensions and fines, just a bit silly really.
Rope-a-dope the referee
In any event, the fight was soon officially underway and as we expected Ankalaev was very disciplined and technical while Cutelaba was swinging wildly from the start. Ankalaev threw several head kicks that as I was watching didn’t seem to land but then Cutelaba started wobbling and stumbling as though he was rocked so I thought wow maybe they did land.
Cutelaba was swaying from side to side almost falling over, still absorbing more strikes and only really swinging wildly in retaliation. Ankaleav poured on the pressure and as Cutelaba stumbled further the referee stepped in, it was only at this point that it became apparent what Cutelaba was actually doing.
Cutelaba immediately objected, he was fine, showing no signs of being out on his feet once the fight was stopped, suddenly it becomes clear that he was using the old rope-a-dope strategy. Now I do think this was a slightly early stoppage, however, I don’t believe this is entirely the fault of the referee.
The rope-a-dope strategy was made famous by Muhammad Ali in his 1974 Rumble in the Jungle boxing match against the then World Heavyweight Champion George Foreman. Ali wore Foreman out by pretending to be hurt against the ropes so that his opponent would expend his energy trying to put him away.
Once Ali could see that Foreman was good and tired, he then started to take over and ended up winning the fight in the 8th round, and the term rope-a-dope was born. This strategy has been used since and has even found its way into MMA, although sometimes referred to as playing possum. However, in the modern world of MMA and combat sports is the rope-a-dope strategy still viable?
I would make the argument that it is not, even before the somewhat controversial events at UFC Fight Night 169. The issue is with the fundamental strategy of rope-a-dope in that you need to convince your opponent that you are hurt, this will hopefully lure them into trying to finish you allowing you to land a counter and win the fight.
The problem with this, especially in MMA, is that in order to convince your opponent that you’re hurt you may just convince the referee that you are hurt. This was Cutelaba’s downfall really as he was so convincing that he lured the referee into stopping the fight.
Rope-a-dope may have worked in 1974, in boxing, but this is 2020 and this is MMA, no standing counts, no saved by the bell, once the referee thinks you are done, that’s it. If you are not intelligently defending yourself the referee can, and will stop the fight, this is not new in MMA.
The referee has a duty of care to the fighters, this is true today much more than it was in 1974 because we just know so much more now about brain injuries and the dangers of head trauma than we did back then. To a certain extent, I do not think you can even get away with rope-a-dope in boxing anymore as the referee has to stop the fight if they think you are in danger.
In the 70’s we were only 20 years removed from thinking that smoking was good for you, just to put that in perspective. 1990 doesn’t seem that long ago (longer to some than others I’m sure) but the point I am trying to get at is that an awful lot has changed in combat sports and medicine since the days of rope-a-dope.
In terms of the Cutelaba stoppage, I don’t think anyone is to blame except the fighter. In a sport where the referee has to make a split-second decision for your safety I just think that it’s a big risk to be pretending you’re hurt as a strategic ploy.
To all those calling for the head of the referee for the early stoppage I would point out that had Cutelaba not immediately protested and if he stumbled back to his corner in the daze that he looked to be in, then we would be singing a different tune. We would be commending the referee for a good stoppage and saving the fighter from further damage, which I reiterate is his job.
Do I think they should run it back? Yes absolutely, however, while I sympathise with Cutelaba, fight camps are grueling and expensive after all, and without the win bonus, you essentially take home half a paycheque. I do think that the responsibility falls on himself rather than the referee, if you are going to try and convince people you are hurt, you just might convince them into calling the fight.