The Eyes Have Had It – Eyepokes Are a Problem, But Is There a Solution?

May 3, 2013

One of the most remarkable things about this sport is that for as big as it's become - and it's really exploded in the last five years - it's still in its relative infancy. Where so many other sports have had decades or more to establish a strict set of rules and codes of conduct, we're really only in year thirteen of fights in the U.S. operating under the Unified Rules of MMA. That may seem like a long time, but think of how long it took for, say, basketball to introduce a three-point basket (about seventy years shockingly) and for football to decide that a leather helmet wasn't adequate protection on the field.

MMA is still a work in progress, so it shouldn't really surprise us that we're lagging behind when it comes to some rules. As such, rules are made to ensure that a guy isn't kneed or kicked in the head while he's on the ground, but the way it was written allows for guys to get disqualified if they throw a knee on a guy who grazes the tip of his index finger on the ground. Obviously the intention wasn't to count a fighter as "grounded" if s/he literally touches the mat with his/her pinky, but that was the unforeseen consequence of the choice of wording.

Still, there's been enough time passed and we've all seen enough fights to ask: why the Hell don't we treat accidental eye pokes the same way we treat accidental low blows?

If a referee sees a fighter struck with a low blow, he'll immediately call time and the fighter will be allowed up to five minutes to recover. Yet if he's poked in the eye? Well, that's a different and more complicated story. The referee can call time and either give a fighter time to recover or call in a doctor, but by the letter of the law, he doesn't have to do either of those things.

Think about what that says. You can take five full minutes for a grazing that may not have even hit a sensitive area, but if someone pokes your eye out and completely screws your vision? Eh, we'll play it by ear.

As a result we've seen some really wonky scenarios over the years, technical decisions, and recently a fight called off when a referee overheard a guy saying he couldn't see, even though his vision probably would have come back if he was just given a minute to recover. The referee in question was given a lot of grief over that call, and to be honest he probably could and should have given the guy time to recover regardless of what he heard. Technically speaking, though, he didn't actually do anything wrong. So clearly, there needs to be a change to the rules regarding how we treat eye pokes, and thankfully it seems as if there's hope we could see it as soon as this year.

As for preventing them from happening in the first place? Well, that's a bit trickier. They're inadvertent, but that doesn't mean they aren't preventable. Sometimes a strike is thrown with the fingers extended because the hand is injured or sore, but a lot of times it's also done because of bad habits formed in training and/or throughout a career. That's not to point the finger at anyone, but it speaks volumes that we often see these incidents happen in clusters, but then we'll have full cards go off without a single finger going in someone's eye. Perhaps more telling is that there are fighters out there who have never in their entire fighting career poked an opponent in the eye while throwing a strike. Of course accidents can and will happen and mistakes will be made, but there might be something to the argument that better habits need to be developed by fighters when it comes to striking.

Then there's the question of the gloves, which is an even trickier proposition. It's easy to sit there and say they just need to be changed, but how do you make the modifications necessary to ensure an eyepoke doesn't happen without turning the sport upside down? If you close them up any more, you might as well take grappling out of the equation. Wrestling and submissions would become a lot more awkward without the use of free fingers. Closing those gloves up or making them any larger than they already are would, in essence, transform the sport of MMA into Clumsy Kickboxing. I say this a lot but it needs to be said again: the sport is what it is. If you want more striking, go watch boxing or kickboxing. I love both those sports, too. But they're not MMA. So we really can't make the sort of changes people are proposing without basically making it not the sport we love.

Then again, maybe there is a way. In every sport, the answers to problems won't come to someone overnight, nor are they already out there and just actively being ignored. In a sport this young, especially, sometimes it's just a matter of trial and error.

I just hope someone doesn't lose an eye out there in the process.