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UFC 259, The Morning After: It’s time to legalize knees to a grounded opponent

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UFC 259: Yan v Sterling Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

Before I circle back to my actual point, there are a few things I need to clear up before anyone skims the headline and immediately misinterprets the entire piece. People still will miss the point, but ...

Aljamain Sterling deserved to win the Bantamweight title at UFC 259 last night (Sat., March 6, 2021). Petr Yan threw a blatantly illegal knee immediately after the referee instructed him to avoid doing so. It was a terrible decision that resulted in a powerful connection, and Sterling was correct in accepting the win and title.

Trying to continue fighting after that illegal knee would have been beyond foolish. Sterling’s brain was scrambled prior to the knee, and that blow certainly didn’t help. His long-term health was potentially at risk.

On a less theoretical note, a whole bunch of money was on the line. Sterling’s win bonus is likely at least six figures, and there are bonuses that come along with winning the title, both directly from UFC and from sponsorship opportunities. That’s life-changing money; the type of money Sterling can use to pay off a mortgage or send his future children to college.

To give that away in the name of honor, Bushido spirit, or to satisfy Internet haters — dumb. Sterling did the absolute correct thing.

Back to the title of the article: it’s time to legalize grounded knees. UFC sells itself with the slogan, “As Real As It Gets,” but everything starts to look silly when fighters find ways to navigate the rules and find safe positions in unrealistic ways.

I don’t know how many times Sterling opted to simply drop to his knees and put his hands on the mat when a takedown failed. Since Yan wasn’t particularly interested in following him to the canvas, Sterling was awarded something of a “Get Out Of Jail Free” card. He’d take a shot, Yan would stuff it, then Sterling would drop to the canvas until his opponent backed off.

Yan did show off his smarts and boxing experience by framing down on the neck to tire his opponent further, but otherwise, he was unable to do damage. In short, Sterling hung out in what should have been a fight-ending position. That’s not to say Sterling would have made that same choice were knees to a downed opponent legal, but that’s really the point: that position should not be a safe zone.

Yan demonstrated why in the fourth round. He should not have done so, but his illegal knee really lifted the veil and made the whole situation decidedly stupid. It’s an egg-on-face moment for the sport: the knee Yan landed was no more dangerous than the jump knee Sterling attempted in round one, so why wasn’t it allowed?

As the sport has evolved, so too should the rule set. Knees to a downed opponent will still be illegal when Yan and Sterling rematch (because nothing ever changes), but I still sincerely hope that Sterling avoids dropping to a knee when put in danger — it’s just not a good look for anyone involved.

For complete UFC 259: “Adesanya vs. Blachowicz” results and play-by-play, click HERE!

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