One of the most captivating aspects of mixed martial arts is the variety with which combat can be waged: punches, kicks, wrestling, jiu-jitsu, even aikido, if one is counseled by a famous sensei. A more troubling and legally dicey situation occurs when these actions fall outside the confines of regulated combat.
There have been several instances in MMA and boxing where fighters have taken their craft beyond the bounds of regulated action. Ultimate Fighting Championship commentator Joe Rogan excitedly remarked that Paul Daley should be arrested for assault after his post-fight sucker punch on Josh Koscheck at UFC 113. The terms “assault” and “battery” are often discussed by many MMA fans, yet it is important to understand the legal significance of each.
While actual legal definitions of assault and battery differ based on jurisdiction, the two crimes are most meaningfully different in that assault is viewed as the threat of force while battery is the actual offensive contact. In the most complete sense, assault is defined as the “threat or use of force to another that causes that person to have reasonable apprehension of imminent bodily harm.” Battery, on the other hand, is defined as “the unlawful application of force to another resulting in either bodily injury or offensive touching.”
Understanding the differences between assault and battery is essential to understanding the ramifications of one fighter hitting another fighter after the bell. In some instances, an assault cannot occur if the victim does not have an impending sense of fear of an attack. This means that a sucker punch, as in a punch that one does not see coming, such as Daley’s punch to Koscheck at UFC 113, could not fit the aforementioned legal definition of assault since the victim did not see the punch and thus did not have the requisite awareness of the assault. The same would be true if a fighter was tackled or hit from behind.
Although assault may have more legal wrangling, it is clear to most of us that criminal battery occurs frequently in combat sports. Anderson Silva’s shoulder check of Chael Sonnen at the UFC 148 weigh-in would qualify as a battery. Dereck Chisora committed the same when he slapped Vitali Klitschko during the weigh-in for their heavyweight boxing match. Many fans questioned whether some of the punches in the K.J. Noons-Jorge Gurgel fight came after the bell at Strikeforce “Houston.” Andreas Spang and Maiquel Falcao got in a post-fight scuffle that cost Spang 20 percent of his purse at Bellator 66. Numerous other examples of unsanctioned hits are prevalent in fans’ minds. The question then begs as to why have fighters not been criminally charged for these unsanctioned hits?
The chief reason is that MMA and boxing are regulated by state athletic commissions. Thus, a government entity already exists that, by design, is responsible for oversight and discipline rather than the criminal justice system. Because of this built-in government regulation, most district attorneys are hesitant to punish fighters for these unlawful acts unless the situation rises to the extreme.
Despite the lack of fighters facing criminal charges for harming their opponent outside of a regulated event, there are examples of the occurrence. The most serious example of a fighter hitting another in an unsanctioned capacity occurred in a November 2001 charity boxing event between James Butler and Richard Grant. Butler, the favorite in the bout, lost a decision to the underdog Grant. Once the fight concluded and both boxers had their gloves removed, Butler approached Grant seemingly to shake hands. Instead, he threw a haymaker that sent Grant to the canvas with a dislocated jaw and a lacerated tongue.
The Butler-Grant sucker punch is the most complete example of a fighter’s post-fight actions garnering the attention of the legal system. Since the fight occurred at a fundraiser to support the victims of the 9/11 attacks, the Roseland Ballroom in New York was full of police officers. Numerous members of the NYPD were witnesses to the malicious post-bell hit, and Butler was escorted from his dressing room to the police station where he was charged with second-degree assault. Butler served four months in prison after pleading guilty for second-degree assault for the late hit, and he was later sentenced to 29 years in prison for the homicide of boxing commentator Max Kellerman’s brother, Sam Kellerman.
Outside of the Grant-Butler fracas, the more common disciplinary authority for unsanctioned violence has been in the form of a state athletic commission disciplinary hearing.
Mike Tyson was no stranger to arousing the dismay of athletic commissions. His most notorious fight was when he was disqualified after biting both ears of Evander Holyfield in their 1996 rematch. Aside from this infamous incident, Tyson’s boxing license was also under scrutiny before the Nevada Athletic Commission, which had to determine whether he should be sanctioned for a late hit in his 1999 fight with Orlin Norris in which Tyson punched Norris after the bell in the first round.
The punch sent Norris to the canvas, and he was unable to continue due to his knee being injured in the fall. Referee Richard Steele declared that the punch came after the bell, yet held it to be accidental, and the fight was ruled a no contest instead of a disqualification win for Norris. After the fight, the NAC launched a formal investigation into whether any of Tyson’s $8.7 million dollar purse should be withheld. In the end, the commission determined that the late hit was accidental and did not warrant any punishment.
Within the MMA sphere, NAC provision 467.7962 sets out fouls in which a fighter can be disciplined for improper conduct. Rule 22, engaging in any unsportsmanlike conduct that causes an injury to an opponent , and rule 27, attacking an opponent after the bell of the period of unarmed combat, are two of the primary regulatory devices used to sanction an MMA fighter who hits another fighter after the bell.
Recently, the MMA newswire was abuzz with activity, not just from the long-awaited rematch between Sonnen and Silva at UFC 148 but from the shoulder check from the champion at the weigh-in. While Sonnen seemingly shrugged off the quick strike from Silva’s shoulder, NAC Executive Director Keith Kizer was not as dismissive of the event as was the challenger. Kizer told MMAjunkie.com he confronted Silva after the incident and said, “if you ever ... despite your previous record with us as a good licensee, if you ever do anything like this again, that’s it for you in Nevada. You’ll be fighting your fights elsewhere.”
Many fans thought that this reaction from Kizer was bluster, yet his reaction to an unsanctioned hit is nearly identical to the sentiment reached by a former commissioner upon his inquiry in the aforementioned Tyson-Norris fight. Then athletic commissioner and current chief executive officer of the UFC, Lorenzo Fertitta, issued a stern warning that Tyson’s antics were getting old and, “my advice is to pack Mike Tyson’s bags up and take this act on the road, I’m not so sure we need him in the state of Nevada any longer.”
MMA has steadily gained popularity for a multitude of reasons. Chief among them is the nature of competition inherent to every event. While football, baseball and other traditional sports showcase competition, MMA is competition derived in its purest form: a fight. A career in combat sports draws those who are innately competitive and those with a desire to excel in this pure form of competition. While we are likely to see more instances where fighters take their craft beyond the bell, let us hope that MMA’s best moments remain inside the cage.
Jeffrey Aris is an attorney living in New York City and is experienced in matters relating to the business of MMA. This article does not provide legal advice, and any opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.