Following a brutal illegal knee strike from Petr Yan at UFC 259, Aljamain Sterling laid on the canvas in obvious agony for several minutes as he attempted to recover while both the referee and the ringside physician were hovering over him.
Sterling was given time to clear his head in order to see if he could continue the fight but it was clear the sheer force of the shot he absorbed did a lot of damage. Finally with Sterling still on the mat, referee Mark Smith made the call to stop the fight before disqualifying Yan for committing a deliberate foul.
In the aftermath of that moment, Sterling has been criticized by fans and fighters alike with accusations that he was acting hurt in order to get out of a fight he wasn’t winning at that moment in order to escape with the UFC bantamweight title.
Sterling has obviously fired back in his own defense but former light heavyweight title challenger Anthony Smith believes the new 135-pound champion shouldn’t have been put in that position in the first place. Instead, Smith feels like the referee should have taken it upon himself to decide whether or not Sterling was fit to continue rather than essentially putting that responsibility back on the fighter to make the judgment call.
“I think this shows these referees need to take more responsibility,” Smith told MMA Fighting. “I always feel like I’m sh*tting on the referees and I’m really not. You’ve never heard me talk about a bad stoppage, a bad referee, I’ve never done that. But what I have done is criticize them for things they’re unwilling to do. It’s because they don’t want to take the heat. They’d rather put it on the doctor.
“Like you seen, Mark Smith right away just passed the buck right off to the doctor. Here’s your job as a referee — if we’re going to task you with the power and ability to know when someone’s hurt in a legal ending shot and you’re supposed to be trained enough and know enough in this sport to know when that guy’s hurt, that you’re going to stop the fight and you’re going to wave it off and no one says anything, why does the legality of that shot matter? That’s my point. The legality of the shot shouldn’t matter. If that knee was legal, he would have stopped that fight right afterwards. Had his knee come up, he would have stopped that fight because Aljo wouldn’t have continued.”
Replays showed the force with which the knee strike blasted Sterling before he fell to the ground, which is where he remained until the referee finally made the decision to stop the fight.
Smith doesn’t understand why the official tasked with the responsibility of knowing when a fighter can or cannot continue was just standing by while Sterling was agonizing on the mat in some futile hope that the bout could restart again.
“Because it’s illegal you don’t have the balls to stop the fight and not put Aljo in a position where he has to make that decision? That’s my problem,” Smith said. “These referees are so afraid to take heat. They don’t want to insert themselves in the fight. Well, godd*mmit when someone breaks the rules, that’s your job. Cause if you’re not going to do that, let’s be very honest here, we don’t need you. We police ourselves in the gym, hard sparring, damn near fighting every single day. We can have someone outside hold the timer and if I low blow you, 99 percent of the time I’ll just stop and say ‘my bad.’ Maybe eye pokes are a little bit different because you don’t always know when someone gets poked in the eye. You don’t always know feel it when you poke someone all the time.
“At the end of the day, if you’re not going to do that kind of stuff, you’re not going to take the responsibility and step in and make the tough decisions and risk that kind of heat and responsibility then what are you doing? We don’t really need you that bad. Other than the guys that are the cowboys and the rogue guys that tend to break the rules, other than those guys, we can do this on our own. We can police ourselves.”
Smith, who also serves as an analyst for the UFC during broadcasts, watched the fight in real time and he knew right away from Sterling’s reaction that he was done after he ate the knee strike.
“Acting or not, he looked like a person that couldn’t fight,” Smith said about Sterling. “Regardless of whether it was acting or not. But that’s the point. That’s why I don’t think how genuine that was matters. What you’re looking at is a person that didn’t look like he could fight. I could see that from my couch on Copper Mountain in Colorado. If you can’t see that standing next to him, then there’s a bigger problem here. It goes right back to the same argument I have with people getting upset that corners aren’t stopping fights.
“There’s two people that are paid, that’s their only job, to protect the fighter from himself. Whether that’s getting back up and continue fighting, whether that’s the fighter won’t quit and he’s just going to keep walking forward but he’s losing the fight badly and needs to be stopped. That’s the referee and the doctor. If the commissions are going to pay these doctors to sit cage side and make sure that everybody is watching the fight. Mark Smith, Herb Dean, Jason Herzog, Keith Peterson, all of them know what a fighter looks like when he’s hurt and can’t continue. If they say they can’t, they should get a new f**king job. It’s so frustrating to me.”
Because Sterling was allowed to stay on the floor for several minutes while constantly being asked about recovering and the possibility that he might be able to continue, the bulk of the criticism afterwards has fallen on his shoulders rather than the referee for making the call.
When Smith took a similar illegal knee from Jon Jones in their title fight back in 2019, he tried to get up almost immediately because he didn’t want the then light heavyweight champion to think he was seriously hurt.
In theory, Smith could have milked the time or even stayed on the ground with the possibility that the fight could be stopped and Jones disqualified, which would have made him champion. Smith says that scenario never even entered his mind but again that doesn’t mean Sterling was wrong for being unable to continue against Yan.
“Mark Smith is right there. He’s two feet from him at all times,” Smith said. “You know what Aljo looks like when he’s hurt. I know what Aljo looks like when he’s hurt and I’ve never reffed one of his fights. I know what he looks like when he’s hurt. He took that shot right in front of your face right after you told that fighter to not throw the knee. You saw how hard the knee was, you saw how Aljo reacted. You’re going to make him fight another round and a half?
“Again, how Aljo acted, whether he was pretending, whether he was faking it, whether he was playing, it doesn’t matter. You have to go with what you’re looking at. So why in all that time, that’s a hurt fighter. He’s not going to be the same after that shot. If it’s not enough to take two points from him and you don’t think he can continue and be at the same level he was at before, then stop the fight and stop putting it on us cause it makes us look like pansies.”
In the end, Smith believes the referee did finally make the right call but only after Sterling had to shoulder the bulk of the decision simply because he was hit with an illegal shot and the official tasked with protecting him wasn’t doing his job.
“To be fair to Mark Smith, given the state of the sport and where we are in this current situation and this current problem, I think he did an OK job actually,” Smith said. “He could have just been better and been more black and white and said ‘nope, he’s compromised, he doesn’t look like he can continue, we’re going to call this fight.’
“He took a lot longer than he needed to, which aesthetically made Aljo look terrible. But at the end of the day, he got it right and he stopped the fight.”