'That's the danger': Inside MMA's problem with eye pokes

Stephens vs. Rodriguez rewind (1:27)

Go back to Sept. 21 in Mexico City when Jeremy Stephens vs. Yair Rodriguez was ruled a no contest due to an eye poke. For more UFC, sign up here for ESPN+ http://plus.espn.com/ufc. (1:27)

FRANCISCO RIVERA THINKS about it almost every day, the night in Las Vegas when his MMA career began a notable descent.

Rivera was putting on a solid performance, landing his powerful right hand against Urijah Faber at UFC 181 on Dec. 6, 2014. In his most high-profile fight, Rivera was proving he belonged against one of the top names in the UFC's bantamweight division.

Things went sideways quickly, though. Faber shot for a takedown, Rivera stuffed it, and during the ensuing sequence Faber accidentally poked Rivera in the left eye with his left index finger. Rivera was immediately blinded and in pain. Referee Mario Yamasaki didn't see the poke, so Faber flurried with punches against the cage and finished Rivera with a bulldog choke.

In Rivera's mind, he was on the verge of knocking out Faber, one of the most popular figures in the UFC and a future Hall of Famer. Higher-ranked opponents and bigger paydays awaited him.

"That could have been the highlight of my career, the top of my UFC career, and after that fight everything kind of went downhill for me," Rivera said.

Rivera flashed back to that night while watching UFC Mexico City on Sept. 21. The main event ended in 15 seconds when Yair Rodriguez accidentally poked Jeremy Stephens in his left eye. The bout was ruled a no contest. Stephens suffered a corneal abrasion.

Rodriguez and Stephens will have a rematch in the co-main event of Friday's UFC Fight Night card in Boston.

The ending of their first bout was one of three eye-poke finishes in the span of three weeks on major MMA cards in September. The UFC has had seven fights end in a no contest due to an eye poke since 2005, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

When an eye poke occurs, it's on the referee to pause the action and inspect the fighter. If the fighter can't continue right away and the injury seems as if it could be severe, the referee will call in the ringside physician. At that point, the referee and doctor have five minutes of discretion with regard to the fight continuing. After five minutes, if the fighter is deemed unfit to continue, the bout is called off. If the referee rules that the eye poke was intentional, a disqualification can be called. A no-contest ruling due to an accidental foul is more typical, though.

A fight can be called off before the five minutes are up if a competitor says some magic words, according to Dr. John Neidecker, vice president of the Association of Ringside Physicians (ARP). If a fighter expresses a loss of vision, more than likely he or she will no longer be allowed to compete.

"If they say they can't see in that eye, then usually the fight is off," said Neidecker, a ringside doctor in New York and North Carolina. ... "You lose all depth perception. You can see the guy in front of you, but where he is might not be where your hand is going."

Because Yamasaki didn't see Faber's eye poke in 2014, there was no break in the action. Rivera, 37, suffered a cracked retina and needed laser surgery in the days following the bout. He appealed the result of the fight with the Nevada State Athletic Commission (NSAC) but was denied. Rivera won his next fight but lost three straight after that and is currently serving a four-year suspension from USADA, the UFC's anti-doping partner, because of a positive drug test for the banned substance clenbuterol.

To Rivera, if that eye poke never happened and he defeated Faber, everything would have been different. "That definitely changed my life," Rivera said. ... "It was kind of one of those things where something in a fight could have changed your life and your family's life to being where I'm at now. I always think about that moment of my fight career."

RANDY COUTURE WAS aware Chuck Liddell had developed somewhat of a reputation for eye pokes leading into their blockbuster rematch on April 16, 2005. He saw Liddell poke Vernon White and Tito Ortiz. So, when it happened to him at UFC 52, Couture lost his cool a bit. He was prepared for it, yet it affected him anyway.

After a pause in the action in the first round, Couture pressured hard at Liddell and it cost him. Seconds later, Liddell knocked out Couture to even their famous series at one win apiece.

"Mentally, it kind of irritated me -- it pissed me off," said Couture, a former UFC heavyweight and light heavyweight champion. "I think it put me in a mode that I'm rarely in, maybe a little overaggressive. I came after him really hard when we came back together. I missed a big left hook, put me right in line for that straight right hand. There was no eye poke on that one."

Couture had that situation on his mind in 2016 when he was on a conference call with the Association of Boxing Commissions and Combative Sports (ABC) rules and regulations committee on which he sits. Couture voted yes on a rule change that would make it a foul for fighters to have their fingers outstretched toward their opponent's face. The ABC body later approved the rule and it has now been adopted by the majority of athletic commissions.

Before, a referee could only warn a fighter or take a point after an eye poke happened. The idea behind this rule was to be proactive -- to stop pokes from happening in the first place. Referees now advise fighters to close their hands or point their fingers upward during fights. They can take a point away if a fighter's fingers are pointing forward, before a poke even occurs.

Regulators are happy with how the rule has worked so far, but it has not stopped eye pokes altogether. In MMA, unlike boxing, the gloves are open and the fingers free to allow for grappling. And MMA fighters routinely reach out with open hands to defensively push an opponent away or block strikes.

"Fighters tend to parry with their palms and their hands with their fingers out and open," Couture said. "You see the errant eye gouge -- it's just part of the sport. It's indigenous in [amateur] wrestling, it's indigenous in MMA. Sometimes, it can be really treacherous and gnarly. It sucks."

For years, there have been rumblings that MMA promotions could look to have their gloves redesigned. There is no standardization currently. The UFC and Bellator, for instance, use different styles of gloves. UFC color commentator Joe Rogan mentioned on his podcast last year that the UFC was looking into changing its glove design, but there hasn't been anything official announced. The UFC did not return requests for comment.

Everlast makes gloves for Bellator and New Jersey's Ring of Combat promotion, among others. Per spokesperson Chris Zoller, Everlast worked with fighters on a design that "encouraged a proper fist, even when the hand is relaxed."

"The curved surface ensures a good contact point and it's tough to stick your fingers straight out so it could reduce eye pokes," Zoller said.

ABC president Brian Dunn said it wouldn't be out of the scope of his committee to standardize an improved glove design, but no regulation like that has yet been developed. It's also unknown whether a new glove design would cut down on eye pokes.

"We couldn't mandate a certain manufacturer, but we could certainly at least not allow a certain design or recommend a better design," Dunn said. "Sure, I'd be on board with that, definitely."

In MMA, referees are hesitant to take a point away from fighters for fouls, including eye pokes. The reasoning is that in three- or five-round fights under the 10-point-must scoring system, a one-point deduction greatly affects the outcome of a fight. A 10-8 round in MMA is much more significant than a 10-8 round in a 10- or 12-round boxing match.

"Any time you take a point, it's kind of like in football. They do the Hail Mary pass and there's pass interference and the ball moves 80 yards down the field to the 1-yard line based upon the penalty," legendary MMA referee John McCarthy said. "That's what taking a point in MMA basically is. You are influencing that fight a lot. Officials are always trying to be judicious when taking a point."

McCarthy, though, has changed his stance a bit when it comes to eye pokes. Because of the long-term damage they can cause, he says he believes changes need to be made. McCarthy, now retired from refereeing and working as a color commentator for Bellator, said the only way to greatly reduce the amount of eye pokes in MMA is to deduct a point automatically every time there is a poke.

"It does not matter intent, it does not matter anything," he said. "Every time there's gonna be a point taken if the referee sees someone sticking a finger out and we have a thumb or a digit going into the eye socket. It's an automatic deduction -- you know it's gonna happen."

If that were to be approved, then the ABC would also need to change the Unified Rules on instant replay. Right now, the regulations allow for replay only on fight-ending sequences and the bout cannot be restarted once a referee looks at the video. To fairly determine what is and what is not an eye poke if a point deduction is automatic, instant replay would be needed more liberally, McCarthy said.

McCarthy, who sits on the ABC rules and regulations committee, said he wouldn't propose such a rule change, because it "would never pass." The result of too many important fights could hang in the balance, he said.

FORMER UFC HEAVYWEIGHT champion Fabricio Werdum was on the receiving end of one of the worst eye pokes in MMA history on April 19, 2014. Travis Browne's finger went deep into Werdum's eye socket. Werdum, though, said the poke didn't hurt or affect him -- and even if it had hurt, he might have lied to the ringside physician and said he was fine out of concern the bout would be stopped. Werdum, who won a unanimous decision, says he thinks some fighters embellish the severity of a poke to get out of the fight and that offends him to some degree.

"Real fighters fight again, for sure," Werdum said. "I want to fight. I've been waiting for this for a long time, for three months. I train a lot, I have to go again. A lot of fans are waiting for this moment."

The worst eye-poke injury Neidecker said he ever saw was a torn iris. The fighter's pupil, he said, was no longer a circular shape -- "it was almost like a teardrop." McCarthy said the ugliest such situation he officiated was when Daron Cruickshank was eye-poked twice by KJ Noons at the TUF 20 finale on Dec. 12, 2014. On the second one, Cruickshank ended up suffering a torn tear duct. He needed emergency surgery the next day.

"It almost looked like it was a streak of red going horizontally across his iris, around his eye," McCarthy said. "It almost looked like a bloodshot eye, but then you looked closer and it was like this trailing edge with blood leaking out. I said, 'Nope, you're done.'"

Cruickshank has some permanent damage from that fight. He no longer has a tear duct in his left eye, so whenever his eye gets watery he said it "literally drains right off my face" rather than going into his nose. After surgery, Cruickshank said he caught an infection in the eye and now has a scar on his retina. At night, when light shines into his left eye, things can get momentarily blurry.

"I have perfect vision, but when the light hits that scar it goes everywhere else in the eye," Cruickshank said. "That's what messes it up."

"This is not a soft sport. You have to be tough. If you get poked in the eye, you get poked in the eye. You keep fighting. That's the danger."
Daron Cruickshank

Cruickshank, 34, is still fighting in MMA and he hopes to be on Rizin's New Years Eve card. Despite his personal history, he doesn't believe regulators should mess too much with the rules, because he says he believes it would dilute how an athlete can fight.

"This is not a soft sport," Cruickshank said. "You have to be tough. If you get poked in the eye, you get poked in the eye. You keep fighting. That's the danger. That's what we should get paid for. We should get paid for that danger that we're taking. You could lose your eye. You could die in the cage. We should get paid for that risk."

Rivera says he believes he would have made more money if not for that fateful poke by Faber. He feels the result of that fight should have been overturned, but he's encouraged by some of the rule changes made since then, including fingers pointing straight ahead being a foul and the adoption of instant replay for fight-ending sequences.

Rivera has taken solace in the fact that his unfortunate situation has been used as somewhat of a case study. Maybe the issue of eye pokes in MMA will never be fully solved, but there have at least been advancements over the past five years.

"I'm glad my fight was one of the fights people remember and people saw and people noticed," Rivera said. "A lot changed after that fight. Social media and all the MMA websites and fans, they all talked about that. They talk about that every time they see an eye poke or a ref stoppage, they kind of turn back to my fight with Faber."