UFC Fight Night: Cannonier v Imavov
Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Nassourdine Imavov picked up the biggest win of his career when he defeated Jared Cannonier at UFC Louisville, but his celebration was short-lived because the conversation almost immediately shifted from his performance to a bad call by referee Jason Herzog.

When Herzog stepped between the fighters and called off the bout midway through the fourth round, Imavov was unloading shots on his hurt foe in an effort to secure a knockout win, but Cannonier was still conscious and defending himself. Cannonier immediately protested and the sold-out crowd in Kentucky erupted in a chorus of boos.

Retired UFC veteran and current analyst Alan Jouban understands that sometimes fighters have to be protected from themselves, but he doesn’t believe that was anywhere near the case when Herzog injected himself into the action this past Saturday night.

“I do think he messed up on Saturday night,” Jouban said on the latest episode of The Fighter vs. The Writer. “I’d be curious to hear from [Herzog]. Sometimes you hear this: ‘I looked into Jared Cannonier’s eyes, his eyes were gone. They were glazed over, they were rolling into the back of the head. I talked to him, I said Jared show me something, Jared show me something. He didn’t show me something.’ That type of conversation — if I heard that from him, I would go, ‘OK, I wasn’t in there. I wasn’t standing three feet away from Jared,’ so he has a different perspective that we do. Sometimes that does happen. We’re not always right from what we see on TV from a zoomed out perspective.

“But in general, it was stopped too soon. It was stopped too early. Fighters need to be given the chance to fight out of something. What happens is you get hit sometimes and you get buzzed.”

Jouban explained that during his own UFC career, he would routinely inform the referees in his bouts that he wanted every possible chance to come back if he happened to get rocked during an exchange. He preferred that officials let the fight continue until the last possible second or he fell unconscious due to strikes.

While he can’t say for certain what was said prior to UFC Louisville, Jouban knows fighters all want to be given ample time to get through a bad spot, especially in a situation like what unfolded for Cannonier.

Instead, Cannonier woke up Sunday morning with a knockout loss on his record and the knowledge beyond a shadow of a doubt that he didn’t get knocked out.

“I didn’t see him afford Cannonier the opportunity to fight out of it,” Jouban said. “It was an early stoppage. Maybe he would have ended it, maybe not, but Cannonier’s a guy, he’s in shape, these weren’t the type of shots that were like, ‘Oh my God, is he ever going to be the same?’ No, they weren’t those types of shots.

“Is he taking years off his life? No, he was buzzed. He was buzzed, and 30 seconds later he was completely coherent again. It was an early stoppage. Feel bad it happens. It’s a tough call to make in the moment, but that was not one of [Herzog’s] best refereeing in that matchup.”

Of course, Jouban understands that referees have an impossibly tough job that requires them to make split-second decisions in a fight. Outside of a totally egregious late stoppage like what happened this past December when Jalin Turner was thudding punches off Bobby Green’s head after Green was clearly already unconscious, Jouban prefers to give fighters every possible chance to get out of a bad spot.

As much as he appreciates fighter safety, Jouban laments how bad stoppages like what unfolded in Cannonier vs. Imavov ruin fights, and he doesn’t want it to become a normal occurrence.

“We cannot let the UFC turn into the NFL,” Jouban said. “We cannot overly protect things. We cannot make it a completely different sport. You watch the hits and the tackles and the sacks in the NFL in the 80s and 90s and you look at it today and it’s a completely different sport. Now they’re trying to protect people. I get it, but this is combat sports. We’re a different sport. That is a game, this is a fight. We’re here to fight.

“We know every time we go out there, obviously we have the potential of getting knocked out or submitted or something could happen, but that is what people pay to see.”

Despite the NFL remaining the biggest sports league in the United States by a wide margin, many players and fans have complained about the constant rule changes — tackles routinely considered fair and legal just a couple of years ago now earn a penalty, which can completely alter the course of a game.

In particular, the “roughing the passer” calls for quarterbacks have earned a lot of blowback, especially from defensive players.

Jouban argues that fighters all accept the potential risks that come along this career, which is why he hopes what happened with Herzog doesn’t become a bigger trend.

“Fighters are fighting because they are OK with facing their fears and accepting that danger, accepting their fate,” Jouban said. “It’s OK if he lets it go 15 more seconds and Imavov lands a beautiful punch and Cannonier goes down and he’s knocked out. That’s OK. He’s not going to be mad [at Herzog].

“We’ve got to let these [fights] play out. We can’t start overly protecting fighters as they’ve done to overly protecting quarterbacks in [football]. This is combat sports. If this an amateur fight, stop it early. If this is your pro debut, stop it early. If this is the UFC and a main event in a sold-out arena, title implications, five-rounder — no, we go until somebody’s asleep.”

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