Did referee Marc Goddard do the right thing in response to Eddie Alvarez's illegal elbow strike?

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Eddie Alvarez was sitting in a pretty nice spot.

Midway through the second round in his main event bout against Dustin Poirier at UFC on FOX 30, Alvarez had managed to turn Poirier’s love of guillotine chokes into an advantageous position for himself, one in which he could take his time and pick his shots with Poirier trapped against the cage.

That’s when things took a turn.

Seemingly on the advice of his corner, Alvarez (29-6 MMA, 4-3 UFC) threw an elbow at the trapped Poirier (24-5 MMA, 16-4 UFC). But the close quarters and the need to keep Poirier’s body and legs pinned limited his options for striking angles. So Alvarez brought his arm straight up, then straight down, hitting Poirier near the base of his neck.

It didn’t appear to do any damage, but referee Marc Goddard stepped in anyway. As he informed an incredulous Alvarez after standing him up and taking the position away as punishment, the blow was illegal – not because of where it landed, but because of the trajectory on which it traveled.

 

They call it the 12-to-6 elbow, a term more or less coined by longtime MMA referee and current Bellator commentator John McCarthy. As McCarthy told MMAjunkie back in 2014, he came up with it almost by accident while trying to clarify exactly what the authors of the unified rules meant when they banned “downward elbow strikes.”

“I said, ‘If you have a fighter go from 12 o’clock to 6 o’clock in a straight line, that’s an illegal elbow?’” McCarthy said. “ yes. ‘But if you have go from 9 o’clock to 3 o’clock in the same fashion, it’s legal?’ Yes. … The way things go, when I started teaching the rule to other people I would just say, ‘You cannot go from 12 o’clock to 6 o’clock.’ Any other alteration of the blow makes it legal. Any elbow strike that has an arc makes it legal. Even if your hand starts straight up, but you bring it down and it has an arc near the bottom, it makes it legal.”

McCarthy wasn’t a fan of the rule. Neither is UFC commentator Joe Rogan, who has on many occasions accused the authors of including it solely because they saw one too many karate practitioners breaking cinderblocks with downward elbows on cable TV.

Still, the incredibly specific rule stands. Even after several reviews and revisions to the rules, the 12-to-6 elbow ban remains in effect. At the same time, the 11:45-to-5:45 elbow strike? Still totally legal.

That distinction can get hazy, especially in the heat of a fast-paced battle, which makes enforcing the rule difficult. Then there’s the question of what to do about it, since sometimes a 12-to-6 elbow can contribute to a TKO stoppage (see also: Jon Jones vs. Matt Hamill), while other times, such as in this case, it does nothing of consequence.

 

Poirier later would say he informed Goddard how completely unhurt he was by the illegal blow. Still, if Goddard saw Alvarez land an illegal blow, didn’t he have to do something? Wouldn’t he be ignoring the rules if he just let it slide?

So Goddard opted to stand the fighters up and take the position away from Alvarez, but did not punish him beyond that. According to the letter of the law, it seemed like a justifiable decision. Alvarez didn’t care for it. Neither did his friend Kamaru Usman, who railed against Goddard on Twitter before apologizing and deleting his tweet on the matter.

We may never know just how much it..

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