In writing a weekly sports ethics blog, it would be easy to cherry-pick the week’s most controversial viral sports video or tune in to the weekly MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) cage-fighting highlights.  This week these two are one and the same.

In a video which had 2 million views in just one day, we see MMA fighter Mike Pantangco connect on repeated powerful punches and kicks to the head and face of opponent, Jeremy Rasner.  Not being an MMA fan myself, I found it quite difficult to watch, staying tuned as I had numerous readers of this blog send me the link with a “You gotta see the end of this” sort of tag-line.  (Spoiler alert.)  At the point when Rasner seems barely conscious, Pantangco bows down in front of him and taps out—“submitting,” in MMA terms—rendering Rasner victorious.

I immediately saw this as an act of compassion and a manifestation of properly aligned values.  It was the positive version of a coup de grâce.  No wonder it was repeatedly forwarded by so many readers.

Curious to see what those steeped in MMA culture had to say, I found that many who posted in the “Comments” sections of MMA-related sites and blogs questioned whether Pantangco should have done this, suggesting it exhibited disrespect and poor sportsmanship.  Somewhat surprisingly, many of the articles by sports writers, including experts such as Yahoo’s “Cagewriter,” refrained from editorializing and left it for readers to fight it out in an intellectual cage fight of sorts: “What do you think?”

Since you asked…

This was clearly a gesture of good sportsmanship.  Pantangco explicitly referenced this in his comments following the fight.  “I know that the only [way] I’m going to finish the fight,” he said in broken English, “is [for] him to go to the hospital or get hurt.”  Pantangco had accomplished what he came to do, clearly outperforming Rasner in every way.  As pointed out by various comments, other options were available to him: pin him down in a “gentle” choke-hold, play the remainder of the time defensively, etc.  But these are options made available to me—and to those commenting on MMA-related blogs—as I sit in the comfort of my local coffeehouse with just a hint of caffeine rushing through my veins en lieu of the adrenaline from pummeling another human senseless while thousands jeer and cheer me on.  The fact that he had the wherewithal to acknowledge the potential for excessively harming another human given the setting is beyond commendable.

And we later find out from Pantangco that Rasner trained at his same gym.  They were friends.  And Rasner had agreed just that morning to accept the fight given that the originally scheduled fighter backed out, showing up to the event after having finished a 12-hour shift.

When you understand the story and the context of the situation along with Pantangco’s intent, his actions hardly seem disrespectful.  To bow down in front of one’s competitor in an act of submission is far from an act of disrespect to either Rasner or the “institution” of cage fighting.

Granted, fans didn’t get to see a knock-out punch (“deathblow”) which would have likely rendered a man unconscious and potentially hospital-bound, so one could argue that Pantangco left them unsatisfied, not getting what they paid for.  Though it’s worth noting that, just last year, an amateur MMA fighter died following a bout elsewhere in Michigan.  The amateur sport in that state is not regulated as it is at the professional level.  This, in part, explains why the referee of this particular fight may not have stepped in: they have fewer regulations, with bloodthirsty fans to appease and money to make.  Leaving it all in the hands of the fans and unregulated officials with financial gains at stake is a bit like letting the inmates run the asylum.  Instead, the one person who could do the right thing did so.

What happened here was a moment of clashing values.  And it’s these moments that result in what philosopher Robert Kane calls “self forming actions”—those instances when one adjudicates between two competing values and, in acting, truly authors one’s own character.1

For someone to even step into an MMA cage, he implicitly values winning.  In this case, though, we discover the higher values of one particular man.  Many have argued that his decision was weird, bizarre, odd.  And that’s true: in the heat of competitive cage-fighting this rarely, if ever, happens.  Others have argued it was cowardly, dishonorable, classless—these are the sorts of comments that occur in an unregulated verbal bout on an MMA comment board.  In fact, it was none of these.  It was a display of a man exerting his integrity, holding one core value above another, and acting on it.  And rightly so in this case.

This is what many of these subtly gray area issues boil down to: a hierarchy of values.  Those entrenched in the blood sport of MMA valuing the deathblow of a fighter see cowardice.  Clearly, there is another lens: a lens that reveres other virtues as greater.  This is something that should be celebrated, not ridiculed.  If this isn’t considered an act of good sportsmanship then there just may be nothing that achieves such an evaluation.  It reminds us of the humanity of sportspersons even in the midst of a sport that many argue dehumanizes.

It was a loss on the record of Pantangco though a victory on the side of virtue.  And as the official raised Rasner’s hand in victory, Rasner went out of his way to raise the hand of Pantangco—for victory of a much greater sort, as we’re all amateurs in the cage of virtue.

1Kane gives the example of an intensely career-driven businesswoman walking to an important meeting.  En route she sees a stranger being accosted by an attacker and realizes, while she could help that person, it would cause her to be late to her meeting.  Her ensuing decision demonstrates her set of values.  Kane uses this in defense of free will in his article, “Free Will: Ancient Dispute, New Themes.”  He argues that these “self forming actions” demonstrate humans free will even if the root causes are still unknown to us: simply by deciding, “we make one set of competing reasons or motives prevail over the others.”

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