ONE Championship featherweight Christian Lee looked well on his way to securing a dominant victory against Edward Kelly last weekend in Shanghai, China, but found himself on the unfortunate end of an official ruling that disqualified him for “executing an illegal suplex onto the head” of his opponent.
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In March this year, ONE Championship announced that “all variations of suplexes are illegal and any attempt or intent results in an automatic disqualification.” The promotion also controversially overturned Kritsada Kongsrichai’s KO/TKO victory one day later.
Despite the official ruling, Lee is adamant that the technique he used against Edward Kelly was ‘perfectly legal’ and that he should have been awarded a TKO victory.
“I really do feel like I was robbed of a victory and handed a loss that should never be on my record,” Christian Lee explained to John Hyon Ko of Kumite Radio.
“Instead of moving up to 10-2, it pushes me back to 9-3. It doesn’t really matter, but at the same time, it does in terms of my brand. People were thinking that I’m a dirty fighter, that I wanted to paralyze this guy. None of that is true. The fact is he landed on his shoulder, and his head hit as a result of him having nothing other than his shoulder posted on the mat. ”
“He [Edward Kelly] said in a pre-fight interview his goal was he wanted to finish me with the head kick knockout in the second round. Now I don’t see how putting your shin into another person’s head could possibly be any worse than getting dropped hard on a takedown. It’s a fight. These things happen, and you know going into it that there’s a potential for injury. And so I feel like, you know, it is what it is, it’s a fight.
Christian Lee’s almost perfect performance
For Christian Lee, his fight at ONE: Beyond the Horizon was an excellent opportunity to bounce back from a failed title challenge against Martin Nguyen in May.
Billed as the first of two Evolve MMA vs. Team Lakay matchups of the night, Lee dominated his Filipino opponent and forced a referee stoppage after a barrage of heavy punches that came after the controversial slam.
“I did everything in that fight that I set out to do,” Lee shared.
“My goal was to go out there and push the pressure on him, land an early strike, take him down and secure position. Edward’s got a good scramble off the bottom, and he doesn’t want to be there, so we were expecting him to pop back up to his feet, which is what he did.”
“But as he hopped up to his feet, I latched up my grip, and I brought him back down to the mat, which in wrestling, you know, it is just considered a simple return. I had a body lock, one arm trapped, and on the way down, Edward Kelly had a choice; he had a choice in a split second to use that free hand to post or to try to lock onto me. And what he did is he used his free hand to wrap around my other arm, leaving his head completely exposed.”
— caposa (@Grabaka_Hitman) September 8, 2018
Adjusting to ONE Championship’s new rules
This wasn’t the first time that Christian Lee has utilized his explosive wrestling techniques in ONE Championship.
In December last year, the 20-year-old scored a memorable KO/TKO finish in Bangkok, Thailand, when he slammed Kotetsu Boku using a technique that would now be considered illegal under ONE Championship’s Global Martial Arts Rule Set For Competition.
Now that the rules have changed, Lee has had to modify his wrestling techniques. Rather than using a traditional suplex against Kelly, Lee explains that he acted under the updated rule set and returned Kelly to the mat over his side, instead of endangering the head of his opponent.
“When he popped up to his feet, I had an option to bring him straight back and suplex him, which would be a traditional suplex where he would land on his neck. But in ONE Championship, that’s not part of the rule set, so I purposely brought him over the side.”
“I worked extremely hard for this fight and in my opinion, and I feel a lot of other people’s opinion out there, it was a clean finish and should have been a TKO victory.”
“And it wasn’t a spike because in the MMA world defined by multiple martial arts referees, a spike is when there is no arc to the takedown when you pick somebody up and drop them directly down on their head. So that automatically eliminates it being a spike.”
“Once he landed on the mat, he was rocked a bit, but I followed up with four heavy strikes, which I felt finished the fight. The referee stepped in there to call it off, and I celebrated.”
Where do we draw the line?
ONE Championship’s decision to ban suplexes was made with the idea of creating a safer environment for the athletes, as explained by Chatri Sityodtong:
“As a fellow lifelong martial artist, I fully understand that no athlete wants to win or lose under the cloud of a DQ. However, as the leader of ONE Championship, I am here to ensure that safety is the #1 priority at all times for all of our athletes.”
While this decision certainly aids the pursuit of improved fighter safety in mixed martial arts, there is a level of ambiguity here that can create confusion for the athletes and officials of ONE Championship.
“In the ref’s [Olivier Coste] eyes, I truly believe he didn’t feel like it was illegal.”
“That’s why he let the fight continue until he was out from the punches,” Lee shared.
“Now when the decision was made to disqualify me, it actually involved multiple other officials at ONE. So it wasn’t the referee’s fault. He stopped the fight, and he went to go check with the officials because whenever there is a slam finish in ONE they’re going to check it. And so they did and he came to me and he said, look like they’re saying that it’s illegal because of the fact that he hit his head on the mat and he apologized. He said, I’m sorry, there’s nothing that I can do about it, I’m going to have to give you a red card.”
“And it wasn’t even his call to make. So the ref was there in person, he saw it live. He was closest to the action, and he didn’t feel like it was a suplex or a slam, and so I think that’s a big tell right there. But, the decision was made by an official who wasn’t live at the event. So I feel like many, many things could have been lost in translation through watching it, you’re watching it over a computer or over a phone, rather than actually being there live and seeing how it played out.”
“I just want people to know about it and to see that, if you actually watched the fight, just go and watch the fight and you’ll see that it wasn’t a dirty move at all. It’s perfectly legal, and it’s just a part of mixed martial arts.”
Christian Lee plans to return to action later this year at ONE: Heart of the Lion in Singapore on November 9, where his sister Angela Lee will challenge Xiong Jing Nan and attempt to become a two-division champion.
Quotes from John Hyon Ko’s interview with Christian Lee on September 15, 2018.
Jake Nichols is The Body Lock's Editor in Chief. Previously, he was the MMA Editor at RealSport.