In a fight that was expected to be a drawn-out war, the most significant strike likely came from a bottle.
The fans in Mexico City were in an uproar as ring announcer Joe Martinez read the official decision in Spanish and then English: “This bout has been ruled no-contest at 15 seconds of round number one.”
Yair Rodriguez and Jeremy Stephens were finally in the cage together, and everyone in attendance and on their couches at home was ready to watch two top-10 featherweights throw down.
Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.
Rodriguez opened up with his kicks right away, but the first left hand he uncorked ended with a finger in the eye of Stephens. Rodriguez’s left hand came down with his fingers flared and made direct contact with the eye.
— ESPN MMA (@espnmma) September 22, 2019
Stephens clearly showed how much pain he was in, telling referee Herb Dean, “He got me good,” with his eye still squeezed shut.
Dean tried to coax Stephens to look at his eye, but Stephens was unable to open it. He then brought the doctor in and tried to get him to open his eye, but Stephens again couldn’t.
Dean gave Stephens five minutes to recover, but he still could not open his eye when the time was up, so the bout was waved off.
What followed was a rain of bottles and cans from the crowd in Mexico. The broadcast booth of Brendan Fitzgerald and Michael Bisping attempted to talk the audience at home through the scene while simultaneously dodging projectiles.
— Kyle Johnson (@VonPreux) September 22, 2019
Stephens was rushed out by his team and security, but the fans continued to target their attack on him, throwing food and drinks while he ran for cover.
— Eric Gomez (@EricGomez86) September 22, 2019
¡Enloquecen los mexicanos!
Jeremy Stephens se queja de un piquete de ojos de @panteraufc y suspenden la pelea, así que el público le lanza de todo al estadounidense
— CANCHA (@reformacancha) September 22, 2019
The boos blended into cheers as the home favorite Rodriguez sat atop the cage, overcome with emotion. His interaction with the crowd seemed to calm the situation, but Rodriguez himself struggled to hold it together. He wept openly as his family surrounded him in the Octagon, knowing that he missed out on an opportunity to perform in front of his biggest supporters.
Still wearing his emotion, Rodriguez spoke to Bisping in the post-fight interview.
“I apologize a great deal,” Rodriguez said via a translator. “We both trained very hard for this fight. Everyone spent a lot of money to come down and compete and to support us. I feel really bad about it.”
The crowd reacted positively to the idea of a re-booking of the fight with Stephens when Bisping brought it up, but Rodriguez expects to weigh his options.
“Doesn’t matter who I fight as long as it’s the top, and I’m ready to do this again,” Rodriguez said.
As attendees filed out, Bisping talked with his broadcast partner about the main event and defended Stephens against the expected criticism that he took the poke as a way out of the fight — a take that was previously hurled at Todd Duffee last week at UFC Vancouver and Cheick Kongo earlier this month at Bellator 226.
“Jeremy Stephens gave up six weeks of his life to prepare for this event,” Bisping said. “He did not do all of that work, he did not put his life on hold to come down here and take a way out after three seconds. The man is a born fighter. That’s what he does. You don’t have a career as long as Jeremy’s if you’re not a born fighter, a true fighter, and he really is.”
Bisping has dealt with his own eye problems stemming from a detached retina he received in his 2013 loss to Vitor Belfort. He empathized with Stephens and also theorized that the featherweight could possibly have suffered a scratched cornea, which is why he couldn’t open his eye despite numerous attempts.
At the same time, Bisping also understood the frustration of the fans.
“The people are annoyed, they’re launching their drinks. I get it,” Bisping said. “They came here to see Yair Rodriguez fight. They came here to see Jeremy Stephens throw down and look for the knockout, and they didn’t get it. But it’s just a sad state of affairs. This is the reality we’re in.”
Shane Connelly is a journalism student at Penn State with a passion for sharing the stories of MMA fighters.