Cornerwork in MMA has come under scrutiny in recent weeks. When should seconds stop a fight? Who should be qualified to work as a second? Can seconds be legally accountable if they fail to protect their fighters?
As with many things in combat sports the legal requirements are not consistent and vary widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction when it comes to licencing standards of seconds. Deciding who can stand in the corner of professional fighters is perhaps one of the weakest links when it comes to combat sports regulation.
Some commissions have knowledge standards on the books for seconds. Some just require the payment of a small application fee with no standards whatsoever. Some expressly authorize seconds to stop a fight. Others are silent on the matter while others still mention it is a foul for a second to ‘throw in the towel’ and are otherwise quiet on if or when they expect a second to stop a fight.
What is clear is that seconds do act as one of the various safety measures in combat sports when it comes to stopping a bout. Doctors are required to stop a fight when it is medically unsafe for it to continue. Referees must stop a contest when a fighter can no longer intelligently defend themselves. Seconds, on the other hand, have very little clear guidance on when they should step in to protect their fighter.
Here is a quick glimpse of some of the rules on the books across some jurisdictions.
New York has strong language in place suggesting corners should possess health and safety knowledge. Section 207.7 of their boxing rules notes that “prior to the issuance of a licence of a professional boxing or mixed martial arts second, the Commission may require any application to demonstrate, to the satisfaction of the Commission, general fitness, trustworthiness, and knowledge of the Commission’s rules and regulations, treatment of injuries, physical conditioning, health care, nutrition, training, first aid, effects of drugs and alcohol, and the wrapping/bandaging/gloving of a combatant’s hand, to the satisfaction of the Commission in a manner approved by the Commission in its discretion. In addition, licenced seconds of professional boxing and professional mixed martial arts shall attend seminars about the rules and regulations of the Commission…as required by the Commission in its discretion”.
These are seemingly strict standards however the permissive word “may” means this lofty test does not need to be met if the Commission simply does not care about second qualifications.
New York is one of the jurisdictions that officially bans throwing in the towel with rule 211.17 noting “No one shall throw any towel into the ring as a signal of defeat or for any other reason“. This does not necessarily mean a second cannot ask a bout to be stopped just that towel throwing is a prohibited means to achieve this. As you will see from a case discussed below New York has held that seconds do not owe a statutory duty to stop a bout.
California expressly allows a second to throw the towel with their rule reading “A manager or chief second of a contestant may toss a towel into the ring in a token of defeat. However, such a manager or chief second shall follow the towel into the ring as soon as it is possible to do so“.
Like New York, California uses strong language noting seconds should posses many qualifications noting “In order to be issued a boxing second’s licence, an application shall meet all the following requirements: (1) Pass a written examination administered by the commission on the fundamentals of boxing and California laws and regulations relating to boxing. (2) Perform a demonstration of the competence by demonstrating the duties of a second before a representative of the commission.” These strict standards can be circumvented, however, by being licensed in another jurisdiction where no such standards may apply as subsection (3) notes “The examination and demonstration of competence may be waived if the applicant possesses a current and valid licence as a boxing second in another state or country and has not been subject to any disciplinary action”
California uses MMA’s unified rules which do speak further on seconds stopping fights as a safety measure. Their annotations note that “A fighter’s corner, at the Commission’s discretion, should have the option to retire his fighter in the quickest and most efficient manner possible, during competition. A corner person having worked alongside a fighter may recognize and accept what their fighter’s capabilities are from past experience. It makes sense from a safety perspective to allow a corner to retire the fighter. If there is consideration that debris in the form of a towel entering the ring or cage may contribute to a disruption or confusion in the contest, then coloured towels or special towels might be a consideration to be used“.
Texas, another major jurisdiction, notes that “seconds may surrender for their contestants by standing on the apron and signaling to the referee“.
British Columbia, one of Canada’s leading jurisdictions also notes that seconds have a safety role to playing and even sets out a standard of when they should exercise their power with the rules stating “the second may submit on behalf of his or her contestant if he/she deems it irresponsible to let the match continue. A second shall throw n a towel to indicate they are submitting on behalf of their contestant“.
As can be seen the standards vary as to whether seconds can stop a bout, how they can stop a bout and when they should stop a bout. Few jurisdictions have any wording on last point.
If seconds fail to stop a bout can they be legally liable? The answer to this question will vary based on the jurisdiction and the facts presented. The only case I am aware of dealing with this matter (big thank you to boxing lawyer Kurt Emhoff who kindly pointed me to this judgement and to his colleague Scott Shaffer who was counsel of record) involved third party allegations by defendants sued in negligence arguing seconds should indemnify them if they are found liable.
The decision was from New York and involved the fallout after boxer Magomed Abdusalamov suffered a brain bleed in a 2013 bout and was rendered permanently disabled. In the case the Court noted that managers owe a fiduciary duty to the financial well being of their fighters and that managers may owe a contractual duty to look after their health and safety (which would depend entirely on the language of a fighter/manager contract) but that seconds and managers don’t owe a fighter any statutory duty to stop a bout. In dismissing the Third Party claims Judge Debra Silver noted “Boxing law s. 8926 specifically requires the Commission to provide a physician in attendance at every boxing match, and states “the physician shall terminate any boxing…match…if in the opinion of such physician any contestant has received severe punishment or is in danger of serious physical injury.”. A boxer’s manager has a fiduciary duty to the boxer as regard his compensation, but cannot be found to have, as a matter of law, a statutory duty with regard to the boxer’s medical care“.
After boxer and MMA fighter Tim Hague died from brain trauma after a boxing bout on June 16, 2017 in Edmonton Alberta litigation ensued. One of the allegations from the City and from the ringside physicians is that Hague’s seconds were negligent in not stopping the bout arguing they were negligent in “failing to discontinue Hague’s participation in the Event, knowing his pre-Event medical and concussion history”. The Alberta courts have yet to adjudicate these claims.
In short there is vast inconsistency on second standards, both in terms of who is qualified to act as a second and if/when/how seconds are to stop a bout.
Having unified standards on baseline knowledge for seconds when it comes to health and safety issues such as brain trauma and CTE along with clear standards on when seconds should consider exercising their discretion to stop a bout are areas the ABC and athletic commissions should consider reforming.