Jingliang puts both hands on Matthews’ face, and digs his fingers into Matthews’ eyes. The foul appears to open a cut on Matthews’ eyelid, and his vision was blurred. The referee didn’t even stop the action, despite being right above the foul as it happened. Instead, he let it continue, Jingliang escaped the guillotine, and the official simply warned him not to commit another foul between rounds.
There’s a running joke in MMA that you get two free fouls before the ref will even consider taking a point. Usually, those fouls are an inside leg kick that goes a little too high, a knee in the clinch that goes a little too low, or a finger grazing an eye during an exchange on the feet—the kind of foul where it’s almost impossible to know whether or not the fighter really intended to commit a foul. At UFC 221, Li Jingliang left absolutely no doubt that he intended to foul Jake Matthews and referee Mark Simpson still did nothing.
Damage to the eyes can have permanent effects. Michael Bisping suffered a detached retina which badly affected his peripheral vision, and he could have lost vision in the eye for good. To this day, Bisping’s eye still visibly shows the after-effects of that detached retina.
In the past, the UFC has released fighters for unsportsmanlike conduct. Rousimar Palhareswas released after repeatedly holding onto submissions for too long. Renato Babalu Sobral was released after holding onto a single choke for too long. Paul Daley was released after hitting Josh Koscheck after the final bell. The relative severity of the offenses of Palhares, Sobral, Daley and Jingliang can be argued, but the fact is, Jingliang risked permanently injuring his opponent with an illegal move to avoid losing his fight.
Despite this unsportsmanlike conduct, the UFC rewarded Li Jingliang with a $50,000 fight of the night bonus. The message was clear: Foul your opponents as blatantly and brutally as you like, as long as it’s entertaining. It’s one thing for incompetent commission officials to mishandle a foul in the heat of the moment, but it’s another thing entirely for the promotion to tacitly endorse such behavior with a bonus.