The thin gray line

Tap outs are legal in MMA, but they're also governed by unwritten rules -- unless someone wants to get branded as less than tough. Dustin Snipes for ESPN The Magazine

The body has taken leave of its senses but not its will. It is unable to fight but unwilling to show it. Somehow the prone man, his back flat to the canvas with another man on top of him, appears poised to strike, despite being suspended in a state of semicomatose stupefaction. As you will see,
this condition -- the proneness, the semialertness, the not-really-there-ness -- presents a significant problem for Forrest Griffin.

How could this happen? How could a 205-pound championship-caliber MMA fighter, a man whose livelihood and well-being depend in no small measure on understanding when enough is enough, find himself in a position where his body completely betrays his mind? He doesn't know, either, but he swears it's true. He has the scars to prove it. "I don't go completely limp, so I look like I'm ready to fight," he says. "Everyone has a different button. I tell my body to do stuff, but it just stops listening. Nobody can tell. The ref can't tell; my opponent can't tell. It's kind of frightening."

Maybe it's the training. Maybe it's the lifelong stigma attached to concepts like surrender and powerlessness. Maybe the hours spent forcing weakness from mind and body have permanently disabled his fight-or-flight mechanism.

Or maybe Griffin's body, which has stopped responding to its brain's commands despite the tension of its muscles and the alertness of its appearance, is simply unable to access that portion of itself that identifies either a lost cause or imminent danger.

Whatever the case, Griffin is on his back, head lifted above the mat, fists clenched, absorbing repeated strikes he can't see coming, in his most crucial UFC fight. Long after Griffin's synapses have stopped firing on all cylinders, Rashad Evans is beating on him like he's the manifestation of all evil. Evans has no way of knowing that Griffin's body language is a lie. In these final seconds of his 2008 loss to Evans, Griffin's body doesn't know how or when to stop. It's no different from a dog that will fetch a ball 'til its paws bleed.

Griffin, defending the UFC light heavyweight title for the first time, was relying on the referee to draw the line between serious danger and healthy competition. But where is that line? There's no clear definition, but against Evans that night, Griffin was clearly on the wrong side of it. In those moments between his mind-body disconnect and the fight's merciful conclusion, Evans' fists connected with Griffin's face close to a dozen times. "It would have been nice if the ref had spared me at least the last four or five shots," Griffin says. "If I could have quit, I would have, but I wasn't coherent."

Imagine the danger line in sports as a divider in a desolate, flat stretch of two-lane highway. On one side, you'll find strength, courage, competitive fire -- all those qualities we've come to mythologize in the sports-warrior industrial complex. On the other, you'll find recklessness, stupidity, the potential for serious injury -- all the qualities that make us question an athlete's sanity and future health. The line is often blurred or, in Griffin's case, undetectable to its owner. It is present in some form in every sport, drawn by competitors, officials and rule books. Where it is drawn, though, is an open question.

Every professional or high-level athlete prides himself or herself on toughness. A fighter like Griffin, predictably, places danger in a far
different place than, say, a basketball player might. "When Travis Pastrana jumped out of an airplane without a parachute -- that's over the line," says Griffin, 32. "No matter where you draw it, we can all agree, that one crosses it."

The narrow spaces on either side of the line, the area we might consider the acceptable margin-of-error zone, are where most nonextreme athletes reside. To extend the metaphor, they stay off the shoulders of our desolate highway. They know the line can separate a distinguished career from a long hospital stay. Conversely, the athlete who repeatedly defines his line as being too far to the safe side gains a reputation for softness -- a far worse fate.

The stakes are higher in the combat sports: boxing, MMA, football, wrestling. A foolish trip to the danger side in those sports can literally be a matter of life and death. Boxer Yuri Foreman, who found himself on the wrong side of the line last year in a bout with Miguel Cotto, laughs at the question and says, "I'm not sure a boxer qualifies as an expert on drawing that line."

The fighting sports have built-in mechanisms that allow competitors to bow out of a lost cause. MMA fighters can tap out, but there are unwritten rules governing that, too. You don't tap out on strikes or else you're branded as less than tough. Griffin says there are ways around this; a fighter who recognizes his hopeless plight but doesn't want the shame of a tap out will often turn his back to his opponent and offer himself up for a rear naked choke hold. "When I was younger, I considered tapping out to be breaking," says Griffin, who has never tapped out in 24 career bouts (he's 18-6) but forced seven men to give up. "We all thought, Once you break, you can never come back. It's not dishonorable to me now, though. If I'm going to lose anyway, I might as well get out with all my limbs."

The line is powerful and transient, dependent on circumstance and participant. It creates and destroys reputations. In horse racing, jockeys call the outside of the track the married man's lane because it's free of the rail's congestion and the attendant danger of being thrown. The married man's lane is generally free of both injury and victory, too.

By definition, an NFL special-teamer must occasionally swerve onto the shoulder of our desolate highway to remain employed. An NBA player of marginal talent might build his rep and endear himself to coaches by taking a charge from Shaq in the fourth quarter of a 30-point game. The same act committed by Chris Paul would be considered reckless and foolish.

So the line giveth, the line taketh away. It's the same principle that guided the public reaction to Bears quarterback Jay Cutler's decision to sit out most of the second half of the NFC title game against the Packers with a knee injury of indeterminate severity (we later found out it was a sprained MCL). The outcry would have been far less had the same sequence occurred against the Giants in October. One thing seems clear, though: Cutler's danger line is drawn far to the right of the one Byron Leftwich drew for himself during his senior season at Marshall, when he played with a fractured shinbone and had linemen carry him down the field between plays in a 2002 loss against Akron. In both cases, in far different ways, legends were born.

Leftwich was already projected as a first-round pick when he refused to take off his uniform after leaving the field and heading to the hospital for an X-ray of his leg. He returned to the game, anyway, overruling those who thought he should sit it out. From all appearances, Leftwich departed the pavement of our desolate highway the moment he limped back into the huddle. But maybe it's not that easy. Leftwich told his mom, Brenda, "If I had to do that a million times over, I would if that's what it took to help my team win."

Without the indelible sight of two offensive linemen carrying him down the field, what would constitute the legacy of Byron Leftwich? What image would you conjure up in your mind had he removed his uniform and returned to the sideline on crutches? He has had a fruitful but unspectacular NFL career, but no single event resonates as deeply as that Saturday night game against Akron, a 34-20 loss, no less.

Risk is woven into the DNA of any successful athlete. Not only is there a line for every sport, but there's also one for every position of every sport. Catchers, more than any other baseball player, have to prioritize their toughness and draw the line accordingly. Jason Varitek relishes collisions at the plate, proudly describing the aftermath of one he endured in Double-A as "looking through a waffle." Reds catcher Ramon Hernandez, on the other hand, is known for doing whatever possible to avoid contact. His reputation is somewhat mitigated by the fact that Hernandez suffered knee injuries on two separate home plate collisions early in his career.

It's instructive to separate sports that are inherently dangerous from those that are situationally dangerous. NASCAR, like MMA and boxing, is inherently dangerous. The act of driving a car almost 200 mph into a tight turn with several other cars calls for the suspension of the danger line. Still, there are rules. Drivers who race like they're in a demolition derby will become marked men, and drivers who refuse to mix it up in the turns will be mocked for their cowardice.

When 7-year-old Jeff Gordon won a junior midget race in California by driving all over another racer, his stepfather, John Bickford, made him return the trophy. "I was brought up not to go knock people out of the way," Gordon says. "Now when you get in stock cars, you've got to change that philosophy a little bit."

The line in NASCAR is defined by three words: Don't give in. If a driver lets himself be bullied, it won't stop until he stands up to the bullies and forces it to stop. On March 7, 2010, Carl Edwards deliberately turned into Brad Keselowski at Atlanta Motor Speedway as retribution for a perceived line crossing by Keselowski earlier in the race. Edwards made no apologies, although he regrets the extent of the wreck (Keselowski flipped and finished 36th). "You've got to stand your ground," Edwards says. "It's vital."

Standing your ground is not always a choice; sometimes, as Foreman can tell you, the decision is made for you. In his June 2010 bout against Cotto at Yankee Stadium, Foreman's right knee -- weakened from a previous injury -- gave out in the seventh round. As he limped across the ring, ref Arthur Mercante Jr. said to him, repeatedly, "Walk it off, champ. Suck it up, kid."

Suck it up. They're three of the most powerful, and potentially dangerous, words in sports. From the time a kid first suits up, those words are a constant presence, a barometer of his ability to overcome adversity and earn the respect of those in control. And Foreman, robbed of his mobility in a fight he was already losing, sucked it up. Wobbling, hobbling, Foreman continued to fight. He fell again. With 1:34 left in the seventh round, after he got up and was
goaded to continue by Mercante a second time, HBO announcer Jim Lampley said, "How courageous is this? Or how foolish?"

In other words, had Foreman, with Mercante's prodding, crossed the line between toughness and stupidity? "It was the fight of a lifetime," Foreman says. "When you're on the biggest stage, you keep going until you can't go anymore. It's the referee's job to draw the line."

When the referee failed to draw the line again in the eighth round, Foreman's corner tried to draw it for him. A towel came into the ring,
signaling Foreman's corner had seen enough. But Mercante overruled it. He asked Foreman, "You want to go, champ?"

Foreman, though dazed, nodded.

"You're fighting hard," Mercante said. "I don't want to see you lose like that."

The inevitable happened less than 40 seconds into the ninth round, when Foreman went down and couldn't get up. By this time, Foreman had veered far off the shoulder of our desolate highway, his tires kicking up dust and gravel. (Mercante later told ESPN.com: "The towel came in the heat of the battle. They had a good exchange going. I felt it wasn't necessary to stop it. I didn't know where it came from. There was no need to stop the fight. They were in the middle of a great fight. That's what the fans came to see. I felt I did the right thing to let it continue.")

Given Mercante's insistence and the magnitude of the fight, Foreman had no choice but to continue. Had he quit after the first fall, it would have been sensible, but it would have also been his No mas moment. He'd have been destroyed by it. Still, the question remains: Do you sacrifice your career, maybe your life, for your image? And if you put your fate in someone else's hands, shouldn't he have a clear-eyed view of the line separating competition and danger?

"When he was asking me those questions, it was like someone asking a kamikaze pilot if he wants to fly his plane into the ground," Foreman says. "Of course he does, but he's not thinking of the consequences. I know a boxer could end up losing his mind and people will pat him on the head and say, 'You had a big heart.'"

They won't ask why he didn't just stay down or walk off or admit the obvious and shake his head when Mercante pushed him over the line. That would have been behavior unworthy of a warrior. Had he quit in the most important fight of his life, Foreman would have lost an important piece of himself. As he says, "It depends on what kind of fighter you are and what you're choosing that day: reputation or health?"

Both, sadly, are not always compatible. The line sometimes moves on its own; sometimes it's pushed by an outside force. Foreman discovered that quitting, even under the most justifiable circumstances, isn't as easy as it might appear.

Forrest Griffin's body does him the cruelest favor: It draws the line for him by obliterating it entirely. His reputation for toughness is well-deserved (UFC founder Dana White still considers Griffin's 2005 brawl with Stephan Bonnar the most important bout in his circuit's history), but it is bolstered considerably by near-comatose feats of endurance like the final moments of the fight against Evans. In one breath Griffin says he has reached a point where he would do the unthinkable -- tap out in a lost cause -- and in the next he says, "I've been hurt so much in training and in fights that I've reached the point where I have to approach every fight like it's my last. So there's only one way to go out: as hard as you can."

Griffin stops and lets the contradiction hang in the air. The whole conversation has him both amused and frustrated. "Look," he says, "I know that attitude is completely different from what I just said. Sorry, I can't help it."

There is no right answer. What's right for Byron Leftwich might be wrong for Jay Cutler. Throwing in the towel isn't always good enough. Many athletes owe their success to the stability found between the lines of our desolate highway, but many more depend on its margins for their livelihood. Sometimes you draw the line; more often, it's drawn for you.

Tim Keown is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.