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Trading Shots: Did Raquel Pennington's coaches fail her in UFC 224 main event?

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Should Raquel Pennington’s coaches have heeded her pleas to call off the UFC women’s bantamweight title bout prior to the fifth round at UFC 224 in Rio de Janeiro on Saturday night? MMAjunkie columnist Ben Fowlkes joins retired UFC and WEC fighter Danny Downes to discuss.

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Fowlkes: So there we are in the UFC 224 main event, Danny. Through four rounds, Raquel Pennington has been pretty well handled by UFC women’s bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes, and things only seem to be getting worse. Pennington’s nose is smashed. Her eye is swelling up. She’s hanging her head on the stool after the fourth round. Then she gets up and turns to her coaches to tell them she’s done.

You already know what happens next. Pennington’s coaches talk her out of it. They tell her to change her mindset. They tell her she can recover later. They tell her to just throw everything she has at Nunes in this last round. They convince her to go back out there, at which point the beating finally gets bad enough for the ref to step in and do what her corner wouldn’t.

So what was that all for? Is this where you feed me some cliches about being a warrior and going out on your shield? Or is it about never saying die, because who knows, she could have caught Nunes in a hail Mary choke and then we’d all be having a different conversation right now? Or was it just a bad idea and an abdication of responsibility from the people who are supposed to be helping and protecting Pennington?

Downes: Calm down, Ben. It’s not good for someone in your condition to get this upset.

I agree that the idea of “going out on your shield” is objectively foolish. At the same time, though, I don’t know if it has zero worth. It’s not that you should walk out there and just wait to get knocked out, but there’s something about that sense of defiance. I think about the scene from “Raging Bull.” Jake LaMotta is busted up, and he ends up losing the fight, but what does he tell “Sugar” Ray Robinson? That iconic line: “You never got me down Ray.”

You probably think that mindset is stupid. You may be correct, but that’s also why you write about fights instead of compete in them. That’s also why you’re not an MMA coach.

Coaches are supposed to push you beyond your comfort zones. We’ve discussed my weight cut at WEC 49 before. There were a lot of times I wanted to quit during that process. My coach wouldn’t let me. He helped me push beyond my comfort zone, even if it required him to lie to me about how long I was sitting in that sauna. There must have been “two minutes left”
for about a half-hour.

Is forcibly dehydrating yourself different than getting punched in the face? Absolutely. But the point is that coaches make fighters do what they don’t want to do. Pennington’s corner knows her better than you do. Maybe she’s said “I’m done” during sparring or fights before this. Perhaps her coaches thought that she’d regret quitting in a title fight more than she’d regret going out for that fifth round. Is that really such an egregious mistake?

Fowlkes: Here’s an important distinction in your “Raging Bull” comparison: In that case, the defiance was coming from the fighter – not the coach who is safe and sound in the corner.

I understand that there are plenty of instances where you need a coach to push you past what you perceive as your own limits. I also think there’s a time and place for that, and it’s more in training and preparation than in the final stages of a one-sided competition.

Think about what was happening in that corner. Pennington’s been falling further and further behind in the fight. She’s damaged and exhausted. She’s in the championship rounds after being off for 18 months. When she stands up to say she wants to be done, her corner gives her platitudes – not any specific technical advice.

Seriously, what do you want her to do in that fifth round? What should she try that she hasn’t already tried? Tell her. If you want her to march back out there, at least give her something to work with. Telling her to give it everything she has implies that she hasn’t already done that. And obviously, Pennington thought she had.

It’s one thing when a fighter is begging to continue, still resolute and focused in her mind. But once she says she’s done, don’t you think she’s mentally out of the fight at that point? Doesn’t it seem like sending her back out only increases the chances of her getting seriously hurt, without increasing her chances of winning?

Downes: Now we’re having a totally different conversation. We’re discussing the effectiveness of the call instead of questioning whether or not it was “an abdication of responsibility.” I’d agree that it’s not the most tactically sound choice. It’s like when a fighter starts discussing retirement. If you’re already thinking about it, it’s probably time.

Again, the only real counterargument I could make is that the coach is protecting Pennington from a career regret. Whether it’s a title fight or not, quitting on the stool is something that can stick with a fighter. If you’ll quit before the fifth round starts, maybe you’ll quit in the middle of a round. Maybe you’ll quit in training camp.

I’m not saying that if Pennington was allowed to stop last night she’d turn into Bob Sapp overnight, but you worry about those things as a coach. It’s the same reason why, if your daughters want to play soccer or learn the clarinet, you’re not going to let them stop just because they feel like it. Not because there’s something particularly valuable about knowing how to play “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” on a woodwind instrument, but because you want them to learn about responsibility and perseverance.

And yes, I know band practice and fighting the world champ are two very different things. The lesson, though, still resonates. Pennington went out there for the fifth round. She didn’t want to, she thought she was done, but she still went out there. You and a lot of other fans may not believe in moral victories, but I do.

Fighting isn’t necessarily an all or nothing sport. You can’t measure everything in wins and losses. Pennington may have lost the fight, but she did gain something. Was it worth the punishment she took? Only she can answer that question.

Ben Fowlkes is MMAjunkie and USA TODAY’s MMA columnist. Danny Downes, a retired UFC and WEC fighter, is an MMAjunkie contributor who has also written for UFC.com and UFC 360. Follow them on twitter at @benfowlkesMMA and @dannyboydownes.



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