UFC 224’s main card featured Amanda Nunes maintaining her status as the top fighter in the UFC women’s bantamweight division, a closely contested middleweight clash and a battle of MMA legends to kick off the show. Oh, there was also yet another thunderous knockout by John Lineker and another successful outing for perhaps the next big megastar in women’s MMA. Yet, most of the conversation following the event has focused on the minute between rounds four and five of Nunes’ fight with challenger Raquel Pennington.
Pennington, on the receiving end of a beating from the champion, came back to her corner bruised and battered. “Rocky” and her corner only had 60 seconds to come up with a path to a miracle finish.
Nunes had busted up Pennington’s leg early, leaving noticeable bruising after the first round. Nunes mixed up the leg strikes with attacks to Pennington’s face, eventually rearranging the challenger’s nose in the process. Nunes was well in control. Outside of a few moments in the early portion of the fight, it was “The Lioness” who seemed to be only moments away from victory.
Exhausted and frustrated, Pennington came to her corner in between those last two rounds and said the words nobody expects to hear from a fighter, “I’m done.” Her corner denied her statements and instead chose to attempt to hype their fighter up before the final frame. “Change your mindset,” her corner implored. It was difficult to watch. Pennington clearly wanted out of the fight, but her corner refused to call it. The end of the contest came just a few minutes later when Nunes secured top position and battered Pennington with a barrage of strikes to cause the referee to step in after Pennington’s nose exploded in a stream of blood on the canvas.
Almost immediately, the focus shifted from Nunes’ dominance to the failure of Pennington’s corner. And make no mistake about it, her coaches did fail her.
— Josh Sánchez (@jnsanchez) May 13, 2018
There are a few arguments floating around on social media defending her corner’s decision to send her back out to face Nunes in the fifth round. One idea focused on the fact that if Pennington had pulled off a miraculous win in the final frame, then we’d proclaim her corner as the smartest group of coaches in the game. Sure, that’s likely true. If Pennington did pull off a shocking victory, we would be praising both her and her coaches. However, at what point did we honestly believe Pennington had a chance at pulling off the upset?
Already a sizable underdog heading into the contest, Pennington wasn’t expected to be able to hang with Nunes, who would take control from the opening bell. Pennington’s corner instructed their fighter to “take stuff away from Nunes” and to not allow the champion to control the action. Despite her coaches’ instructions, Pennington again found herself circling on the outside of the cage as Nunes worked her striking game and eventually utilized her clinch and grappling skills to wear Pennington down. Not only did Pennington show very little to lead people to believe she was still capable of finishing Nunes, but she couldn’t even follow through with the advice given by her coaches early on in the fight.
There’s also the argument that Pennington’s coaches were the ones to understand the “change your mindset” speech was what she needed to hear, as if she’d said this same thing in training before and her coaches refused to allow their fighter to quit on herself. Perhaps this is true. We aren’t privy to a fighter’s training sessions, of course. But when you consider Pennington, a woman who is thought to be one of the toughest fighters in the division and certainly isn’t one fans would label as soft, tells you she wants out, then you’d have to think it’s pretty bad. Fighters, often the epitome of toughness and mental fortitude for sports fans, don’t typically allow doubt to even creep into their minds, let alone openly admit they’re done. Pennington didn’t get to where she is now by quitting during training sessions.
Another argument suggests that her corner didn’t want their fighter to endure any feelings of regret in the biggest fight of her career. The prevailing thought was Pennington may not get another chance at a world title and she would’ve wished she had pushed forward instead of making a decision while exhausted. This is perhaps what was going through her coaches’ minds as they yelled at their fighter to push on.
Pennington held a career 9-5 record and wasn’t setting the world on fire before an injury forced her to sit on the sidelines for over a year. Still, the women’s bantamweight division isn’t known for its depth. Outside of Nunes and Holly Holm, the division lacks the starpower of other UFC weight classes. Pennington could only be a few fights away from getting another title shot. This isn’t boxing, where losses hold so much weight that fighters are seemingly incapable of overcoming them. Pennington could’ve recovered from quitting in between rounds with some impressive performances in her next few fights.
Speaking of boxing, it was on the same night that we saw a similar situation play out in the ring, as 19-year-old Devin Haney dominated Mason Menard on Showtime Boxing. Haney, much like Nunes, took control early. Menard’s corner saw their fighter just didn’t have it that night and called a halt to the action after the ninth round.
“We’re done… There’s no sense in you taking abuse,” Menard’s corner told him.
“We’re done…There’s no sense in you taking abuse.”
Mason Menard’s corner stops the fight after the ninth to save him from 3 more minutes of embarrassment. @Realdevinhaney moves to 19-0 (13 KOs) #boxing #ShoBox pic.twitter.com/o0XdJFMi8n
— Ryan Songalia (@ryansongalia) May 12, 2018
This is what a corner is supposed to do. They’re supposed to be the ones looking on from the outside and considering the total picture. Even if hyping Pennington up was what she needed to hear, they should’ve seen their fighter wasn’t going to pull off a magical finish. It was evident that Pennington simply didn’t have enough to overcome Nunes that night at UFC 224. This wasn’t a close fight where either fighter could’ve won the contest with a dominant final frame. This was a one-sided affair in which the title challenger was outclassed by the champion.
Instead of the corner saving Pennington from more abuse, the challenger endured what looked to be a broken nose. Although believed to be a minor injury in the fight game, it’s also one that has the potential to hinder a fighter beyond one fight. Rory MacDonald famously took time off to allow his nose to heal after it repeatedly broke. If Pennington’s nose is compromised in future fights, then it could make breathing more complicated. Pennington isn’t the type of fighter to go in and get a quick knockout or tapout either, which only makes this a bigger factor.
Despite the negative backlash online, Pennington seems to agree with her coaches sending her out for the final round. Her fiancée and fellow UFC competitor Tecia Torres posted a statement on social media, indicating Pennington and Torres both agreed with the call. It’s commendable that Pennington would support her coaches’ decision and remain loyal. Hopefully, though, she has either already had or will have a discussion about what to do if the situation should ever arise again. In fact, it would be a good idea for all coaches to have this kind of discussion with their fighters at some point in their fighting career.
Fighters want to maintain the mirage of invincibility and likely don’t want to discuss how to handle a corner calling it quits. However, it’s an important and potentially career-altering decision. Perhaps both parties should be on the same page about it.