At UFC 224 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Amanda Nunes successfully defended her bantamweight title for the third time, finishing Raquel Pennington with strikes in the fifth and final round. The bout also marked the first time two openly gay athletes competed for the UFC title. These are things worth talking about. Instead, we’re left analyzing the actions of Pennington’s corner, who sent her back out to fight the fifth round after she said repeatedly, “I’m done,” after Round 4.
Pennington, after being battered for 20 minutes, seemingly pleaded with her coaches to let her walk away. Her nose was disfigured, her leg brutalized, and she was exhausted. She said she was finished multiple times, only to be told that there was time to recover later. Nunes pounced, and Pennington sustained unnecessary damage in the process.
Even Nunes said post-fight that Pennington’s corner had failed her.
The role of a coach is to teach, encourage, and ultimately, protect, the best interest of their fighter. Much has been made about the relationship between Pennington and her team; maybe that’s just the way it works for them. That shouldn’t be the case. The conversation in the corner, to put it lightly, was uncomfortable to watch.
Some coaches, like Greg Jackson, are known for their ability to cater their coaching style to the needs of individual fighters. Sometimes he is calm, speaking softly, while other times, he is yelling to fire up the fighter. This wasn’t the same thing. Pennington’s corner was just trying to convince her to continue.
Others, like Jason Parillo and Trevor Wittman, have thrown in the towel on behalf of B.J. Penn and Nate Marquardt respectively, preventing further injury.
The argument can be made that Pennington needs to shoulder the blame for the incident, as she continued to fight in the fifth round. What else was she supposed to do? Her coaches made it clear they wanted her to continue. Many fighters view their coaches as the ultimate authority. When a coach doesn’t end the fight, you keep going.
While the recently un-retired Chuck Liddell would never want one of his fights to be stopped, he explained on Ariel Helwani’s “The MMA Hour” that there was enough reason to throw in the towel, saying, “She is known for being tough. She is tough. All heart. She asked to be out. There’s something wrong, obviously. She turned around and said ‘Please let me out.’”
Liddell is right. There are times in the gym when fighters get complacent. They go through the motions. On days like that coaches step up and call them out.
This wasn’t just another day in the gym.
This was a world-championship fight. Pennington wanted that opportunity. Asking to be “done” is an indicator that something was seriously wrong.
Pennington did, in fact defend her coaches post-fight, saying that they would never deliberately put her in a dangerous situation. Whether she wants to admit it or not, that’s the position that she was in when she answered the final bell.
Perhaps the worst thing to come out of this — other than the damage to Pennington, is the negative light this sheds on the sport in the eyes of casual fans. Those who have never trained or competed are left shaking their heads, wondering how a coach, in good conscience, can treat a fighter that way. Those involved in the sport are left helplessly trying to explain the inexplicable.
For a sport that has long faced so many uphill battles in the public eye, Saturday night made the climb more difficult.