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Raquel Pennington’s loss at UFC 224 shines spotlight on the onus of cornering

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Back at UFC 188, 10 minutes into giving it his best shot against the younger, stronger Kelvin Gastelum, Nate Marquardt told his longtime cornerman Trevor Wittman he was done. With no trace of inner-conflict or reluctance, Wittman turned to the referee, Dan Miragliotta, and conveyed that sentiment — “it’s over,” he said. “Stop it.” And they did. The fight was stopped. Wittman didn’t linger for a moment on what it means to be a “warrior”, and felt no need to reiterate a timely fight game dogma to “dig deeper”; he was Marquardt’s guardian and protector in the heat of the moment, and he acted as such.

Sometimes accepting “enough is enough” is its own act of courage, especially in a sport where the most taboo word imaginable is “quit.”

On Saturday night, after 20 minutes of giving it her best shot against the stronger, more versatile Amanda Nunes, Raquel Pennington told her corner she’d had enough. “I’m done,” she said, “I want to be done.” In this case, her corner didn’t let her go so gentle into that good night. “No no no no,” her coach said. “Let’s power through this. Let’s believe. Change your mindset. Change your mindset. Let’s just throw everything we got. We’ll recover later. Throw everything we got.”

Pennington didn’t protest. She got up and the stool disappeared behind her. Once more unto the breach. She answered the bell for the fifth round, and ended up getting taken down. Within moments her nose was busted open and bleeding profusely, as Nunes was raining punches down from the top. The referee Marc Goddard stopped the fight, and everyone was left to wonder why she was asked to endure more punishment in a fight she tried to concede?

It’s tough.

It’s a tough situation, and there are different psychologies in play — a good many of them outdated, all of them very personal. There are resentments looming in the balance, and conceits to live another day; there is second-guessing, the diehard adage to seize the moment, and a fleeting desperation that title shots don’t come around too often. There is the worry of regrets, that every tomorrow will haunt a fighter who gave in for the rest of their lives. After all, what is fighting other than the plumbing of one’s own depths, identifying thresholds, and treating those bastards as nothing more than challenges to overcome? A coach is oftentimes the guiding force to extend those thresholds, to make them malleable — to make fears conform to will, butterflies fly in formation, and all that jazz.

Sometimes all that is just hooey. Sometimes it’s just human beings breaking each other, and the urge is to stop the senseless act when one of them is clearly broken.

The one thing fighting isn’t is easy to understand; the rights and wrongs are separated by chaotic whims and inches. And when a person identifies as a fighter — when everything is thought of as a fight to overcome, whether it’s a past, an opponent, or a set of fears — the corner has to wrestle with compassion as much as they do with that mindset. Protecting fighters from themselves is an involved thing to do. After all, what is a corner other than a shared conscience?

Saturday’s situation was made all the tougher given that the television audience heard Pennington say she was through, and heard the commentators then reiterate that she said she was through, thus making every subsequent punch she received excessive and unnecessary. And they were. But had Pennington gone out and landed the Hail Mary to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, her corner would be lauded for giving her the boost she needed to continue. When coach Tue Trnka talked Nicolas Dalby out of quitting on his stool against Darren Till between the second and third round of a fight he was losing 2-0, he gave Dalby a reason to be proud of himself for the rest of his life. Dalby came back to force a majority draw because his coach acted as a pillar of strength at a time when he needed it most.

His coach also knew his hard wiring and psychology. Had Dalby gotten panned with a couple of big shots early in the third round, would he have thrown the towel? Digging deep is cool until it’s foolish.

For Pennington, the Hail Mary failed, yet no towel was thrown. And her corner stood idle as she went out — after protesting against having to — on her shield. There was something backwards about it, something gratuitous and outrageous and untrusting. Why would you subject your fighter to additional harm, after she has already done so much to prove her merit as a warrior? Wasn’t it Pennington that overcame a broken back as a teenager to forge a career as a professional athlete at all, and a broken fibula to emerge as a contender?

Given what we know of Pennington, there’s no doubting her toughness or her want. Her track record for “warrior-ing up” is pretty set — if she says she’s done, there’s really no reason to question that. She stood in against Amanda Nunes for 20 minutes, had her lead leg chopped at throughout and her nose busted, her ribs turned purple from repeated kicks. She came forward time and again, usually to get clocked by Nunes’ fists and feet. She kept coming forward because that what she does.

She came forward at the end not because she wanted to, but because her corner wouldn’t allow her to do otherwise. Her corner should have listened to her when she said she was done, which is an easy thing to say in hindsight. What you’d have liked to see is the corner throw in the towel when she got taken down in the fifth round. That’s when hope left the Jeunesse Arena in Rio, and everyone groaned for the same reason.

Rocky was right.

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