Trevor Wittman has called off a bout for one of his fighters before and he’s hoping more coaches are willing to do the same in the future.
The date was June 13, 2015. UFC 188 in Mexico City. Wittman was cornering MMA lifer Nate Marquardt against Kelvin Gastelum, an opponent a dozen years younger than Marquardt. The former Strikeforce welterweight champion was mired in a 1-4 slump and Gastelum was expected to give him a ton of problems.
Gastelum did just that, outworking Marquardt in every aspect of the fight for two rounds to the point that it didn’t even look like Marquardt wanted to be in the cage anymore. As it turns out, by the end of the second frame, he didn’t. He told Wittman, “I’m done”, and rather than attempt to push five more minutes out of his fighter, Wittman agreed and told the referee to wave off the bout.
It was a rare occurrence in MMA — one that in this instance was met with little controversy given Marquardt’s own admission of defeat — a sport where fighters regularly complain about early stoppages and fans have been conditioned to believe that anything can happen as long as there is a second left on the clock.
But Wittman doesn’t see why referees should be solely responsible for knowing when a fighter is finished. On The MMA Hour, he told host Luke Thomas that recognizing a fighter is in no shape to continue can save them from a bad night and preserve their long term prospects.
“If you’re taking an ass whupping and that fighter clearly doesn’t want to be in there, you’ve got to be the one that steps up and takes the sword,” Wittman said. “You have to jump in there and make it your call. Let the fighters complain that we shouldn’t have stopped the fight because the more times that you get beat inside that cage and you’re getting dominated, that hurts you mentally and that’s hard to come back from. Whether you’re just taking too many punches — or does your fighter need to be in there? Do you need to jump in there and save him and get him back mentally and re-strategize on what’s going on? Again, it’s a lot of psyche.
“You’ve got to know your fighter and the key to all athletes is being able to ride that money train and ride that money train as long as they can. You see it with a lot of fighters, you almost see their careers completely changed. And if you look at that, you’ve got to really pay attention to the two or three performances that changed the way they performed in the cage. Where you see guys that looked invincible and then all of a sudden they become human. And then all of a sudden you’re going, ‘Wow, are they even gatekeeper-level?’”
Though Marquardt and his team had to bite the bullet against Gastelum, he would actually go on to win two of his next three fights by knockout, lending some credence to Wittman’s theory. Marquardt would then lose his next three before retiring at the end of 2017.
According to Wittman, it could have been a lot worse for the one-time UFC middleweight title challenger given the health issues Marquardt had heading into the Gastelum matchup. That played a major part in the corner stoppage, as Marquardt’s performance confirmed to Wittman that it just wasn’t their fight to win.
“Nate had a situation that I was aware of prior to going into that fight, that the doctors were very concerned with his blood pressure,” Wittman said. “His blood pressure was super, super high. And we sat in the doctor’s office the entire day of the fight, about two hours before he went out and they were very concerned with his blood pressure.
“And then when I had seen him performing there was something totally wrong, so I already had an awareness to it. But it’s not that you just stop the fight when someone’s getting beat up. It’s where are they in that fight? And does the guy have your number that night?”
Even in the best case scenario where a fighter is able to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, Wittman wonders what effect those ordeals can have on one’s longevity. He brought up Anderson Silva’s first win over Chael Sonnen at UFC 117 as an example, which is arguably the greatest comeback in MMA history.
Silva spent the majority of the five-round fight on his back defending against Sonnen’s ground-and-pound, only to pull out miraculous triangle choke submission with less than two minutes remaining in the fight to retain his middleweight crown. Silva went on to successfully defend his title three more times and even win a light heavyweight bout against Stephan Bonnar before stumbling into the 1-4 (1 NC) stretch he currently finds himself in.
It’s fights like the first Silva-Sonnen meeting that Wittman believes can be deleterious to the careers of even the most legendary fighters.
“Do you remember when Chael fought Anderson Silva and Chael beat Anderson Silva for five rounds, but Anderson came back to win the fight?” Wittman asked. “That’s one of those fights that kind of stand out to me where he found a way to win, he was the champion. But that was the downfall of his legacy. If you look at his next fight, he fought Chael again and dominated him, but then those performances right afterward, you start to question your performances by your performance.
“And if he was doing everything possible, he’s like, ‘Holy cow, I got held down for so long and yes I came back to win that fight,’ but he was the one that was in there. He was the one that deals with the soreness and what’s going on, where he was somewhat invincible. And those types of fights make you question everything, especially the older you become. What comes with age is wisdom.”