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A reminder after UFC Jacksonville: Throwing in the towel is not an act of weakness

Anthony Smith and Glover Teixeira seemed evenly matched over the first two rounds of Wednesday night’s UFC Jacksonville main event. Smith got off to a great start, snapping out an accurate jab and powering a thudding right behind it. Teixeira absorbed what Smith had to offer and found an inside range more to his liking. After those opening minutes, it seemed like the kind of ebb and flow that makes for a scintillating headliner, even in an arena with no fans. Little did we know at the time that the momentum shift would be permanent. Teixeira built on his success and pulverized Smith until the bout was mercifully waved off in the fifth.

It got so bad that Teixeira actually apologized to Smith for brutalizing him. During the fight.

“Sorry, Anthony,” he said from a dominant position on Smith’s back, in a rare moment when Smith temporarily stopped Teixeira’s arm from throwing one of the many, many punches he would land in the fourth round.

“What?” Smith replied, probably unsure of what he was saying.

“Sorry,” he repeated. “Part of the job.”

“Yeah,” Smith said. “It is what it is.”

That brief moment of civility notwithstanding, it was the kind of beating that left many fans grimacing at what had occurred. That’s partially because it wasn’t even the most surreal reminder of its brutality. Video cameras also caught Smith handing referee Jason Herzog what appeared to be teeth (Smith’s coach later told ESPN that they could have been veneers) that had been smashed out of his mouth, all while Teixeira hung on his back deciding whether to continue his pummeling or to sink in a choke. This, again, was after minutes and minutes of a hellacious beating, and past the point when the fight was competitive.

To be sure, Smith lived up to his “Lionheart” nickname. He refused to surrender and competed ferociously to the bitter end, which came 64 seconds into the fifth round. But it didn’t have to end that way, it didn’t have to end so late.

At some point before that, most of us watching had seen enough. Maybe it was after the third round, which according to UFC statistics, saw Teixeira out-land Smith by the staggering total of 76-1. Maybe it was after doing more of the same in the fourth. Maybe it was at the point where we realized that Smith was exhausted, and that there was no coming back from that.

Watching it, there was no way to ignore the lopsidedness of the beating, or the toll it was taking on Smith. Yes, he was responding to referee Herzog’s instructions to move, and yes, he showed a will to be there. But at some point, there has to be a willingness to step in and save a fighter from his own toughness.

There were several points when Herzog seemed to flirt with the idea of a stoppage before finally calling an end to the bout in the fifth. There were multiple times he stepped in closer to the action and told Smith he needed to defend himself or improve his position to stay in the fight. Ultimately, he decided Smith showed enough defensive presence to continue on.

Herzog’s decision let the fight continue long past the point of competition, but he is not the only one who played a role in its uncomfortable length. Smith’s cornermen James Krause and Marc Montoya also had moments of contemplation they may regret.

This is not to say it’s an easy call to ask the referee to stop a fight. Most cornermen are incredibly reluctant to do it. They don’t want to take away a chance at a victory, at a win bonus, at a career-defining comeback, at a chance to vault toward a title match. Most trainers preach to their fighters about battling through adversity, and see it as hypocritical to be the ones to decide the athlete’s fate from the corner.

For his part, Smith told ESPN that he was content with the calls made by the referee and his corner. “I come out of battle with my shield or I come out on it. That’s my rule. Period.”

We heard the same thing Saturday night, when two-time UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz bemoaned referee Keith Peterson’s stoppage as a premature, saying that before the fight he asked Peterson to let the fight go “until I was out.”

Cruz is one of the more cerebral fighters in the game and even he can’t admit that this is not how things work. The referee is there for a specific reason, and the goalpost does not change from match to match. The corner people are, too. They are there to provide advice and support, but when all goes wrong, they are also there to protect. Shifting from one responsibility to another in real time may be the most difficult thing that trainers and coaches do, but it is something that demands preparation, same as a game plan.

Throwing in the towel may be an act of last resort, but it’s no act of weakness to save your fighter from needless damage. It’s an act of humanity.

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