The video proof is stark and damning.
For the better part of four rounds, Pennington had absorbed punishing leg kicks, which had her left leg bruised and purple by the end of the opening stanza, never mind the continued damage. That left Pennington, by the middle of the fight, as stationary target practice for Nunes, who picked her spots and picked her opponent apart at will.
By the end of the fourth, Pennington had appeared to have a broken nose. And she also appeared to have her fill of the battle for the evening, so she told her coaches from the Colorado Springs-based Triple Threat Gym that enough was enough.
“I’m done,” Pennington can be heard telling her corner. “I want to be done.”
Instead of waving off the fight, Pennington’s corner made what instantly turned into one of the most second-guessable decisions during a major fight in quite some time, and sent her back out for the fifth round.
That decision turned out to be the equivalent of sending a lamb out to slaughter. Pennington gave whatever she had left, but it wasn’t much. Nunes ruthlessly tore into Pennington, living up to her “Lioness” nickname. By the time the bout was finally waved off in the middle of the fifth round, the blood stains on the canvas looked more like someone had randomly emptied cans of red paint on the mat than the result of a human being’s cut.
It’s rare for a fighter to openly criticize their opponent’s coach right after a fight, but Nunes, who is friends with both Pennington and her fiancee, Tecia Torres, echoed the many voices on Twitter in the fight’s aftermath who believed Pennington’s corner made a bad move in subjecting their charge to needless damage.
“I think she really needs to surround herself with people that want the best for her, so she can evolve in her next fights,” Nunes said at the post-fight news conference. “Unfortunately, tonight he failed. … It’s sad. If she didn’t have the right conditioning to fight, then the coach should have thrown in the towel, for sure. I think my coach wouldn’t let me go through that.”
There’s a counterargument for this, of course: The corner knows the fighter better than you do. Fair enough, but this also means you have to know the fighter well enough to know when enough is enough. There are notable such decisions in UFC history, from B.J. Penn’s corner recognizing their UFC 98 bout with Georges St-Pierre was a lost cause, and throwing in the towel after the fourth; to Nate Marquardt’s coach, Trevor Wittman, listening to his fighter at UFC 188 when Marquardt told him he was done at the end of the second round of a bout with Kelvin Gastelum.
And, sure, there was always the chance Pennington would have landed a lucky punch and scored a miracle victory. It’s happened before. This is the “you can’t win Powerball if you don’t play” argument, which fixates on the one-in-a-million chance of a win and ignores the 999,999 who don’t. You’ve got a much higher chance of the worst-case scenario playing out, which is exactly what happened on Saturday night.
No one sane is going to question Pennington’s heart. This is a young woman who suffered a broken back in high school, and bounced back to become a successful professional athlete. If a fighter with that sort of pedigree says it’s time to call it a day, maybe it’s time to call it a day.
While Pennington has yet to speak out, her partner Torres posted on Instagram on Sunday afternoon, and unequivocally came out in favor of her team’s decision-making process.
“Both us and our coaches agree with the decision made to go into the 5th round,” the post read in part. “We know Raquel more than anyone else and know if we let her give up on herself going into the last round she would have always regretted it. She fought with heart and grit until the end.”
That’s understandable. Warriors always want to be remembered for going out on their shield.
But fighters’ careers have been broken when machismo has overruled common sense — think Renan Barao after the beating he took from T.J. Dillashaw for four-and-a-half rounds at UFC 173, or Rich Franklin’s brutal five-round beatdown of David Loiseau at UFC 58. And despite Torres’ protestations, the jury will remain out on whether the decision which allowed Pennington to keep fighting will be one that forever changes their fighter for the worse.
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