At UFC 224 on Saturday, bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes defended her title yet again, this time against Raquel Pennington, whose biggest claim to fame was probably a decisive victory over her former Ultimate Fighter coach Miesha Tate in 2016. Pennington was clearly the underdog going into Saturday’s fight, and, while she remained in the game until her TKO in the fifth round, Nunes was obviously dominant.
The controversy here came when, after taking some extremely effective knees during the fourth round, probably breaking her nose, Pennington told her corner that she wanted to be done. Instead of throwing in the towel, her corner told her to push through and throw everything she had at the match. While she stayed active through the beginning of the round, some strikes midway through reopened her bloodied nose. After she went to her knees, the referee stopped the match, giving the TKO victory to Nunes.
The MMA world is extremely divided over the corner’s decision to put Pennington back in the cage. Nunes, Pennington’s opponent, but also her friend, spoke out against the decision, saying that her coach had failed her. On the other hand, Miesha Tate (who has fought both of them) defended the corner, saying that it had allowed Pennington to lose with dignity. Pennington’s fiancee Tecia Torres, said more recently that both of them agreed with the corner’s choice as well. I admit that I, personally, feel some force from both sides of the debate. As a former athlete, I can appreciate being pushed not to quit, even when I might want to. But as a current coach, I don’t think I would be able to send an athlete back out if they really wanted to quit and were at risk of being seriously injured. Now, I don’t coach at nearly these levels, so that makes a difference. But in my experience, an athlete who doesn’t want to fight any more is at serious risk of being hurt or knocked out.
One thing I haven’t seen talked about that much, though, are the gender dynamics of what happened. Now, it is not at all unusual for fighters to be injured in the course of a match, and for decisions to be made about whether or not they can continue. Nor would it be the first time in which a fighter or coach has wanted a fight to be stopped midway through in order to concede. And I genuinely appreciate how well the UFC handles having a women’s division, without excessively sexualizing or patronizing the athletes, and with women headliners being a typical occurrence. But I think that bloodied and bruised women affect us more than bloodied and bruised men. I also think we are much more likely to automatically frame injured women as victims. So I wonder how much that gender dynamic and the idea that we need to protect women (even from other women) shapes the discussion of whether Pennington’s corner should have stopped the fight.
Noticing that the discussion might be gendered doesn’t really tell us what should have been done, though. Maybe as a sport, MMA needs to do a better job of protecting athletes, even from themselves. There are plenty of long time veteran fighters still active in competition who might be at risk of serious brain damage from knockouts. Maybe if we notice that our protective inclinations kick in more when we see women with bloodied faces, we should wonder why we don’t feel more protective of men in similar conditions.
It should be obvious at this point that I’m very much in favour of women competing in traditionally masculine sports, like combat sports. But maybe one side effect of that could be to question some of the taken-for-granted aspects of masculinity associated with these sports, and whether they’re really good for anyone. Persevering is good, but likely not when it causes major bodily harm. Do we want to treat going out on your shield (so to speak) as virtuous?
Readers, what do you think?