Throwing in the Towel on MMA Cornermen

Andrew Richardson-USA TODAY Spor

John S. Nash shares his thoughts on the differences between cornermen in MMA and boxing in the wake of UFC 166.

I'm advisin' you to quit the ring--now... Too many punches on the head. They get permanently punch drunk. You don't have to go around countin' your fingers; you got brains enough to succeed somewhere else.
- The Iron Men by Robert E. Howard

Last night's WBO junior welterweight title match between champion Mike Alvarado and challenger Ruslan Provodnikov was what we refer to in combat sports as a "war." Through the first 7 rounds it was a highly competitive and violent contest, with both of HBO's broadcast team, Col. Bob Sheridan and Larry Merchant, calling it basically even. However, in the eighth a vicious body shot badly hurt Alvarado, and the champ would go down to the mat twice that round. Somehow he managed to tough it out, but by the end of the 10th Ruslan was pummeling him against the ropes, with Alvarado only saved because of the bell.

As Alvarado slumped on his stool, his corner told him not what he wanted to hear but what he needed to hear - forget about pulling off a miracle, it was time to quit.

The Champion reluctantly agreed, confessing afterwards that it was the right decision.

"It was not worth taking more punishment, because the damage could be permanent. It just wasn't my night. I have a lot of heart. I'm not a quitter."

At UFC 166 Diego Sanchez found himself in a similar situation. He too was in a war, although a decidedly one-sided one, as Gilbert Melendez battered him mercilessly through the first two rounds. With the exception of a brief period early in the fight where Sanchez had Gilbert's back and threatened a submission, Diego had shown nothing for the former Strikeforce Lightweight Champion. For every punch he threw that caught nothing but air, he ate two hard fists to the face.

By the time the 2nd round ended, Sanchez was covered in his own blood, his face discolored and bruised, while a replica of the Springfield Gorge sat above his left eye. And so, what did trainer Greg Jackson tell his seriously overmatched fighter before the start of the final round? The truth, that he was surely far behind on the judges scorecards and likely looking at further punishment with little chance of victory? No, instead he told Sanchez that he was looking good but would need a knockout to win. Considering the fact that Gilbert had never been finished in his MMA career, one would think that might be asking too much of your fighter.

I'm sure many fans will be quick to point out that Sanchez did almost pull off the comeback. Yes, he almost did. Almost. But he didn't and for his efforts he was rewarded with another dozen brain rattling punches. Going into the final round all Sanchez and his team could hope for was a miracle, while what seemed very likely, based on the previous ten minutes, was that he would take a lot more punishment.

In many ways the main event was even more disturbing. In the third round, not only was Junior Dos Santos dropped at one point and doing nothing more than holding on to Cain Velasquez's leg for dear life, but later he looked to be out on his feet, held up by the cage, eating unanswered punches. Apparently since he was never completely, 100%, totally knocked out, Herb Dean chose not to stop the fight.

Neither did the ringside doctor see fit to end the match, even though Junior spent the last two rounds repeatedly wiping blood, which was pouring from a cut above his brow, from his eyes. The doc did check his vision, at least the vision in his right eye, for on my television I did not see him examine Dos Santos's nearly swollen shut left eye.

Often it's been argued that mixed martial arts is safer than boxing. That because there is no 10-count on knockdowns, serving as a reprieve, MMA matches end quicker and fighters are thus saved the damage boxers suffer. This may be true, but I can't imagine any boxing referee allowing a match to continue when one man is out on his feet, blinded by his own blood. Nor does being safer than boxing mean it's safe. Both MMA and boxing are anything but safe as recent studies have now confirmed.

Of course, Dos Santos' corner also chose not to stop the fight. Perhaps they thought since it was for the title and the third and deciding match in his trilogy with Cain that Junior should be allowed to fight until the bitter end. Or perhaps they assumed that because neither the referee nor the doctor were stopping the fight, it wasn't their place to make that decision.

I doubt trainer Eddie Futch would have agreed with this line of reasoning. When Joe Frazier faced his arch-nemesis, Mohammed Ali, for the last time in their historic trilogy, Futch famously stopped the fight, despite Frazier's protestations, before the start of the 15th and final round. He did it to protect a man that had too much heart too quit on his own.

Count Dana White as another person who thought the final two rounds were unnecessary.

"I'm a guy who's been around the sport for a long time," White told reporters after the fight,"and boxing, and seen men who are too tough for their own good. And I think Junior dos Santos is one of those guys, in the last Cain fight and in this Cain fight. And I think that fight should've been stopped. I just don't think he needed to take anymore punishment...

...I always like to say that if anybody in his f--king corner cares about him, please, throw in that towel."

Boxing has long known that some men have to be protected from themselves, that sometimes their corner has to "throw in the towel" * for them. The expression "throwing in the towel," actually comes from boxing, derived from the expression "throwing in the sponge", which was originally coined during the London Prize Ring era of boxing. In those days, the second, who used a sponge to wipe down his fighter, would throw it in the air to signal when his man had conceded. Even before that though, as far back as 1743, number 4 of Jack Broughton's rules stated that a fight not only ended because a boxer failed to come up to the line, but also when "his own second declares him beaten." Almost three centuries ago they knew that some men had too much pride, courage, or just plain stubbornness to give up, and that it was therefore his second's responsibility to look out for his welfare.

Perhaps it is time for the cornermen of mixed martial arts to enter the 18th century.

* Currently, literally "throwing in the towel" is ruled a foul under the Unified Rules. The penalty for which either a point deduction or disqualification. It has been proposed that it be removed from the list of fouls.

UPDATE: In 2009 the Association of Boxing Commissions unanimously passed a motion that inlcuded removing "throwing in the towel during competition" from the list of fouls. Nevada State Athletic Commission executive director Keith Kizer has informed me though that in his state it remains a foul.

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