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Editorial: A culture change is needed for MMA to embrace throwing in the towel

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The debate over the lack of corner stoppages in MMA rages on, but something needs to change soon.

UFC Fight Night Smith v Teixeira Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

It’s been more than a week since Anthony Smith’s bright start turned into a heavy TKO loss to Glover Teixeira. The UFC Jacksonville main event lasted into round five when it looked more than justifiable to stop it much sooner than that.

Not since Amanda Nunes vs. Raquel Pennington have I seen such universal condemnation from fighters, analysts, fans, etc. of a corner not looking out for the health and safety of their fighter. Much like Nunes-Pennington, feint hope of a miraculous fifth-round comeback gave way to more needless punishment and a stoppage loss.

Smith didn’t hold back his thoughts on the heat his corner has taken, and he sees it as a point of no return in a fighter-coach relationship if you throw in the towel on him.

“You don’t stop the fight,” he said to ESPN’s Ariel Helwani. Leave it in my hands. Don’t take it out of my hands. So, I’ve told them before, if you stop the fight, if you throw the towel in, you can go ahead and walk back to the locker room by yourself because I’ll never stand by you again.”

(He does support corner stoppages for other fighters, just not him.)

Marc Montoya, Smith’s coach, defended his decision to let the beatdown continue by saying that Smith was “still in the fight,” which was true in the sense that the fight was still going on and technically he was still participating.

Now in fairness to the fighters, I don’t expect anything different whether it’s boxing, MMA, or any other combat sport with head trauma involved. Just about all of them have that self-belief that they’re never out of a fight even when things look irreversibly bleak, and on occasion we’ve seen some truly remarkable rallies. They probably see corner stoppages like an unwarranted level of distrust in their ability to win.

MMA often advertises itself as having the toughest athletes in the world, such that we tend to lionize fighters who can take excessive punishment without being rendered unconscious. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t think less of a fighter’s heart or courage in the cage if their corner decided enough was enough.

There’s also a quite noticeable want of attention as to how different MMA is compared to boxing, but in a positive manner. The mantra of “anywhere, anytime” and “anything can happen” and “warrior spirit” and other cliches are advertised in ways to suggest that the toughness and “never say die” attitude of MMA fighters is lacking in boxing.

Another common argument in favor of not throwing in the towel in MMA is that there are clearly more ways to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat compared to boxing, kickboxing, etc. It’s not even a completely invalid statement, as we have seen too many remarkable comebacks to even count.

And yet one of the things that makes MMA so captivating and exciting is also one of the worst crutches used for not stopping fights. In theory, because comebacks have happened you could argue that no one should ever throw in the towel on their fighter, and that the onus should only ever be on the referee or a commission doctor to make the call. It also must be said that while there are many ways a severely compromised fighter can salvage a miracle win, conversely there are many ways said fighter can get bludgeoned further and lose emphatically and incur excess (if not permanent) damage for no good reason. As evidenced in the Josh Koscheck vs. Georges St-Pierre rematch, it doesn’t always have to be brain trauma, but rather a broken orbital that affected him for the rest of his career.

The show-win structure of MMA pay could factor into the anti-towel throwing sentiment, but it rings hollow when you watch many low-level boxing matches or low-earning boxers have their corners stop fights. At the upper end, big money, high stakes matches like Deontay Wilder vs. Tyson Fury 2 have ended with the towel in the ring, even if the lead trainer disagreed.

But the mentality of many coaches is exactly why we need to see changes made. Unlike in boxing (to use the common example), corner stoppages in MMA are extremely rare, and they usually are met with a reaction of pleasant surprise when they do occur. Trevor Wittman is still lauded to this day before not letting Nate Marquardt continue for another non-competitive round against Kelvin Gastelum, and that was five years ago. Firas Zahabi actually threw in the towel to save Rick Hawn from further leg kick punishment vs. Douglas Lima in Bellator. However, for every moment like Duke Roufus stopping the Anthony Pettis vs. Tony Ferguson bout at UFC 229...

“I asked him for my forgiveness. We’ve moved on as friends. He’s not mad at me or anything,” Roufus said (via The Athletic). “But these people are my friends. Saturday, our daughters were playing together at the gym while we were training. Our connection is beyond professional. It’s personal. And, I guess, I’ve got a lot of good experience, good and bad, behind me. I’ve been doing this my whole life. I just think winning is awesome, but health is better. It’s quality of life. And it doesn’t take anything away from these guys’ desire to win. They all want to win, but sometimes it’s just a brutal sport.”

...You get far more instances that look like Junior dos Santos’ team when Cain Velasquez gave him what one could argue was a career-changing drubbing in their trilogy bout at UFC 166.

“To be honest, I never considered throwing in the towel,” dos Santos’ BJJ coach Yuri Carlton said (via MMA Fighting). “If something like that ever happens, Luiz Carlos Dorea (boxing coach) would be the one to decide. I was hoping for the knockout all the time. In the fifth round, ‘Cigano’ went for that choke. Anything can happen. We see a guy lose the whole fight and then win in the last round. It happens all the time. We’re not impressed by blood or anything like that, neither is ‘Cigano’. He always fights for the win, no matter what.

Please keep in mind that dos Santos was deemed on “autopilot” from round two onward.

I should clarify that there shouldn’t be a one size fits all approach to corner stoppages; several coaches interviewed by ESPN gave great insight on this topic and you can understand their point of view on why “throw in the towel” isn’t as easy as it sounds. With that said, it’s more than reasonable to worry that we won’t see an overall cultural shift (from both fighters and coaches) until preventable tragedy strikes on a major stage.

As we’ve seen in boxing, even doing the right thing can still prove to be too late, and there are plenty of irresponsible boxing cornermen across all levels of the sport. But as Michael Bisping said following Smith vs. Teixeira, “I love MMA, but we’ve got to catch up to boxing in regards to stopping the fight.”

Change now instead of waiting for disaster to happen.