UFC 224 has wrapped up and we’ve got six takeaways and reflections from the event:
#6: What a Comeback!
Jack Hermansson could be seen visibly wincing during a completed Thales Leites takedown that saw his leg pretzeled underneath him in an awkward manner. At the time, it seemed impressive that Hermansson was able to survive a full mount while being injured and make it to the third and final round.
As it turns out, Hermansson didn’t just survive the second round, but according to Hermansson, he suffered a broken rib in the very first round:
“I broke my rib in the first round. I could feel it bouncing around. I felt terrible, the most painful thing I ever experienced.”
Ultimately, the takeaway from this fight isn’t just that Hermansson is a survivor, but that Hermansson carries the brand of toughness made of a victor’s metal. There are different types of toughness. There’s the Priscila Cachoeira toughness where a fighter is too tough for their own good; then, there’s the Jack Hermansson toughness, where like the namesake of the challenger in the main event, the fighter takes on a Rocky, “I ain’t hear no bell” mentality and digs deep not to survive, but to win. Hermansson won when it felt like a matter of time before Leites took home the win. Instead, it was Hermansson who entered Leites home right through his backyard and seized the win that appeared to be right at Leites’ doorstep before Hermansson made his retreat, coming out on the other side with a come-from-behind W.
#5: Vitor’s Decision Needs to be Final
The Vitor Belfort we saw in the Octagon last night was 41-year-old Vitor. His alter ego, TRT Vitor, is a thing of the past, and it showed. The way Vitor looked physically and performance-wise in addition to the manner in which he lost should leave no second-guessing in his mind as to whether or not he is making the right decision to hang it up. Vitor has nothing left to prove. He’s fought with the best, been a champion, and had one of the best runs in the history of the sport. There is no better opponent and no better place for Vitor to cap off a Hall-of-Fame career than against Lyoto Machida in Brazil. And though it will be hard for a man who’s been fighting his entire adult life to walk away, here’s hoping he is able to find glitter in the abundance of gold that remains out there for him in other fields of life. He has proven to us inside and outside of the cage that he has the mentality and drive to go out and discover it.
#4: Not a Good Idea to Call Out John Lineker
Here’s a takeaway for you: think twice before calling John Lineker out. I mean, fighter’s fight and all, and you face whomever the company puts you up against (unless your name is Yair Rodriguez. Too soon?), but this dealer of stone-suited hands is not someone you should court for battle. The facial and body language of Brian Kelleher seemed to reflect his discomfort in the cage and perhaps with his life choices. You can’t blame a guy for shooting his shot and trying to move up the rankings, and he should be respected for it. But it’s hard not to picture other bantamweights thinking, “I’m cool,” at the prospect of requesting to be their next dancing partner in the Octagon.
Oh, and another takeaway from this fight is that if you’re going to request a title fight after defeating an unranked bantamweight while you sit at #6 and just lost to the reigning champion two fights ago, then make sure you do something like getting the letters of the promotion carved into your skull for brownie points. Nice touch, Johnny!
#3: Biased Home Judging Decisions Now Questionable?
The first round of this fight clearly belonged to Jacare. After scoring a “leg-lockdown,” Souza was able to maintain control for the final two minutes of the round. Souza had his moments in the second round, but Gastelum controlled the cage, was able to stuff or avoid Souza’s takedown attempts, and seemed to land the better strikes. Also, the fact that Souza could barely stand at the close of the round was not the look of someone who won the round. So even if a judge were on the fence, one should concede that Souza’s visible exhaustion would sway them to the side of Gastelum, if they weren’t already there.
The third round, on the other hand, was the closest round of an already very close fight. In this round, Souza outlanded Gastelum 25 to 11 and was able to receive two takedowns, with one of the two being a meaningful one early in the round. In spite of this, Gastelum still took home the decision from the judges. I believe the main reason for this is because Gastelum fought with more zest and gusto in this final stanza. Souza’s labored breathing and slow punches, while still effective, were not very persuasive.
This was like when you have two people partaking in a formal debate. Debater #1 is actually making better arguments and has stronger points with more compelling evidence, but the speaker pauses a lot and doesn’t speak with conviction. Meanwhile, debater #2 is speaking faster, takes up more of the speaking time, and has more confident body language. Debater #1 still has a chance, but if it’s close, debater #2 is probably going to dupe the judges into giving him/her the win. Personally, I believe that’s what happened here, but this was far from a robbery. It was no secret that Souza was the local fighter, so for two judges to give the fight to Gastelum in a fight that could have easily gone to Souza, puts a “not so fast” to the home advantage assumption, although it is going to take a lot more than this one fight to put this belief fully to bed.
#2: “Hype Train” Exposes the Unknowable
We don’t know this woman yet. I thought I knew her. I thought I knew that her striking was awful. I thought I knew that Cooper would have a massive advantage on the feet. But Mackenzie Dern provided a valuable lesson to onlookers Saturday night…that you may think you know something about a fighter or the way the fight is going to look, but no matter how much one claims to “know,” we are all perpetually stuck in the “thinking” stage, and the only thing we ever “know” is the end result after the fight finally comes and goes (and even that is often questionable when it hits the scorecards). Hell, I think that the Stephen Thompson/Darren Till fight will either go to a decision or end by KO/TKO. But for all we know, Thompson has been working on his submission game for years and will pull out a flying armbar on Till. The point is: we don’t know anything. Dern was the clear favorite coming into this fight. And the reason for that was not because of her striking but in spite of it. Yet her victory, despite what the “Sub” we see on paper might indicate, was due to her striking, contrary to all conventional wisdom. Having said that, we also know that a punch is more likely to be more powerful with an extra 7.4 pounds behind it.
#1: Pennington Corner’s Decision More Nuanced Than As Represented by Critics
Your fighter is in a championship fight for the first time in her career. You’ve seen up close how hard she has worked to make it here and there is only one round left for her to defy the monstrous odds that remain before her and realize her dream of becoming the world champion. She then tells you, face battered, voice acquiescent, “I’m done.” You have a split second to react and less than 30 seconds to respond in full. What do you say? And more importantly, how can you be sure you would respond that way?
This isn’t an attempt to play devil’s advocate. I can see both sides of the argument, and I don’t believe there is a devil here at all. When a fight ends in the manner in which this one did, any defense of Raquel Pennington’s corner is probably in vain. It’s already clear that some of the most influential names in the industry will be looking to make an example out of the Pennington corner and stigmatize them for their “reckless” and “careless” decision to allow Pennington to continue fighting. But what I would ask is for you to consider the word “careless” for a moment. Do they really not care? Or is it that they care too much? Do they not want their fighter to regret giving up in the moment when things seem the most tough? Do they know that their fighter saying “I’m done” is her own way of indirectly asking for an extra push? An extra pep talk?
Now if Raquel Pennington uttered the words, “Stop the fight,” then without a doubt, the corner would be the devil in this situation. And it’s not as if uttering those exact words would be implausible if someone wants the fight stopped. Instead, she uttered words that could have easily been said after running two miles in a 5K, the 11th hour of a cram session before a final exam, or, more applicable to this situation, a grueling workout where the fighter still has one more scheduled sparring round. These are all scenarios where someone might indirectly ask for a pep talk. They are very unlikely to come out and say, “Give me a pep talk,” so they will indirectly ask for one instead by saying things like, “I can’t do this anymore.” or “I want to give up.”
In a sport where fighter safety is paramount, I can understand the side that is intolerant of the Pennington corner allowing the fight to continue. But I truly believe that most people would do the same thing if they were in her corner’s shoes, especially with such high stakes and so few seconds to process the situation. Miesha Tate, Pennington’s former TUF 18 coach, has even come forward in saying that she would have sent Pennington back out for the same reasons I have described.
At the end of the day, if a fighter wants out or can’t go anymore, it will show in the cage. And when Nunes had her back and was landing the final blows to a curled-up Pennington, that was when it was clear that she truly was done. And this definitive ending is one where, I would argue, she is much less likely to regret than if the corner stopped the fight and she was left to wonder, “What if I gave it one more round?” And if Pennington was ale to somehow pull out the victory in the fifth round, this isn’t even a conversation right now. So when a position on an issue is only made possible because of what happened after the moment in question, it seems rational to place yourself back in that moment. And then instead of saying what Pennington’s corner should have done, perhaps it’s better to ask and answer honestly, “What would I have done? What would I have said?”
My biggest takeaway from this controversy is that if a fighter wants the fight stopped, they must say the words, “Stop the fight” so that the corner has no room to misunderstand the message as “Give me a pep talk.” And even if a fighter says words like, “I’m done,” the corner should ask, “Do you want me to stop the fight?” If the fighter nods yes, that’s it. You stop the fight. If the fighter shakes their head or verbalizes they don’t want the fight stopped, then you have the green light to pep talk all you want. There was no perfect response in that situation. Too few seconds, too high stakes. There would be room for regret regardless of what was done. But in that moment, even if the best decision was not made, Raquel Pennington certainly has nothing to hang her head in shame about how the fight ended…and neither does her corner.