Top UFC women’s bantamweight contender Raquel Pennington returned to the most challenging of all circumstance last weekend.
Following a year-and-a-half out of fighting and three surgeries, “Rocky” returned to meet dominant defending champion Amanda Nunes (full highlights here) in the main event of last Saturday night’s (Sat., May 12, 2018) UFC 224 from Jeunesse Arena in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Although she fought gallantly against the toughest out in her weight class, Pennington was largely dominated throughout the duration of the five-round fight which ended in a brutal, hard-to-watch stoppage after she broke her nose in the fourth round. But it was what took place in between the fourth and fifth rounds that stirred the most conversation about the fight.
Pennington told her cornerman Jason Kutz that she was ‘done’ and didn’t want to fight any longer after a bevy of Nunes knees badly injured her in the final minute of the fourth round. But Kutz urged her to forget the pain and continue on even though it was clear she had been destroyed and the remaining minutes of the fight would only continue to play out as such. Nunes blasted the cornerman’s decision to urge her to fight on, and Pennington’s girlfriend Tecia Torres revealed that they supported the decision to let her fight on.
Pennington herself reacted to the scene during an appearance on today’s episode of The MMA Hour, reaffirming to show host Ariel Helwani that she did support her coaches and what they did in Brazil.
So much so, in fact, that she was proud of them for pushing her to unveil her inner toughness, as she admitted she had broken a bit after Nunes’ early assault of leg kicks:
“I’m actually proud of my coaches. I know a lot of people are going against what they said and thinking all this different stuff, and it’s easy to judge, but you never know what’s happening in that moment. At the end of the day, my coaches know me best. They know my toughness and they know what I can handle, and I trust my coaches with everything that I have, and I know they wouldn’t put me in a situation that I can’t handle. I was going through a moment where I was obviously frustrated because of the facts with my legs. I was scared to step in and actually let my hands go, because the minute I would start to close the distance, Amanda would attack the leg.
“Those initial kicks really got me to a point where I started to break for a second, and the minute that I turned around and told my coaches that, and then I actually turned around and looked at my head coach and looked him in the eyes, I knew it still had it within me.”
And even though Pennington had absorbed so much punishment to her lead leg that she admitted there was a moment in the fight where “it just really felt like my knee was going to explode,” she still agreed with Kutz’s decision to push her, confirming that she would’ve been angry if she had quit.
In her mind, giving up on herself isn’t an option, so she was happy her coach didn’t allow her to:
“I agreed with my coaches as soon as the fight was done,” Pennington said. “I agreed with them in that moment, because at the end of the day, the ball’s still in my court. I could’ve easily waved off the fight. I could’ve sat down and tapped out. But I choose not to. I choose to pull my head out of my ass, basically, and not give up on myself. Because at the end of the day, when you give up, it’s a whole different ballgame there. Quitting’s not an option in that aspect, and in that moment, I was quitting on myself. And that’s when a coach steps in and they push their athlete.
“I would’ve been mad,” Pennington added, “and I would’ve been more mad at myself, so I’m glad that my coaches didn’t let me give up on myself.”
Pennington then opened up about her leg injury, which became apparent from the opening minute. She said it was similar to the broken leg she recently came back from, so it was terrifying:
“I felt it the minute I stood back up,” Pennington said. “As soon as it made contact with my leg and my legs went out from underneath me, as soon as I tried to stand back up, it felt the exact same way as when I originally broke it. So it was kind of a terrifying feeling, just given the fact that I still had about 24 minutes left in a fight. Then she nailed it a second time and the pain that just sunk in made me want to throw up. So it was from the very get-go.”
With the medical attention in Brazil ‘terrible’ in her words, Pennington returned to America to get a series of MRIs and x-rays on her knee.
She may be facing another lengthy physical recovery, but she said her coaches were hit hard emotionally by the criticism they received:
“My coaches are pretty emotional about the whole thing,” Pennington said. “They’re just as emotionally invested as I am, and it’s not something that’s easy on them, and especially when people are commenting and making some comments and stuff. Me and my head coach, we had a talk and he’s like, ‘You know I have your best interest at heart. Like, I love you like you’re my daughter, I would never put you in a bad situation.’
“And I’m the one who had to talk him out of things, because he was pretty devastated. And I told him, ‘You pushed me to be the better athlete. You didn’t let me give up on myself, because if I gave up on myself, it would be a whole different ballgame. And so the fact that you were there for me, because you know me best in these situations, I couldn’t be more proud.’
“So they’re struggling, but they just have to keep their heads up too, because at the end of the day, they’re a hell of a coaching staff and I love them all.”
Finally, Pennington offered the opinion that all of the online critics just needed to relax, because she had taken years to build trust with her coaches and would have been much angrier if she didn’t finish the fight when her coach threw in the towel.
To her, those critics don’t know what it’s like to be in her shoes:
“Everybody needs to relax,” Pennington said. “A fight’s a fight, and at the end day, we have our coaching staff. I’ve taken years to build up trust with my coaching staff and I know that I have awesome people in my corner. Like I said, it’s not an easy sport to go through and do, and sometimes things go your way, sometimes things don’t go your way. At the end of the day, it was a f*cking awesome opportunity and I’m proud that, knowing what I went through in the first round, that I freaking hung in there for as long as I did and I’m proud of my coaches for being there for me, and to keep pushing me and to let me give up on myself.
“Because at the end of the day, quitting like that on yourself — it would’ve been more brutal if they would’ve sat there and threw the towel in, instead of actually letting me make the decision that I made in the fifth round. So, stop judging from the outside, because you’ll never understand what goes on unless you’re in our shoes and in our position.”