Posted 10/31/2013 by Derek Suboticki in Subo Says

Cheerleader, Protector, Partner: What Is The Corner’s Role?

By Derek Suboticki, October 31st, 2013

The month of October was, for most MMA fans, a violent triumph. The great unwashed masses, displeased by decisions and wary of the ground game (or, in layman’s term, “quit being gay and do karate”), were enthralled by the chaotic kinetics of Cain Velasquez, Junior dos Santos, Gilbert Melendez and Diego Sanchez in the main and co-main events of UFC 166. Lyoto Machida made a staggeringly impressive middleweight debut, melting Mark Munoz in the first round while avoiding every strike Munoz threw in a Street Fighter-esque “PERFECT!” victory. Between these performances, however, even the most casual UFC viewers seemed to do a double take during the preliminary bout between Rosi Sexton and Jessica Andrade at UFC Fight Night 30 in Manchester.

The FightMetric stats tell the tale, but one cannot truly appreciate the disparity in performances without a complete viewing of the second round. In that frame, Andrade dominated the striking, landing 91 “significant strikes” to Rosi’s 24, inspiring two of the three judges to consider it a 10-8 affair. Rosi’s moments of success striking were isolated and often singular; Jessica’s were prolonged and plural. Absent the statistical evidence, a simple eye test told most viewers – educated or otherwise – that Sexton’s chances at winning were between slim and none, and slim was leaving town. Yet the fight continued for another five (albeit less brutal) minutes.

The debate began, mostly across the MMA blogosphere (more on that later): should the fight have been stopped? If so, absent the referee (either alone or via the ringside doctor) doing so, does the onus fall on a fighter’s corner to protect him/her from unnecessary punishment in service of a lost cause? To properly address the question – and in light of an illuminating conversation with @RosiSexton on Twitter – it’s imperative to define what a corner’s role is and what its motivations are. In my opinion, there are three, which intertwine and influence each other in different ways, not all of which are completely altruistic, and each of which poses their own set of questions.


By default and proximity, the voice of a coach in the corner is the most recognizable and audible to a competing fighter. Their vital in-cage adjustments aside (witness, for example, the ref’s insistence that Jimi Manuwa wait out Ryan Jimmo’s groin shot time-out in a neutral corner), the corner is also a constant source of positive reinforcement, calling out what the fighter should be doing rather than berating them for their mistakes (that can wait for between rounds). Even without the possible financial component of a win bonus and continued employment, the corner’s sole – and biased – interest in their fighter succeeding is crystal clear.

What is the line between optimism and delusion?  When do you decide to quit for your fighter?


The corner, in the vast majority of cases, consists of coaches/fighters that have actively participated in preparing the fighter in the cage for battle. The relationship between the two is rarely strictly professional; the bonds forged in the gym are clearly evident when, say, ringside viewer Cain Velasquez essentially lost his damn mind in response to Josh Thomson’s head kick on Nate Diaz. These are fighters that have already seen each other on the brink of exhaustion, receiving flurries and desperately looking for ways out; the referee can’t reasonably be expected to have that level of intimate knowledge of a fighter’s breaking point.

There’s a concurrent debate about refereeing. Should “intelligent defense” standards be universal, or do some fighters, by virtue of their past performances, receive more leeway in dire straits? One need look no further than Frank Mir; if his rematch with Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira is refereed in the same manner that his bout with Josh Barnett was, Mir never gets the opportunity to come back and break Nog’s arm. In this instance, the argument for a corner itching to stop a fight is belied by a fighter coming back from near-defeat (coincidentally against Big Nog, who is famous for snatching victory from said jaws).

What is the line between brotherhood and patriarchy? When do you decide to save your fighter from him/herself?


I’ve spent a lot of time above talking about the intrinsic, primal bonds between fighters and their training partners/coaches/corners.  These human concerns and emotions cannot, however, be considered the only motive behind their presence at the event, helping their fighter peel off sponsored clothing and holding their shoes as the referee greases them up and wipes them down. What else could there be? Well, as in all cases, the answer to all of your questions is money.

Coaches and trainers aren’t family members; they’re financial partners. Fellow fighters aren’t brothers and sisters; they’re colleagues and competitors. Nobody’s running a charity in mixed martial arts – if you don’t believe me, call around about jiu jitsu prices. The role of the corner is not without selfish, personal interest. They rise as the fighter rises and fall as they fall. A win reflects well on both; a loss, poorly. In so-called “pink slip on a pole” matches, the very employment of the fighter is at stake, perhaps permanently impacting the ability of both fighter and corner to even continue making a living in the sport. One is reminded of My Cousin Vinny: “Is there any more shit we could pile onto the outcome of this [fight]?! Is it possible?!?”

What is the line between self-interest and sacrifice? At what point does a corner watch his, and his fighter’s future, flutter across the cage when the referee hasn’t decided to stop the fight?

I didn’t start this piece to answer the question posed in the headline or relentlessly bash corners. I don’t believe Rosi Sexton’s corner doesn’t care about her, nor that of Diego Sanchez. I hope it serves as a starting point for a debate about when and whether MMA corners – like their boxing brethren – recognize a situation in which a fighter is taking unnecessary, gratuitous punishment and acts in lieu of the ref. I also hopes it banishes the belief that a corner should never do so, as espoused by Josh Barnett following Fight Night 30. You MMA fighters – and professional athletes in general – are insane. It behooves you to recognize that, revel in it, and entrust others who are NOT insane to make decisions on your behalf. The possible long-term consequences demand nothing less.

They – the casual fans that aren’t having this debate with themselves, the fans that will never come within sniffing distance of an MMA website, let alone read one regularly – don’t feel the slightest twinge of remorse when reliving those bouts, nor will they cringe if they happen upon a replay. They’re also the ones fueling the MMA explosion. They can’t be expected to give a damn about the participants – recently, the casual fans responded to the NFL concussion settlement by calling the recipients a bunchy of whiny, revisionist crybabies, trying to squeeze an extra buck out of the league that made them rich. It’s incumbent upon us, all of us, to keep rooting for and working towards the kinds of things – long-term care, pensions, collective bargaining – that actually can and do protect retired athletes no matter what health concerns arise.

We’re very, very weird fans, those of us that watch old events and feel invested in the fighters beyond their time spent entertaining us.  We’re a slim minority.  The only silver lining?  So are the corners.


Derek Suboticki  is a weekly contributor to MMA Owl. He also co-hosts Untethered MMA every Thursday at 7 p.m. ET at, also available as a podcast via iTunes.




Derek Suboticki

Derek Suboticki is a weekly contributor to MMA Owl. He also co-hosts Untethered MMA every Thursday at 7 p.m. ET at, also available as a podcast via iTunes. Previous work includes being former editor at Head Kick Legend and Fightlinker and contributor for Watch Kalib Run and Cageside Seats.