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Is tapping to strikes a reassuring sign that at least someone knows when to quit, or do non-fighters fail to understand just how much toughness – both mental and physical – matters in MMA? Former UFC and WEC fighter Danny Downes joins MMAjunkie columnist Ben Fowlkes to discuss in this week’s Trading Shots.

Downes: Ben, I had to get my oil changed this Monday, so that gave me a little time to kill. Instead of taking a walk or trying to engage with a person, I did what any of us would do – stare at my phone.

That was when I came across your column about the difference between toughness and stupidity.

It’s always nice to get a layman’s interpretation of what constitutes toughness in the cage. The overall message of the piece was that referees and cornermen don’t do enough to save fighters from themselves. This was in the immediate aftermath of Gilbert Melendez and Gavin Tucker suffering significant injuries.

After last night’s UFC Fight Night 116 in Pittsburgh, though, I wonder if you’d like to revise this story. Should Uriah Hall’s corner have stopped his fight? David Branch may have done the intelligent thing by tapping to strikes, but are you going to tell me you didn’t hold that against him?

Fowlkes: Yes, I am going to tell you that I did not and do not hold that against Branch. I know there’s that stigma about tapping to strikes, but it’s mostly pretty dumb. We regularly see fighters get hurt and go full fetal as a signal to the referee that they’ve had it, which is basically like tapping to strikes without actually doing it.

Branch was stuck, he was getting pummeled, he was beat and he knew it. Why take a dozen more punches just so people on the internet will be slightly less critical?

You do raise a good point with Hall, though. He had some bleak moments against Krzysztof Jotko in the opening round, only to come back and win with strikes in the second. Comebacks like that keep people hoping. Yes, you’re getting beat down now, but who knows, maybe you land one punch and change everything any minute now.

But you and I both know that’s way more the exception than the rule. I’m not saying we’ve got to pull the plug at the first sign of trouble, but I am saying that sometimes this sport gets hung up on stuff that doesn’t matter. Stuff like going the distance in an obvious losing effort. Stuff like taking a ton of abuse just to prove your own toughness, even when it wasn’t in doubt. Stuff like hanging on until the referee stops it, rather than just admitting what your body position has already told us.

I get that you have to be tough to do this sport, Danny. But are you going to tell me that sometimes it doesn’t cross the line into stupid?

Downes: First off, I’m going to totally disagree with you on the tapping to strikes comment. Does going “full fetal,” as you put it, end up being a type of de facto tapout? Yes it does. Is it the same as tapping to strikes? Absolutely not.

When you just stop answering your girlfriend’s texts, that’s de facto breaking up. When you look her in the eye and tell her it’s over, that’s something different. The result is the same, but one takes more courage.

I’m not going to say that it doesn’t cross the line, but I don’t think you realize the implications of what you’re asking. You’re essentially trying to change the nature of MMA. This might come as a shock to you Ben, but there’s no logical, objective reason to fight someone in a cage for money. I’ll try to put in terms you may understand: There’s also no logical, objective reason to put a helmet on and hit someone carrying an oblong-shaped ball.

American football and MMA are inherently violent sports. Especially in MMA, the violence is the key component. All these attempts to put the onus on referees, cornermen and fighters, themselves to avoid uncomfortably violent or tragic outcomes may seem like a noble pursuit, but I don’t think it is. How much of this is an attempt to make ourselves feel better about watching young men and women concuss themselves? I’m not a brute; I thought Melendez should have quit earlier!

Furthermore, if we were to take your criteria to its logical conclusion, that would make Bob Sapp the smartest fighter in MMA history. Facing any resistance? Quit. Down on the scorecards and going to lose? Don’t even finish the fight. Why test yourself when you can give up!?

You flippantly dismiss the idea of proving your toughness, but it’s something that matters. Being tough on the practice mat doesn’t mean anything. There is nothing at stake. Who cares if you’re supposed to spar five rounds and you stop after three? Your coaches may not be happy and you might even piss off a sparring partner or two, but there’s always the next sparring day.

When you’re standing in the middle of the cage in front of thousands of people as it’s being broadcast on national television, the stakes are much different. Character and strength isn’t what you do when things are going well; it’s what you do when times are tough.

Fowlkes: So, wait, I’m confused about the girlfriend analogy. There, doing something proactive is the brave thing, while passively waiting for her to get the point is cowardly. But what you’re saying is that it’s the same but completely opposite in MMA? Branch isn’t tough because he admitted he was done, rather than waiting for the referee to notice that he’d stopped fighting back?

To quote Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, Danny, that don’t make no sense.

I don’t disagree that toughness matters. I’d even argue that this sport requires a different brand of it than most others do, because you can’t limp to the sidelines or call timeout or go get an MRI in the locker room. It’s all about what you do in those few minutes inside the cage, and if it doesn’t go well there is not going to be another chance to redeem yourself next weekend.

Still, you can’t tell me that we don’t fetishize toughness beyond all good sense at times. Other sports sometimes do a better job of realizing that injuring yourself for a lost cause just to make a point is dumb. In MMA, we act like as long as you can stand (and sometimes even when you can’t) you’re obligated to keep going.

And we wonder why fighters have a hard time retiring when we think they should. What’s wrong with these guys, we ask each other. It’s like they don’t know when to quit!

I think you’ll agree that there’s a point where it’s smarter to stop and take your loss than it is to keep fighting just to impress people or prove something to yourself. It’s why tapping out is even an option. We can argue about where the line is, or who gets to decide, but once we admit that it’s there we can longer justify endless abuse in the name of toughness über alles.

What do you think when you see someone hobbling around for weeks, unable to train or fight, all because he refused to tap to a heel hook? Do you think “tough,” or do you think “stupid”? The distinction matters, Danny, and that’s only more true when it’s your brain rather than your ACL.

Ben Fowlkes is MMAjunkie and USA TODAY’s MMA columnist. Danny Downes, a retired UFC and WEC fighter, is an MMAjunkie contributor who has also written for UFC.com and UFC 360. Follow them on twitter at @benfowlkesMMA and @dannyboydownes.

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