SherdogFormer UFC light heavyweight champion Quinton Jackson (Pictures)’s recent hit-and-run encounter with the law reminded fans that training and competing are only two-thirds of the mixed martial arts equation. Jackson was arrested just 10 days after he relinquished his 205-pound title in a unanimous decision defeat to Forrest Griffin (Pictures) at UFC 86. The 30-year-old has since been charged with two felonies and could spend up to three years in jail.
“He was kind of bummed about the [Griffin fight],” said friend and one-time World Extreme Cagefighting lightweight titleholder “Razor” Rob McCullough (Pictures). “He hadn’t slept. That alone will make someone act a little weird.”
Disappointment often leads to self blame, as fighters become overwhelmed by the feeling they have let down trainers, training partners, family, friends and fans. It anchors their perceived professional and personal failures.
“You can’t be embarrassed to be a warrior,” McCullough said, reflecting on his own high-profile loss to Jamie Varner (Pictures) earlier this year. “Win or lose.”
All celebrities walk a tightrope in the public eye, and professional athletes are no different. MMA fighters are slowly entering mainstream circles and some, like Jackson, have even started earning their Hollywood stripes. With greater fame comes the risk of greater falls.
Blood and guts
When the UFC’s top two welterweights, champion Georges St. Pierre (Pictures) and Jon Fitch (Pictures), tangled at UFC 87, physicality was on graphic display. The mental toughness of both men held the fight together.
Fitch, known as a “grinder,” expected to take to the champion like a pickaxe, break him mentally and expose a perceived weakness in the French-Canadian that had been brought to the forefront in his monumental upset loss to Matt Serra (Pictures) in 2007. Instead, “Rush” beat the challenger’s eye shut under purple and red swelling. Still, he could not break Fitch mentally.
“Jon, this is what I was talking to you about Jon!” yelled Fitch’s Brazilian jiu-jitsu coach, Dave Camarillo, between the first and second rounds. “The sacrifice -- you gotta keep pushing buddy. This is what we were talking about.”
As cutman Leon Tabbs worked on his face, Fitch heeded the words of his trainers. That, in part, carried him through the next four rounds.
“Hey!” screamed cornerman “Crazy” Bob Cook (Pictures). “I want no f--king kicking, alright? I want g--damn head movement, and I want you to get after him, OK?”
“You gotta push Jon. Let’s do it,” added Camarillo.
One man challenged Fitch; the other encouraged. The manner in which the two revered American Kickboxing Academy trainers approached Fitch revealed the balancing act that exists between teacher and student in MMA. All stages of competition can be damaging -- the training, the fight itself and the aftermath. For a fighter of Fitch’s caliber, defeat can be a difficult pill to swallow.
“If [American Kickboxing Academy is] going to take a loss, I’d rather do it early in someone’s career before they’re in the TV spotlight and all that,” Cook said. “It’s easier to recover from and forget about at that point. Obviously, every fight is the most important fight of your career.”
Agony of defeat
Depression, lack of desire to return to training and dishing out culpability are common reactions to defeat. Emotions are wide ranging, as competitors try to make peace with not being good enough on a given night.
"In this sport, the highs are so high
and the lows are so low," says
Joe Riggs (top).
“I turn the lights off, and I [sit in the bedroom alone],” Joe Riggs (Pictures) said. “In this sport, the highs are so high and the lows are so low. Both of them fall on you. When you’re high, there’s no one to pat on the back but you. When you’re low, there’s no one to blame but yourself.”
Riggs has experienced every rough spot in the sport. He feels like a vagabond, bouncing between 170 and 185 pounds. While doing so presents him with more opportunities, the constant shift in body composition has become an emotional drain.
“Every training camp you’re trying to push yourself a little past that level,” said Riggs, whose problems with painkillers have been well documented. He missed weight at UFC 56, squandering what was perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime chance to challenge Matt Hughes (Pictures) for the welterweight title. He has taken fights injured and had bouts cancelled on multiple occasions. He has even been denied his license.
While every mixed martial artist has his or her motives, Riggs echoes one universal theme. Family is his driving force.
“My whole reason for waking up in the morning is taking care of my family, and this is my means to do it,” Riggs said. “It’s pretty much the whole thing I think about getting ready for a fight.”
Fighters ready themselves mentally for months to step into combat for mere minutes. Before success can be achieved or failure suffered, the mind realizes the body has no refuge in a fight, despite extended preparation.
“In sports such as MMA, where the athletes are consistently exposed to real physical danger, it triggers the mind to be in a fight or flight response,” said Jennifer Moilanen, owner of Ultimate Performance Consulting, a sports psychology firm in Orinda, Calif. “So that then makes the mind want to try many strategies to avoid that danger in the future.”
Mental blocks come in the form of racing thoughts, lack of self-confidence, diminished focus, self sabotage, fear, panic and anxiety, according to Moilanen. The fight begins before the first punch is thrown. Increased heart rate, nausea, shakes, sweating, shortness of breath and vomiting are common, as well. These physical manifestations are proof that the mind can undermine the body.
Fighters, however, learn to control their mental tics, as they repeat the process leading up to a fight over and over again throughout their careers. Once a fighter enters the cage or ring, a different clash ensues. This is where a fighter’s heart, fortitude or mental strength -- or lack thereof -- shines through.
Competitors have a myriad of ways with which to end an MMA match, all of which have psychological components. Being finished, whether by submission or by knockout, can damage a fighter physically and mentally.
A knockout can serve as a sudden, unexpected trip where time seems to skip a beat. “One loss, one shot,” said Jens Pulver (Pictures), who has carved out an MMA legacy through his knockout-or-be-knocked-out style. Recovering from such a quick and decisive defeat can make one gunshy, as a fighter’s flight response moves to the forefront.
A submission, on the other hand, is the realization by the mind that it’s better to admit defeat than absorb further damage.
Bas Rutten (Pictures) claims his last loss -- a submission defeat to Ken Shamrock (Pictures) in 1995 -- was physically painful but emotionally harmless. The reason? He had identified his weakness through adversity.
“I had no ground, no submission experience,” Rutten said.
Moilanen backs up Rutten’s admission, claiming fighters “need to process versus suppress they’re mistakes, their knockouts, their losses” in order to recover and improve.
Refusing to acknowledge a loss can work to a fighter’s detriment, as the trauma suffered can spill into future bouts. Not dealing with adversity may even leave a fighter ill-prepared in a sport that demands every last detail be accounted for.
“It’s just as important to have a mental strategic plan as it is to have a physical strategic plan,” Moilanen said.
When competitors underperform in the UFC, “Octagon jitters” are often cited, a reference to fighters who were unable to handle the dynamics of fighting on the biggest stage. While a one-fight-at-a-time mentality is employed by most, each confrontation brings about its own set of unique challenges.
“I think a lot of fighters have [personal troubles], and I think that is a lot of times why you see guys not at their best,” said former UFC and Strikeforce middleweight champion Frank Shamrock (Pictures), who knows how much outside distractions can affect training. He spends much of his time before a fight purging himself of negative energy.
Former UFC welterweight title challenger Frank Trigg (Pictures) sees fighting as a struggle within oneself.
“The battle is still within me being able to do what I think I should be doing during that fight with this particular competition,” Trigg said. Like Shamrock, he believes “whether it’s a title fight or not, to me it’s always a big deal.”
Whatever troubles a fighter has before, during or after a fight will likely be exposed at some point.
“You can’t mask it,” said UFC and International Fight League veteran Benji Radach (Pictures). “You just got to eliminate everything -- all your weaknesses -- and go in there like you go into every fight and go in there to win. Go in there to take them out.”
In some cases, the fight-by-fight approach enables fighters to keep their perspective, even when championships or their future with an organization is at stake. Trigg, however, recalls the additional pressure he felt when he took on St. Pierre after succumbing to Hughes for a second time in 2005.
“If I lose this fight, I won’t be able to compete anymore,” he thought. “That’s a big deal.”
Trigg has not fought in the UFC since.
‘Be water my friend’
Doubt is perhaps the strongest emotion involved in a fighter’s psychological rollercoaster, which is why training for mixed martial arts is so rigorous.
In almost masochistic fashion, fighters force themselves into horrible positions to achieve a comfort level in the heat of battle. They often prepare by taking on fresh combatants consecutively during training. At Reality Self Defense in Bridgewater, Mass., they call it “shark tank” training. At American Top Team in Coconut Creek, Fla., they call it “in the s--t” training. Some gyms simply call it “rounds.”
Fighting seems a cyclical venture.
“Mentally, [a fight] washes a loss away,” Riggs said.
McCullough echoes his sentiments. The only way to overcome the pain of defeat is to “jump on the horse and start riding again.” To erase loss, a fighter must face the possibility of another.
The psychology behind fighting is complex. Moilanen asserts the most important mental element for mixed martial artists is control, an ability to stay the mind when the body is ready to break.
“[Fitch’s] mind was in the fight,” Cook said. “Every time in between rounds I was thinking, ‘This might be the last round.’ And then I’d get in there, and he was actually encouraging me.”
Fitch’s mental resilience mirrors a famous philosophy. Legendary martial artist Bruce Lee’s outlook proposed the mind -- even in its open and formless state -- determined outcomes.
“Water can flow, or it can crash; be water my friend,” Lee famously told Pierre Berton during a 1971 interview. The divergent paths suggested by the jeet kune do founder left fighters with two choices: succeed or fail.
Physical punishment is inherent in the sport of mixed martial arts. Fighters, however, identify with the sacrifice, perseverance and honor at the core of martial arts rather than the brutality and bloodlust skeptics charge them with cherishing.
Fighter psychology, in its simplest terms, is the mind persisting when the body refuses. Think about Nick Diaz (Pictures) pulling off an impossible gogoplata choke against Takanori Gomi (Pictures) despite suffering a broken orbital bone. Consider Hughes carrying Trigg across the Octagon and driving him into the canvas despite being stricken by inadvertent low blow moments earlier.
Pulver, a man who has suffered his fair share of physical pain -- including Gomi’s left hook, B.J. Penn (Pictures)’s vice-like rear naked choke and Urijah Faber (Pictures)’s razor-sharp elbows -- knows the mind conquers all.
“I was born to be a fighter. I’ve been fighting since I was old enough to stand up,” said the former UFC lightweight champion, whose childhood was laced with physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his father. “I can’t be broken in any aspect. I don’t have nothing else, you know? I’ve got nowhere else to go. I got nothing else to do. That’s what keeps me unbreakable.”
My first thread ... no shitdog jokes please.
Very interesting artice imo.