Nerves. At one time or another we've all dealt with them on the job. Maybe you're an electrical engineer who has lain awake at night dreading an impending presentation in front of company executives. Perhaps you're a teacher who resists the urge to bite your fingernails in public while awaiting your class' standardized test results each spring. Whatever the case may be, if we're honest with ourselves, every one of us can recall a time in our lives when we were worried about our job performance.
Now imagine that feeling of anxiety and consider how much more intense it would be if you were contemplating the prospect of locking yourself in a cage with a professional fighter. Think about the knots that would form in your stomach as the reality sunk in that you would soon be facing an opponent with no compunctions about repeatedly hitting you in the head until you lost consciousness, brutally slicing your face open with elbows, or breaking a limb in an attempt to get you to cry uncle. Do you think you'd be able to sleep easily knowing tomorrow would bring such a daunting proposition?
I know I certainly wouldn't. Heck, just in the past year I've been left tossing and turning all night by comparatively low risk propositions like performing at a rock 'n' roll festival and taking the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. I couldn't imagine what sort of dark night of the soul I'd go through on the eve of an MMA fight.
Maybe that's why it was so easy for me to relate to Forrest Griffin's admission a few weeks back that he took Xanax as a sleeping pill before his fight with Anderson Silva and subsequently failed a post fight drug test. Sleeping before a fight would be difficult enough under normal conditions, but getting your mind to stop making like the Daytona 500 when you know you're going to be facing Silva in less than twenty four hours? Forget about it. That's like an ancient Roman prisoner keeping calm in his cell as he awaits being thrown to the lions.
Yet for some reason it seems there is often an implicit understanding among fans that we expect fighters to be stoic, or even enthusiastic before fights. The UFC has gone out of their way to perpetuate a belief that "real fighters" should jump at the chance to throw down on the drop of the dime. This is thanks in large part to Dana White's relentless praise of fighters who step up at the last minute and condemnation of anyone with the temerity to turn down a short notice fight.
It seems like UFC fighters are castigated by the company and fans alike whenever they fail to live up to an action hero standard of machismo. Sure it makes sense to portray oneself as a badass in a business that revolves around something as inherently violent as fighting, but given the reality of what can go wrong in a fight this stoicism and bluster can at times begin to feel a little disingenuous.
Which is why it was so refreshing to hear UFC lightweight Matt Wiman speak openly about pre-fight nerves to host Ariel Helwani on this past Wednesday's episode of The MMA Hour. When Helwani asked Wiman if he felt any nerves leading into his last fight against Paul Sass, Wiman gave a surprisingly revealing answer, "I feel like [each fight] is my biggest fight and I treat it as such. I put a lot of pressure on myself...when there's money involved. Everything that's involved in fighting is pretty stressful. I think every single fighter goes through it."
These nerves are certainly understandable when you take into account all the variables that go into fighting. While obviously it's best to stay positive and visualize victory, the repercussions of defeat would be hard to ignore when you consider all that's at stake with every fight in the UFC. A loss brings with it not only a much smaller purse, it also puts you one step closer to the unemployment line. For those with families to support this must be a very real source of anxiety when you take into account the lack of career opportunities for fighters these days.
Pre-fight anxiety is only compounded by the "bumps and bruises" most everyone incurs in training. Tweaking a knee or injuring a shoulder before a fight opens the door for doubts to creep in a fighter's mind about how well he will be able to perform on game day. What's more, a lingering injury could be further exacerbated in the course of a fight resulting in surgery and a painfully long gap between paydays.
Even if everything goes right in training and a fighter manages to make it through camp healthy, there is still the specter of performance anxiety to deal with. Wiman mentioned feeling a sense of pressure to make use of tools he drilled constantly in training leading up the bout with Sass. Imagine what it would feel like to devote three months of your your life to honing your craft only for all your dedication and sacrifice to be rendered meaningless when your opponent imposed his will upon you rather than the other way around. It's human nature to want validation for our efforts, especially when we expend as much effort as fighters do on a training camp.
Of course there's always the most obvious fear of all to contend with as well: it's unpleasant to think about someone potentially beating you up. Chael Sonnen once famously remarked that anyone who claims they enjoy getting punched in the face is a liar, and while this may or may not be the case with everyone, it's almost certainly true with the majority of fighters. Sure you want to go into a fight with the intention of being the hammer and not the nail, but even with all of the visualization, confidence, and positive thinking in the world it's got to be nerve wracking to contemplate the potential of your opponent spending three to five rounds pounding on your face like a chef tenderizing a particularly tough cut of meat.
Given all this it almost seems a wonder anyone ever goes through with a fight. Yet despite all these triggers for anxiety fighters keep getting in the cage with one another and laying it all on the line. Maybe it's because when it comes down to it someone who decides MMA is a viable career path is hardwired just a little bit differently from the rest of us. They have not only a competitive fire that pushes them to surmount challenges, but also a particular mixture of courage and brashness that drives them put themselves in harm's way for the sake of getting their hand raised. Fighters are possessed by a compulsive need to prove they are the best, or at the very least better than their opponent, no matter what danger stands in their way.
When viewed in this light perhaps it would be best not to look at pre-fight nerves as a sign of mental weakness, but rather as a testament to the fortitude necessary to pursue a career as a mixed martial artist. After all, fear is only shameful if we give into it. Overcoming it is a victory unto itself.
Follow me on Twitter @BorchardtMMA or reach me via email at steveborchardtMMA AT gmail DOT com
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