clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Truth About Fighting Hurt

It was the spring of 2006 and Matt Hughes, then the UFC welterweight champion, had a problem. The problem was his back. More specifically, the problem was the three bulging discs that made every day its own little carnival of pain. He had a fight coming up in a month's time – a catchweight showdown with early UFC legend Royce Gracie. He had a decision to make.

Only if you hear Hughes tell it, there was no decision. The matter had already been settled before the injury ever occurred.

"I'm probably a little different than most people," says Hughes. "If I'm scheduled to fight, I've never had a problem that would make me back out of a fight. I've never had the thought go through my mind that I can't fight. I'm just going to fight no matter what."

In theory, at least, this is why we have athletic commissions. The pre-fight medical exams exist in part to make sure fighters aren't taking unreasonable risks with their own health.

And yet on any given fight card you'll find them -- the guys with fractured bones, torn ligaments, barely functioning joints. They go to great lengths to hide their injuries from doctors, promoters, and, as world-renowned MMA trainer Greg Jackson has learned, even their own coaches.

"There's no way to know unless the fighter tells you," Jackson says. "I've seen guys fight through broken ribs, broken jaws, injured knees – some pretty amazing stuff, really. Sometimes you don't know until after the fight that they had it. The fighters don't always let you in on their little secret."

So why do they do it? Why would guys who make a living with their bodies risk career longevity for short-term gains on so regular a basis that fighting hurt – sometimes really hurt – has become a cliché of the business?

"Sometimes they need the money," says Jackson, who insists that, contrary to the old saw, there are times when fighters step into the cage at 100%, just not that often. But for guys who only get three or four big paychecks a year, sick days are a luxury they don't have.

UFC heavyweight Roy Nelson seconds that explanation, adding, "If you've got a mortgage and you've got bills to pay, you might tend to do some stupid things."

Other times, according to UFC vet Chris Lytle, they just feel like there's no way around it.

"If you wait until you're 100%, you're never going to fight," he says. "If you train hard and you go hard, you're going to be hurt for most of your fights. That's just the way it is. My last fight, about a month out I hurt my back real bad and I couldn't hardly move. For about a week I couldn't train at all. I was thinking, I've got to fight in a month. How's this going to work? But I gave it some rest and, luckily, I stay in pretty good shape all the time so I could afford to take a week off."

But there's another reason guys push it even when they shouldn't. Money and career opportunities can motivate a fighter only so much. Earning the respect of their peers – or sometimes simply maintaining it – pushes them the rest of the way.

Without a doubt, there's a stigma among fighters when it comes to pulling out of fights. Even when the injury is legitimate and the decision to fight another day is the smart one, rarely do they give each other the benefit of the doubt.

As Chael Sonnen puts it, when he hears that someone has dropped out of a scheduled fight with an injury the first thought that passes through his mind is, "He is weak and he is a liar."

"Big Country" is a bit more generous, saying, "It depends if I know him personally, but the first thing I usually think is that the guy didn't want to fight him. For whatever reason, he didn't really want that fight. The guy got sand in his, you know, private area."

And yet, though they're willing to assume the worst about the intestinal fortitude of fighters from other camps, almost all of them say that they've had to talk teammates out of fighting injured. While some fighters may be incapable of even imagining an injury that could sideline them, they get a sudden dose of sensibility and compassion when it happens to a teammate.

Just ask Hughes, who says he'd never pull out of a fight, but once had to talk teammate Robbie Lawler into doing exactly that after a bad biceps tear.

"He said it still felt alright and all that, but I said, 'Hey, you just can't fight. You can't go in there with a torn bicep.' It's tough because this is what we do for a living. He didn't want to miss out on a paycheck because his bicep was hurt, but he took it from me when I told him that there's just no way you can go in there with a torn bicep. It was necessary, I think, for him to hear it from me that [pulling out] was the right thing, because he wanted to fight."

Lytle has found himself in the same situation when he's witnessed teammates who are at a fraction of their usual abilities in the gym, but he admits he hasn't always been successful in getting through to them.

"I know my training partners and I know how tough it should be when I go against them. If I'm going with them and I realize it's not that tough, I have to say, 'Hey, you're not doing what you can normally do. You're not going to win this fight. I don't know if you should take it.' I've told some people that and they've listened, and I've told some people that and they've said, 'Hey, I need the money.'"

But even when a fighter grits his way through a painful injury to collect a paycheck and put on a show for the fans, nobody wants to hear about the issues that may have legitimately contributed to a loss. Mentioning a pre-fight injury in a post-fight interview is the surest way to start up a chorus of boos, and fighters know it.

"Everybody hates a whiner," says Nelson. "That's what fans don't want to hear. They don't want to hear that this didn't work out for you and that hurt or whatever. You have to just suck it up and say, 'I got beat.' If you're going to go in there, you have to take it like a man. If you made the choice to get in there and fight, you have to accept accountability for whatever happens."

If it's sympathy you're after, or easy money, look elsewhere. In the hurt business, there's very little of either to go around.