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Click Debate: Why do fighters frequently show respect to each other after MMA bouts?

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UFC on FOX 24 photos
Rose Namajunas (left) and Michelle Waterson hug after Namajunas beat Waterson by TKO at UFC on FOX 24.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Shaking hands, giving a high five, a pat on the back or even a hug to an opponent after a fight seems to be carved deeply into MMA’s unwritten tradition. Most UFC events have around 13 fights, and if you see two bouts that don’t end with some manner of acknowledgement shown between the two combatants, it’s a rarity.

Why is that exactly? Is it just a carryover from sparring, a matter of rote? Is it all in the spirit of martial arts? Or something more?

Many fighters describe it as respect. Even after 15 or 25 minutes of trying to take another person’s head off, when the bell rings the fighting is over and the bond that has developed begins to take shape.

“I feel like fighters shake hands and show respect after a fight sometimes out of relief because the fight is over,” women’s MMA pioneer Julie Kedzie told MMA Fighting. “But also because you share something in the cage with another person. Fighting is exhausting and emotional and the only person who really understands that is your opponent.”

The passing on of respect after a fight is apparently not a phenomenon exclusive to MMA nor boxing or any other combat sport. It’s a natural inclination and not even just in human beings. Post-conflict reconciliatory behavior has also been shown in primates, according to research.

A team of scientists at Oakland University recently studied why people (not just fighters) express that behavior and under what circumstances. The research, which was done over three years, was published last month and found that the perception of a clean fight and a discrepancy in size between opponents had the greatest affect on post-fight respect.

One of the co-authors of the research, Nicole Barbaro, a PhD evolutionary psychology at the Oakland University, said she believes if the study was focused on MMA fighters it would bare comparable results.

“I would think so,” Barbaro told MMA Fighting. “If we were able to do this research on an actual sample of athletes, I think we would find pretty similar results. Or at least that would be my hypothesis. This is very anecdotal, but in watching different MMA fights, usually when there is some kind of out-of-the-ring conflict between opponents, they’re less inclined to touch gloves with them, they’re less inclined to be respectful and praise them after the fight.”

Barbaro and one of her co-authors on the project, Michael Phan, are big MMA fans and the sport inspired their research, she said.

“We noticed when we watched MMA fights guys would spend 25 minutes beating each other up, trying to knock the other one out and then they get up and they’re like, ‘Oh, great job,’” Barbaro said. “It seems like a counterintuitive result to a fight, but it’s quite common across a lot of different combative sports and fights in general.”

A discrepancy in size — the second greatest predictor on post-fight respect — would not necessarily come into play in MMA with the presence of weight classes. But the perception of a clean fight can certainly apply. And that doesn’t necessarily even mean an opponent just following the rules; it means meeting the perceived agreed-upon expectations of the bout, Barbaro said.

“Given the fight that’s occurring, there’s a certain implicitly understood rule about what’s acceptable in terms of what types of tactics you use against your opponent,” Barbaro said. “If you kind of remain within those rules, then you’re more likely or more inclined to be respectful to your opponent, because they fought a fair and good fight. So if they’re using these unacceptable or dirty fight tactics, you’re less likely to respect them — they’re almost cheating, in a way.”

UFC strawweight fighter Angela Hill said she is always inclined to shake hands after a fight, because of the camaraderie that is built inside the cage. Even when an opponent flipped her the middle finger before a bout, Hill said she still wanted to show respect afterward. There was one time, though, that Hill didn’t want to extend her hand — against Tecia Torres at UFC 188 in 2015.

Torres didn’t do anything outside the rules of an MMA fight. But Hill said she strayed from what Hill’s expectations of the fight would be. Torres fought a conservative, wrestling-heavy style, breaching what Hill thought was an implicit agreement between the two.

“Everyone expected a crazy standup fight, people were hyped for it after my fake handshake stunt, we were in the biggest arena I've ever fought in in Mexico City and she had the audacity to say to me, ‘Let's make some money!’ at weigh-ins,” Hill said. “The last thing I expected was a lay-and-pray strategy, but we were at altitude and she stalled her way to a victory. It was the only time I've ever gotten booed during a fight.

“I blame myself for the loss, but I couldn't help but be annoyed. I hugged her afterwards but I should've given her a wedgie for that sh*t.”

Even with what she seemed to be unacceptable tactics, Hill still showed Torres respect. That is very much the order of things in MMA. It is somewhat expected, especially among the purists who would describe the sport as martial arts rather than a prize fight or cage fighting.

“It’s just a show of respect,” said UFC bantamweight Jimmie Rivera, who grew up practicing the traditional martial art of karate. “And when a guy doesn’t shake your hand, then you just put your finger up and tell him f*ck you, you know what I mean? It’s just a show of respect. You’ve gotta earn respect to get respect. That’s the way you earn it. That’s my theory on it. Whatever is said before a fight, whatever is said to build it up, afterward you shake the person’s hand, ‘good fight,’ and that’s it.”

Former Strikeforce women’s bantamweight champion Sarah Kaufman said that she doesn’t like to touch gloves while the fight is going on under any circumstances, but will always shake hands and pass along respect afterward. She hasn’t been in the position personally, but said there is something to a fighter feeling cheated and not wanting anything to do with a friendly interaction afterward if that situation arises.

“If someone did some shady stuff in fights I wouldn't shake after,” Kaufman said. “Would have to be intentionally dirty fighting though for me to think that.”

The study done by the Oakland University scientists was broken into three parts. The first asked questions of people from Reddit and other social media networks, the second was a community sampling (Barbaro asked random people on the street), and the third was undergrad psychology students at the school. The participants were all asked about what they would do in situations regarding a one-on-one fight of someone of the same sex. In the third part, they added questions about witnesses being present for the fight, but found no significant statistical correlation between witnesses and more willingness to show respect afterward.

Fighting itself is prevalent across the evolutionary history of humans and animals, especially among men, Barbaro said. Showing respect after MMA bouts, she said, is coalitional behavior, not unlike the bond soldiers form during warfare. Even though two fighters are competing against one another, they are still fighting under the UFC banner.

While there might be a natural pull toward shaking hands after fighting, it doesn’t necessarily mean two athletes are going to be best pals afterward. UFC middleweight Eric Spicely said he doesn’t really want to interact with an opponent after a fight, but does extend his hand as a “mutual show of respect.”

“I wouldn't feel disrespected if someone didn't shake my hand,” Spicely said. “Just say thanks and move on is how I feel.”

It is a fight, after all. Real damage is being done, sometimes damage that can have long-term health effects. Even as someone who has studied the generational history of fighting in humans and animals, Barbaro said she was initially taken aback by mixed martial arts, even compared to boxing.

“It’s a much purer form of fighting,” Barbaro said. “I remember my first few times watching the UFC fights, I was just really shocked at how brutal it can get. It was very difficult for me to watch at times. And now we’re watching all the time when the fights come on and I’m so excited. It’s really exciting for me to watch.

“This is raw fighting. It seems very natural to me to watch that now. It might just be because I’m an evolutionary psychologist, but I’m very kind of up to date on the evolutionary underpinnings of violence and aggression. I appreciate watching it.”

UFC president Dana White has said over and over since he began running the UFC in 2001 that fighting is “in our DNA.” Barbaro said there is a lot of truth to that. Fighting is very much a part of our evolution as humans.

So, too, is the show of respect between opponents after a bout, evidently. Within the acceptable parameters, that is.

Hill said she really “didn’t want to” shake hands with Torres at UFC 188 because of her style of fight. But she did pat her on the back, giving her that respect. Boring or not, it was still a fight, a violent pact between two individuals, one that is a part of who we are even if only some truly get to experience it on that level.

“Fighting is one of the hardest professions out there with very little payout, at least for the majority of fighters,” Hill said. “There’s a camaraderie felt afterwards that only someone who's been through that experience can understand. No matter how good your opponent is there's always the 50-50 chance of winning or losing. There's no team to absorb the loss, it's just you. So aside from the punishment your body takes, the loss is solely felt by you. It's a lot to sign up for and I respect anyone who has the balls to go through that.”