Pulling the Curtain Back on Mixed Martial Arts

By Kaitlin Young 

Mixed Martial Arts is growing as a sport and, as it stands, there is an entire industry centered around its appeal. It’s no longer considered merely barbaric and has gained mainstream popularity. There are well-known companies sponsoring both events and fighters alike. Even people not involved with the sport know what MMA isand are often familiar with its top stars. Like other such sports, it has generated legions of fans, analysts, reporters, and hobbyists who watch the events and find themselves very close to the sport. These developments have changed MMA significantly in the last decade. It has become a career for some and is at the very least a viable option for launching a career in an adjacent profession. 

The sport is growing. 

Misconceptions About MMA

Despite the increasing knowledge of all these individuals surrounding MMA, its easy to forget that they are not in MMA. They may have an intimate understanding of the events, but not all that happens in the years, months, weeks, and even hours prior. On occasion, the curtain gets pulled back, and it’s somewhat amusing to hear the outrage, concern, and disagreement with what those in the business of fighting know to be just another day in the office.  

I’ll never forget when a photo of former UFC Champ Miesha Tate’s weight cuts surfaced on the internet. Cue the pearl clutching. Concerns about fighters cutting too much weight flooded the comments section of any forum in which it appeared. Miesha reportedly cut 12lbs in water that day. Her body had started holding and she had to work harder than usual to get it all off. MMA fans have LONG known that weight cuts of 15-20 pounds are more the norm than the exception. What did they think it looked like when someone pulled 12lbs of water out of their body? It’s not pleasant. 

Another Incident

Another such incident happened recently with Max Rohskopfa young fighter making his UFC debut. After having a great first round, he became overwhelmed in the 2nd, and despite not being injured, requested his coach stop the fight between the second and third round. Rohskopf’s coach was Robert Drysdale, a reputable BJJ Blackbelt, former MMA fighter, and a very experienced fellow in the way of high-level competition. This is a situation read completely differently for those IN the sport versus those SURROUNDING the sport.  Nearly everyone in the sport, except perhaps those for whom it hit too close to home, knew what was happening just by the description of events. Had the fighter been badly injured and unable to defend himself, surely Drysdale would’ve stopped the fight on his own accord. With no injury present, he tried to convince Rohskopf to continue, to no avail. Those in MMA knew it was a case of overwhelm, and those outside of MMA felt it was particularly dangerous and possibly even negligent for Drysdale to urge his fighter to continue 

What those outside the sport do not understand is that he was vocalizing what many fighters have felt before  in fights, in the training room, and anywhere else things become difficult. It’s important to point out that Rohskopf isn’t alone in how he felt in that moment, and those moments are part of developing as a fighter, whether it happens in the gym, in a fight, or in the sauna. If someone tries to say they haven’t ever felt they wanted to stop, they are either a newb, a liar, or have never actually been pushed. Blathering on about how one is always 100% is a good indication that one’s mettle hasn’t been tested.  

Fighters must learn to feel the discomfort and continue anyway.  

What Elite Athletes Understand

What those in MMA, and elite athletics in general, understand is that extreme discomfort and extreme danger are not one in the same. We’re wired to seek comfort, and to associate extreme discomfort with imminent risk, because historically that has been the case. Prior to the modern age, allowing one’s self to become dehydrated could mean impending doom (it still can when not done correctly.) There would not be Pedialyte, coconut water, and gallons of water available immediately when we finally decided to look for a drink. We would not have survived as a species if we didn’t perceive thirst as an immediate need 

The same is true with other forms of physical pressure. If you’re in a good training facility, this pressure is applied in training because it will most certainly be applied to in competition. Let’s be clear: I’m not talking about being used as a heavy bagAccidents happen, but if you’re suffering intentional injuries in practice, there’s something very wrong with the gym you’re in. I’m talking about mental and physical pressure, day in and day out. You’re not going to die…it only feels like you’re going to die.  

How Most Fights Are Won

Most fights are won by someone giving into the desire for self-preservation. Sure, there’s the occasional knockout or choke out when the body quits, but the vast majority of fights are won because one person has been convinced they have reached a point where they need to preserve themselves. It happens more obviously in fights with finishes, and less obviously in fights with decision victories. Quitting without quitting happens routinely in combat sports. If you watch fights closely you can see often see the moment, and you can also recognize when it never comes. Those are the fights the fans rave about for months and sometimes years after they’ve concluded. 

“You Can’t Teach Heart”

Different factors can bring a fighter to the point of prioritizing self-preservation more quickly. Being out of shape, being technically outmatched, being physically damaged, and most importantly, being profoundly discouraged. Being successful in doing difficult things over and over again increases the time and load it takes to reach discouragement. Self-belief is built and not something that appears out of thin air. It is often said, “You can’t teach heart,” but frankly, that’s a load of shit. Heart is being taught right now in gyms, and in other arenas, across the globe. In any physical training program, you’d be ill-advised to pile elite level stress onto a beginner level body. That’s a good way to teach someone they need to preserve themselves EARLIER rather than later. Is the mind so different? Isn’t it silly to suggest that a person should walk into the gym with the same tolerance for pressure and damage he or she might have after 10 years of growth? Lazy coaching has been erroneously passed off as a universal truth.  

That same fighter we saw lying on the ground after a 12lb water cut was the one who pulled out a late 5th round submission in a tough, close fight to become UFC Champion (and later, deliver her son on her bathroom floor with just her husband for assistance). While the events are separate, they are linked by the underlying attitude and developed response to pressure and discomfortTolerance for doing hard things is developed by doing hard things, whether or not the tasks are directly related.  

Training to Give 100% of What You Have

Fight camps are by and large very demanding. MMA, Muay Thai, and other combat sports are some of the few events where the physical demands of practice outweigh the demands of the actual event. Injuries are fairly common, to the point that they are rarely even mentioned by fighters to the media because everyone IN the industry knows everyone has them. If one were to only train on the days they felt 100%, there wouldn’t be much training going on. If fights only happened when both parties were 100%, well, you could kiss events goodbye. That’s not to say people don’t pull out for severe injuries or illness, but there is a fine line being walked here. What high-level combat sports demand is for athletes to compete on days where their max will be maybe 70%- 80% or less of their full ability, and they do, frequently. They win fights, Olympic medals, and title belts, by learning to give 100% of whatever it is they have to give that day. They do not arrive at that ability by only practicing it under the bright lights.  

When I started training Muay Thai (later MMA), Sean Sherk was an active fighter at the first gym I’d come to. It was 2006, and he was preparing for his UFC world title fight against Kenny Florian. He’d torn his rotator cuff badly 10 days prior to the event. He had a choice between continuing to train or pulling out of the fight, because one does not simply avoid training 10 days before a 25-minute fight. Sean’s shoulder was so bad that he physically taped his hand up to his head for pad rounds because the wounded shoulder couldn’t support the weight of his arm. It was THAT bad. And you know what? He went into that fight and thrashed Florian from pillar to post for 5 rounds, earning both the UFC belt and a performance of the night bonus, and had shoulder surgery a week later. 

Sherk’s Story is Not Unique

It wasn’t the first or the last time he trained and fought injured, and every other high-level competitor you can think of surely has similar stories. When someone within MMA hears about a technically spectacular young prospect like Rohskopf at 5-0, who has nothing but 1st round finishes, asking to quit after the 2nd round of his first UFC fight against an 11-3, they already know what happened without seeing the tape. He is under significant pressure from himself and others and has become discouraged – not even necessarily because of what’s been done to him, but because of what he is unable to do to his opponentThis was a case of frustration or discouragement, not debilitating injury. 

The average person may empathize with him, thinking about how terrifying it would be to be forced into another 5 minutes, against one’s will, with a man who wants to put you to sleep. They may feel that the coach was in the wrong. They are coming from a good place, but don’t see the whole picture. Drysdale was attempting to keep his fighter from robbing himself of an important fight against adversity. When a fighter has gone through opponents like a hot knife through butter and has now met the first that is unable to be dismantled as easily, it can be a major turning point in their career.   

Smoke and Mirrors

Despite all the smoke and mirrors of MMA advertising, with Rohskopf’s fight, fans got yet another sneak peek into the reality of the sport they profess to love so much. Coronavirus precautions dispersing the crowd allowed viewers to hear a conversation they may not have otherwise heard. It should be appreciated for what it was  one tough moment in a developing fighter’s career. The only factor making this occasion different was the general public playing witness. 

We do not get to have fights like Bonnar vs Griffin without these moments. We do not get to watch fighters argue with the doctor to continue without these moments. We do not get to have the sport as we know it without these moments. There are plenty other sports to watch if you’rinterested in admiring athleticism. People love watching fights because of something else. That something cannot be parsed out from the conditions under which it is created.