Professional MMA fighters are considered the epitome of the ultimate athletes. They undergo some of the world’s most rigorous physical training and conditioning in quests to hone their craft. Once competition time arrives, they abdicate all personal safety and enter the cage to engage in modern day’s least inhibited form of physical combat with their opponents.
As fans, we all simply marvel at these fighters’ amazing physical attributes, skills and bravery at display. But there are two distinctive classes of fans in MMA. The first and most quintessential type is a fan that rides with the hype. Granted that all fans alike love watching a good ol’ brawl, but hype-fans generally do not concern themselves with technical details between match-ups. Neither do they apply rational analysis into the intricate storylines and inner-workings when watching two fighters throw down.
Next we have the knowledgeable hardcore fans that know and tracks progress of all outstanding MMA athletes. These fans derive immense pleasure from analyzing fighters from technical perspectives, and are exceptionally drawn to the drama that surrounds the sport, mainly to learn more about the psyche of their favorite fighters and the opponents starting from pre-event promotional interviews, leading all the way into post-fight press conferences. And this blog series all about psychological combat is written rightfully so, for all you perceptive fans of MMA.
In the evolution of the sport, competition levels in all facets of the game have also been increasing accordingly. In today’s typical MMA scene, we are witnessing an exponential increase in participation by elite athletes that are not only genetically gifted, but also possess high-level well-rounded combat skills virtually across the board in the weight divisions. As the stakes of winning increases as well, the strife for the slightest competitive edge becomes ever more in demand.
Ever heard of the saying “a fight is 50% physical and 50% mental”? Well, evidence shows that the top echelon MMA fighters in the world recognizes and believes so. Sports psychology has been around for a long time and is now fashionably employed into the best pro fight teams, making them integral parts of their training camps, preparing these athletes mentally when undertaking extremely competitive fights. As an introduction to illustrate what goes through the minds of the world’s best athletes in competitive sports, here’s a great short presentation by PhD. of Psychology at Curtin University, Professor Martin Hagger at a TEDx conference held in Perth Australia back in 2013:
It is not uncommon to see these same mental attributes displayed by the world’s best fighters in the most watched MMA matches today. One of the greatest examples of psychological battles in recent MMA history, was the 2015 case of Jose Aldo Jr. from Brazil, a revered champion who first tore up the WEC ranks and then went on to dominated the UFC Featherweight division for over a decade. Above being exceptionally skilled and considered then a pound-for-pound best fighter in the world, Aldo also possessed an almost mystical aura of invincibility when entered the cage, exuding sheer psychological dominance over all his past opponents, thus giving him an extraordinary advantage when defending his title. Then along came a brash and (objectively) equally skilled contender Conor McGregor from Ireland, whom totally unfazed by Aldo’s reputation, employed a flawless psychological strategy by relentlessly taunting and hurling insults towards the reigning champion, all in an extended build-up towards the much-anticipated title match. It was a ploy that successfully infuriated the defending champion who felt utterly disrespected by the antics of the Irishman.
All the hype brewing throughout this slandering affair climaxed during UFC 194 when the two finally met inside the cage. Aldo then fuelled by rage, rushed in uncharacteristically towards McGregor to scrap. The rest as they say, is history resulting in an unprecedented 13 seconds K.O. victory for McGregor, crowning him the new Featherweight champion in the UFC. And although fans from all walks still argue to this day that McGregor landed a “lucky” punch prematurely ending the fight, and that Aldo could probably still be the superiorly skilled fighter, which honestly we will never truly know unless a rematch happens… But the fact remained that McGregor employed a psychological strategy with devastating effect going into the match, resulting in the most significant WIN for his UFC career.
The UFC 194 main event remains to this day a classic case study of how the mental game in MMA can absolutely affect the outcome of high-level competitions. The emotional aspects leading into matches play a huge part in every professional MMA fighter’s career. It is the role of the prudent athlete and his/her coaches to recognize and understand how to manage the fighter’s emotional composure, while heading into fight week. Every fighter has a unique character that responds differently to various emotional triggers. Each individual requires different approaches by their sports psychologist to help them deal with emotions when entering a fight. Here is an awesome video podcast from Fight Network interviewing renowned Sports Psychologist Dave Mullins that sheds light on Emotional Control and how it affects fighters positively and negatively going into a bout. He also presents a case study about the state of Ronda Rousey’s psyche during fights, comparing some of her best performances against her subpar showings inside the cage. Some very interesting stuff…
With all that being said, MMA in Asia is inherently a different game altogether compared to the west. Martial arts and combat sports in Asia are widely embraced with a great deal of honor and respect for opponents. It is uncommon and largely frowned upon by fan bases here, to see fighters adopt such flamboyant tactics used by the likes of Conor McGregor when promoting matches in this region. Even when the rare trash talk and occasional taunting do occur when fighters try to get inside the heads of their opponent, it is toned-down to a measly fraction of what it potentially could be as compared to the example given above. But it still happens nonetheless.
A glaring example of “the fight within the fight” taking place in Asian MMA from recent memory, is the co-main event at ONE Championship “Age of Domination”, when Bibiano Fernandes successfully defended his Bantamweight World Championship title against Reece McLaren in an all out five round war. This particular fight also revealed a great deal of psychological battling going on between the fighters.
The match itself was incredible to watch, with Fernandes edging McLaren technically for the first two rounds via successful takedowns and ground control, but McLaren was at no point in any real danger of being finished by the champ. The turning point of the match happened in the third round when McLaren was able to remain illusive on his feet during stand up exchanges, and caught Fernandes with a critical punch to the face, which visibly snapped the champion’s nose out of place. This changed the momentum of the fight slightly in favor to the challenger and as his confidence grew by the second, he began to actively taunt Fernandes while bobbing and weaving to avoid most oncoming strikes launched by the champ. It became clear at this point that the taunting compounded by a broken nose began to frustrate Fernandes, steering him off his game plan, which was working well initially up until that juncture. The evident frustration lured Fernandes to abandon his primary strategy of superior cage control and compelled him to engage in a riskier and emotionally motivated game of head-hunting McLaren. This not only affected his performance for rounds three and four, but also allowed McLaren to catch up in the score cards to make it a close match.
This fight truly tested the mental fortitude of Bibiano Fernandes, requiring the savvy veteran to dig deep between the latter rounds to regain his emotional composure. But it was a remarkable display of the winning mindset of a true champion, when Fernandes ultimately readjusted his performance to overcome the adversity of the moment and defended his undisputed championship title.
To conclude for this inaugural post in psychological combat, I’d like to share with you an article written by Dr. Randy Borum on “The Psychology of Fighting”, which was featured in Issue #2 of “Mixed Martial Arts Authority” Magazine (2008). In this article, he gave an excellent overview of the mental skills required by fighters to defend against mind games when facing cerebral opponents looking to gain a psychological edge. It basically boils down to Confidence and Focus. To summarize his points:
- Draw on your past successes
- Visualisation and positive self-talk
- Use positive cue words
- Train for durations that is longer than your matches
- Use intentional distracters during training
- Understand your optimal zone of arousal or intensity
- Actively manage your perceptions that you control
You can read the full blog with the article details where I got this information from here.
The mental game of MMA is a fascinating subject. One the FightGeek team intends to constantly revisit in our course of dissecting the ultimate martial path. Feel free to share with us your thoughts on fight psychology and the different approaches you feel we should take, to deliver more intriguing articles such as this to the astute fans. We look forward to your feedback!
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