Let me set the scene. It’s 2011 and every place I walked into, I immediately found the biggest dude in there and sized him up. If he ever got out of line, 17-year-old me was going to put his punk-ass back in his place with all two jiu-jitsu submissions I knew and a whopping 0-2 fighting record from middle school. The next month I’m driving home with a bloody nose and my bell still ringing, but we’ll get to that.
There’s something primitive about fighting in a way to impose your physical will on an opponent and make them willfully submit or beat them until they are no longer able to breathe and blink at the same time. No wonder mixed-martial-arts attract viewership from such a broad demographic with age ranging from 18-59. Among that demographic, 85% aren’t bringing in more than $75k but are also 10% more likely to own a second home. MMA fans are from all walks of life and all ages.
However, there is one predictive of MMA fans that remains a constant: MMA fans are 70% more likely to be men. However, are we doing martial artists and fans a disservice? Although it’s biologically satisfying to watch two mindless physical specimens shed each other’s blood on canvas after weeks of trash talking, this may perpetuate a stigma that supports Sen. John McCain calling the sport “human cockfighting”. What can we learn about manhood, manliness, and even gentleman-ship from fighting?
So let’s rewind back to 17-year-old me. My whole family had been wrestlers from the time we could pronounce “singlet.” Still, my brothers and I chose different athletic ventures. By high school, I was missing the mat. So, I discovered Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I began training BJJ at a karate dojo. The instructor was also an inexperienced amateur teaching out of a Gracie online lesson manual. I had learned a few techniques and submissions, and it immediately went to my head. After a while, I got introduced to a soldier and fighter who invited me to come train at his gym. This was the gym everyone thinks of when they think of MMA. In the basement of a Red Cross donation center funded consistently by the patrons of the Combatives Sports Center (CSC).
One night, after light sparring with one of my usual partners, a couple of the more experienced fighters asked if we wanted to get in on a round-robin. I stepped into the ring with who I would come to find out was our Muay Thai instructor. I’m pretty sure right before the starting bell rang; I could see him pulling the padding in his 16oz gloves away from his knuckles. A short 75 seconds later I was being helped up by the others with blood on my shirt. What happened next was incredible.
The guy who just kicked my ass began to teach me. He didn’t gloat, he didn’t make fun of me. He made me better. Since then, I’ve never been eager to fight someone outside of a cage. That delusion of kicking some guy in the teeth in a bar fight faded away. It’s not that I’m afraid of getting knocked out again, on the contrary, I know I could easily walk away from most fights unscathed. I just no longer feel the need to prove that. Humility was the first lesson MMA taught me.
Trash Talk, It’s Good for You (and for Business)
Around that same time, I was determining what kind of fighting personality I wanted to have. Was I going to be the quiet professional like GSP? Was I going to shit on myself more than my opponent like Forrest Griffin? Or was I going to run my mouth, win or lose, and degrade everyone like Chael Sonnen (check out some of the best trash-talkers in the sport here)? My humility boxing lesson and good sportsmanship raising had me leaning toward the quiet professional.
My MMA coach, Joe “The Nose” Wilk, disagreed with my approach. I remember asking him as I watched him train for an upcoming fight, “Why do you talk so much trash before a fight?” I had always been sick of guys like Sonnen and the Diaz brothers or Tito Ortiz for pandering to the savage fans of MMA who can’t appreciate the sport as anything more than a modern gladiator. Joe replied along the lines of “if I talk this much game before a fight, I better back it up.” Joe wasn’t talking just for ticket sales, he was talking for himself, competing with himself. If he didn’t walk the walk, his respect -and potentially future fights- went out the window. He must have been on to something. Joe was a belt holder in the Victory Fighting Championship multiple times.
Fighting is Fighting
With The Nose’s self-motivation in mind, we can see that not all those who trash talk are the same. Some do it mostly to fuel their own motivation. Still, there are others who do it purely out of sheer disrespect for their opponent. McGregor and Diaz come to mind. Now, this isn’t a tenant I’ve taken from the sport. My opponents are competitors too, and I appreciate the opportunity to learn from our engagement, regardless of the outcome (MMA is even great for kids, check out Matt’s fatherly insight). However, this method of dehumanizing your opponent has its place in strategy. As much as I’d like to deny the inhumane violence associated with the sport, at the end of the day fighting is fighting; Your job is to hurt the other person more than they can hurt you. Admittedly, that’s my favorite part.
How to be a Fan
MMA has a lot to offer both participants and fans alike. The challenges required to succeed will develop a mental toughness and physical confidence to support your personal and professional aspirations. But you don’t have to step into a ring to be a steward of the sport. Fans, like fighters, are going to have their own personalities. It’s us as fans that truly personify the sport and give it its reputation. If we go out in a TapOut shirt talking about how we “totally Americanad” some dude at our last org day picnic and we’re the best at “UFC” in our whole office cubicle then we prove that this is a violence-first sport. Those guys are the ones who have never experienced a true, humbling ass-kicking; and what do they know anyway?
No one knows I train MMA. Why should they? I’m not offering free lessons or challenging everyone I see on the street. I think basically all fighters have learned the same lessons. Humility, respect, and competition. For some, this sport is a career, for others, it’s a hobby. Regardless, we need to portray the sport in its entirety: as a mental challenge with a physical medium that imposes the most primitive and decisive means of submission on the loser and undeniable superiority to the victor.