The Psychology of Fighting

Psychology of Fighting

Aug 27, 2008
Former UFC light heavyweight champion Quinton Jackson (Pictures)’s recent hit-and-run encounter with the law reminded fans that training and competing are only two-thirds of the mixed martial arts equation. Jackson was arrested just 10 days after he relinquished his 205-pound title in a unanimous decision defeat to Forrest Griffin (Pictures) at UFC 86. The 30-year-old has since been charged with two felonies and could spend up to three years in jail.

“He was kind of bummed about the [Griffin fight],” said friend and one-time World Extreme Cagefighting lightweight titleholder “Razor” Rob McCullough (Pictures). “He hadn’t slept. That alone will make someone act a little weird.”

Disappointment often leads to self blame, as fighters become overwhelmed by the feeling they have let down trainers, training partners, family, friends and fans. It anchors their perceived professional and personal failures.

“You can’t be embarrassed to be a warrior,” McCullough said, reflecting on his own high-profile loss to Jamie Varner (Pictures) earlier this year. “Win or lose.”

All celebrities walk a tightrope in the public eye, and professional athletes are no different. MMA fighters are slowly entering mainstream circles and some, like Jackson, have even started earning their Hollywood stripes. With greater fame comes the risk of greater falls.

Blood and guts

When the UFC’s top two welterweights, champion Georges St. Pierre (Pictures) and Jon Fitch (Pictures), tangled at UFC 87, physicality was on graphic display. The mental toughness of both men held the fight together.

Fitch, known as a “grinder,” expected to take to the champion like a pickaxe, break him mentally and expose a perceived weakness in the French-Canadian that had been brought to the forefront in his monumental upset loss to Matt Serra (Pictures) in 2007. Instead, “Rush” beat the challenger’s eye shut under purple and red swelling. Still, he could not break Fitch mentally.

“Jon, this is what I was talking to you about Jon!” yelled Fitch’s Brazilian jiu-jitsu coach, Dave Camarillo, between the first and second rounds. “The sacrifice -- you gotta keep pushing buddy. This is what we were talking about.”

As cutman Leon Tabbs worked on his face, Fitch heeded the words of his trainers. That, in part, carried him through the next four rounds.

“Hey!” screamed cornerman “Crazy” Bob Cook (Pictures). “I want no f--king kicking, alright? I want g--damn head movement, and I want you to get after him, OK?”

“You gotta push Jon. Let’s do it,” added Camarillo.

One man challenged Fitch; the other encouraged. The manner in which the two revered American Kickboxing Academy trainers approached Fitch revealed the balancing act that exists between teacher and student in MMA. All stages of competition can be damaging -- the training, the fight itself and the aftermath. For a fighter of Fitch’s caliber, defeat can be a difficult pill to swallow.

“If [American Kickboxing Academy is] going to take a loss, I’d rather do it early in someone’s career before they’re in the TV spotlight and all that,” Cook said. “It’s easier to recover from and forget about at that point. Obviously, every fight is the most important fight of your career.”

Agony of defeat

Depression, lack of desire to return to training and dishing out culpability are common reactions to defeat. Emotions are wide ranging, as competitors try to make peace with not being good enough on a given night.

Jeff Sherwood/

"In this sport, the highs are so high
and the lows are so low," says
Joe Riggs (top).
“I turn the lights off, and I [sit in the bedroom alone],” Joe Riggs (Pictures) said. “In this sport, the highs are so high and the lows are so low. Both of them fall on you. When you’re high, there’s no one to pat on the back but you. When you’re low, there’s no one to blame but yourself.”

Riggs has experienced every rough spot in the sport. He feels like a vagabond, bouncing between 170 and 185 pounds. While doing so presents him with more opportunities, the constant shift in body composition has become an emotional drain.

“Every training camp you’re trying to push yourself a little past that level,” said Riggs, whose problems with painkillers have been well documented. He missed weight at UFC 56, squandering what was perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime chance to challenge Matt Hughes (Pictures) for the welterweight title. He has taken fights injured and had bouts cancelled on multiple occasions. He has even been denied his license.

While every mixed martial artist has his or her motives, Riggs echoes one universal theme. Family is his driving force.

“My whole reason for waking up in the morning is taking care of my family, and this is my means to do it,” Riggs said. “It’s pretty much the whole thing I think about getting ready for a fight.”
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