Fighting at Elevation

By Jake Rossen Feb 17, 2010
Last week’s news that Vitor Belfort would not be available to match skills with Anderson Silva in April led to a sensation that fight followers are well accustomed to: deflation. You can practically hear the air hiss out of the conversation.

A former champion on late-career ascension, Belfort represented one of the few UFC-available challenges left for Silva. His hands are sharp, his wrestling is sound and his natural talent no longer appears to be diluted by adolescent thoughts of self-doubt. More importantly, he carried into the ring 12 years’ worth of audience familiarity.

Belfort’s replacement is Demian Maia, a sensational grappler who is a far less sensational striker. As we’ve witnessed ad nauseam already, it takes more than Grappler’s Quest credentials to contend with Silva. While Maia is probably the best possible replacement, he is certainly not the best possible opponent.

Moaning about Belfort’s absence is an indirect acknowledgment of why many of us pursue fighting sports, either as spectators or something more intimate. While competitive bouts and demonstrations of perfected technique are all factors, there is a reason we might be more entertained by a boring Silva/Belfort fight than a kinetic “Street Fighter II” homage by Silva/Maia. It is the principle of Elevation.

Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at Berkeley, was -- to the best of my knowledge -- the first to widely articulate Elevation, based on a concept by University of Virginia moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Put in basic terms, Elevation is a kind of psychological massage, a promotion of positive feelings after witnessing a degree of inspiring or influential human activity.

Haidt wrote, “Powerful moments of elevation sometimes seem to push a mental 'reset button,' wiping out feelings of cynicism and replacing them with feelings of hope, love and optimism, and a sense of moral inspiration.”

While this would appear to be incredibly flowery terminology for a reaction to a cage fight, it’s an excellent explanation for why fighting seems to inspire such long-term devotion and emotional wagering. Belfort fighting Silva had several reasons to warrant engagement: Silva had never faced such an accomplished striker; Belfort had come to use religion as fuel for his career resurrection; both men had spent years in center stage, creating a familiarity not unlike that of famous film actors or sitcom performers.

Maia, in contrast, presents as too close to Thales Leites and looked mortal against Nate Marquardt in a crushing one-punch defeat. The chips are no longer piled up -- and so our interest slides off the game. We’re no longer anticipating the high.

When we do, Elevation provides the fuel for enduring careers. Randy Couture’s story -- a genial underdog who rejects ageism -- may actually be stimulating our vagus nerve. Watching him crush Tim Sylvia, Gabriel Gonzaga and Chuck Liddell could have antagonized the nerve, sending a visceral response down our spines and influencing the oxytocin hormone of connection. If you get a fluttery feeling in your gut when you favorite fighter wins, science and psychology believe this is the reason why.

(Oxytocin is also released during a breast-feed, which may be motivation enough to nurse a child while Brock Lesnar is busy smashing someone. Honestly.)

Elevation was later adopted by the film critic Roger Ebert, who described having real residual effects after viewing a film that struck emotional chords with him. If fiction can accomplish this, it’s hardly a stretch to consider how much more impactful the real drama of a prizefight can be. While some people may prefer -- or even need -- the orchestra and editing that accompanies a “Rocky” climax, others put more weight on the outcome of two actual human beings. Watching someone progress through years, finally succeeding in the barest of sports, is uplifting: We can live vicariously through that moment, or use it to fuel what we desire in life.

Fighting is hardly the only sport to promote Elevation: the sight of someone painted Smurf-blue at a Giants game is proof of that. But fighting carries with it a unique set of consequences. When Eli Manning drops a big game, he will almost certainly return next year for the remainder of his multimillion-dollar contract. When a fighter loses a bout, it means being tossed right back down the ladder. And worse: dismissal, financial woes, depression. Fighting is blue-collar. There’s less emotional distance.

That sympathy contrasts Elevation. It’s the morbidity of a fight that’s fallen through, or disappoints. When Mark Coleman lost his bout with Couture earlier this month, it was difficult to walk away inspired. Coleman is a fiercely emotional athlete, an openly devoted father and a man walking through the last days of his career. His humility made the loss jarring in a way that an anonymous athlete cannot possibly duplicate.

In that same article, Ebert brought the conversation out of movies and into sports by describing his feeling after watching Michael Jordan in the 1997 NBA Finals. Clouded by food poisoning, Jordan played a terrific game and was then virtually dragged off the court. Said Ebert:

“I wasn't moved by the victory. That's only basketball. I was moved by his bravery.”

To say fighting is a gut check is correct. In many more ways than one.

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