Opinion: The Myth of Mind Games

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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It’s not uncommon to hear fighters harp on the mental demands of mixed martial arts. “The fight game is 90 percent mental, 10 percent physical,” they’ll say. It makes sense that they emphasize the aspect of the sport that isn’t immediately apparent to the folks at home, most of whom have never experienced anything remotely similar to preparing for a fight.

The tedium of clocking in for work is no less present in a training camp than it is in a regular 9-to-5. Ask any fighter. There are days when you are motivated and days when you aren’t, days when everything is clicking and days when nothing seems to go as planned. There’s also the emotional rollercoaster of teetering between supreme confidence and nervousness as the fight draws nearer, as well as the general exhaustion that comes with rigorous exercise and dietary restrictions. On top of all of that, top-level fighters are often isolated from their friends and family, instead spending their time with complete strangers to do promotional work to hype the fight. Fight camps are strange bubbles of reality.

Without a doubt, MMA takes an incredible mental toll on fighters. With that being said, the fight game is at the end of the day a physical contest between two people wielding their bodies as weapons. As simple and obvious as the statement seems, fight fans frequently forget that, especially in the days leading up to the fight.

The pre-fight press conference for Bellator 170 was a one-sided microphone beatdown. Chael Sonnen relentlessly mocked Tito Ortiz, who has never been any good at trash talk (see: “Ice Man? More like the Snow Man!” against Chuck Liddell or any exchange between him and Ken Shamrock from “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 3). Sonnen made personal remarks about Ortiz’s ex, Jenna Jameson, and snored through his attempt to tell an intimidating and/or menacing story about lions and jackals that in all fairness was pretty boring and hard to follow. Ortiz became noticeably flustered.

There is no question that Sonnen is a sharper, more quick-witted mind than Ortiz and it looked as if he was comfortably winning the mental side of the fight, which is 90 percent of it -- until, of course, he walked in the cage and got choked out in 123 seconds. What a come-from-behind win for “The Huntington Beach Bad Boy.” In only two days, the roughly 10 percent of physicality somehow overcame a clear psychological disadvantage.

For further evidence, rewind a few more weeks to the end of 2016. Prior to Cody Garbrandt’s lopsided decision victory over reigning champion and pound-for-pound trash talking great Dominick Cruz, it looked as if Cruz had won the fight before it started. Per usual, he needled his younger, neck-tattooed opponent to the point that “No Love” was repeating himself and walking out of interviews. Verbally, it was a flawless victory for Cruz. It was clear that Garbrandt was getting riled up, prepped by his opponent to fight foolishly and lose in the cage as embarrassingly as he did outside of it -- until the fight actually happened, that is.

There are countless more examples of this phenomenon. The “Embedded” series for UFC 200 showed Miesha Tate going to a hypnotherapist because “the mind is a muscle like anything else, it needs to be worked out.” Tate said this weeks before her mind-muscle was getting rattled by the actual muscles propelling Amanda Nunes’ fists into her head. Conor McGregor talked circles around Nate Diaz before UFC 196 with memorable lines, and then on fight night, he was barely able to breath, let alone drop a soundbyte.

When the opposite results materialize, the argument is just as silly. When Ronda Rousey was dethroned by Holly Holm, for instance, many thought that Holm won before the fight started, as evidenced by the weigh-in scuffle and subsequent Instagram rebuttal. However, did Holm win because she “got in” Rousey’s head or because she kicked Rousey’s head?

I, too, have squandered more time than I care to admit on Fight Finder voyages, and there are a lot of weird win methods. My favorite still has to be Frank Shamrock’s win over Enson Inoue via disqualification (Egan Inoue Ran into the Ring). However, I have yet to see anyone win via TKO (Sick Burn) or submission (Press Conference Zingers). The mental part of the game, at least when it comes to so-called “psychological warfare,” simply means a lot less than people tend to think it does.

It’s worth repeating that the mental aspect of the game is very real inasmuch as fight preparation is concerned. Fighters must have tremendous mental and emotional fortitude in order to put themselves through the rigors of fight camp. This is especially true at the highest levels of the sport. Just the act of walking inside a cage to do unarmed battle with another person requires an insane level of courage and mental toughness. That’s part of why it’s such a fascinating sport; very few people on the planet are in possession of such a mindset. However, that same mental toughness that allows professional fighters to put their bodies through the ringer on a regular basis also prevents them from losing a fight simply because they got rhetorically punked beforehand.

Ultimately, pre-fight trash talk is entertaining and enjoyable, but it mostly serves to get in the heads of fans, not fighters. If someone is competing at the highest level of the sport, they’re not going to get thrown off by another person making fun of them. Time to end that meme.

Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.
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