It is often said that high-level athletes, in any sport, are mentally exceptional. They can remain focused on their goals, even in the face of extraordinary adversity. In the gym, they maintain a maddening regimen of physically grueling drills, conditioning and “live” practice -- almost always at the expense of the trappings of a normal social and personal life -- and then on game day they must deploy those skills in an atmosphere of extreme pressure.
MMA is no exception, and on a near-weekly basis we are reminded of the mental fortitude it takes to persevere and succeed in one of the world’s most grueling sports. We hear fighters talk about injury-imposed layoffs and financial precariousness, frustration at matchmakers and cruel twists of fate. The staples of being a professional fighter -- from the social isolation to the murderous weight cuts to the largely invisible trials of recovery once the curtain has closed and the parking lot is empty -- would be enough to drive most ordinary people insane.
It is all in pursuit of a goal: to get a championship wrapped around one’s waist, and access to all the ancillary doors that title opens up. Fighters sacrifice their bodies, their minds and a good portion of their sanity for the opportunity to show that they’re the best, and of the infinitesimal percentage of fighters who make it to the apex, fewer still remain there for a meaningful amount of time.
We are familiar with the narratives of fighters who fail to stay the narrowing path from novice to prospect to contender to champion. For most, it’s a numbers game: They don’t win enough fights, or they don’t win the right fights, to catapult themselves “into the mix” and beyond at a major promotion like the UFC or Bellator. Some apply the risk-reward matrix early and figure there are more wholesome ways to make a living, or fall victim to the corrupting trappings of fame.
For others, fate is much crueler. Career-derailing injuries striking at the precise moment they were about to cash in on a lifetime of physical sacrifice; or -- in the case of men like Ronaldo Souza and Tony Ferguson -- these opportunities are earned, then revoked by an unscrupulous and unaccountable promoter, citing bad timing or the amorphous charge of not “moving the needle.”
For all of MMA’s injustices, though, one storyline we are seldom confronted with is the one where the man or woman who makes it to the top of the mountain, suddenly becomes incapable of fulfilling the inherent requirements of the job, despite having the physical tools at their disposal.
That is what appeared to happen on Saturday night, when Bellator’s reigning welterweight champion, Rory MacDonald, faced off against veteran Jon Fitch in the main event of Bellator 220. In the aftermath of the 25-minute affair, in which MacDonald retained his title via a controversial majority draw and moved on the 170-pound grand prix to face Neiman Gracie, the “Red King” spoke candidly -- and somewhat confusedly -- about his inability to “pull the trigger” during the contest, citing his Christian faith and evolution “as a man” as pulling him away from the violent epicentre that has characterised his time in the sport.
To be clear, MacDonald had done what he’d arrived at SAP Centre to do. Though the contest was ruled a draw, he retained the door-opening hardware that so many of his counterparts would kill to possess, and will purportedly face off next against Gracie, who was pegged by the oddsmakers as the least likely challenger to leave the tournament with the gold.
This wasn’t disappointment in his performance or frustration at the inefficacy of his game plan. This was epistemological; a manifest disturbance of our shared assumptions about MacDonald and his potency inside a steel cage. This was a 29-year-old titleholder, entering his prime, with a multi-billion dollar media conglomerate standing in his corner, telling us it might be time he moved on.
MacDonald later clarified that he wasn’t retiring, releasing a lengthy statement of social media where he promised to “compete boldly” opposite Gracie next month in New York. But he also acknowledged his heart was changing, and that he experienced an absence of the enjoyment and catharsis that normally accompany him on his dalliances with face-punching.
None of this is normal for a sport that simultaneously glorifies and obscures its brutality, but there is much to admire about, and learn from, MacDonald’s candor.
MMA takes so much from its athletes; an assertion of agency like this -- independent of and indifferent to the cheers and boos, the expectations of his promoter and the looming spectre of his next opponent -- is more courageous and authentic than any offense he could have thrown in the preceding contest.
And yeah, we will have doubts about his commitment to the upcoming fight with Gracie, which will be repeated ad nauseam as that event gets closer. But there’s a bigger picture that’s so much richer than the prototypical skills breakdown of the champion or the challenger, enabled by a moment as rare as it was beautiful.
And that shouldn’t be looked at as a downside. It should be appreciated for its indelible humanity.
Jacob Debets is a law graduate and writer from Melbourne, Australia. He has been an MMA fan for more than a decade and trains in muay Thai and boxing at DMDs MMA in Brunswick. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.