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A Glimpse Into The Fighter’s Mind

“Fighting is fifty percent mental.” Through the ages, grizzled fighters and veteran trainers have said words of that nature to eager young fighters, to reporters, to anyone who would listen. Even for the ancient Samurai and sword masters of feudal Japan, where life and death were on the line every duel, after mastery the game was hugely mental, as the writings of Musashi and his contemporaries can attest.

But what does it mean, “mental?” Fighting is two guys in a ring, or cage, or on the street; smashing each other. It’s the ultimate physical endeavor, meat on meat. How could something so physical be more ‘mental’ than ‘physical?’

Boxing and Mixed-Martial-Arts (MMA) are called sports; but in sports, the real world is nominally held at bay, locked outside stadium doors for the viewer. No one is starving in football, there is no genocide in baseball, no terrorism coverage on ESPN. We watch a game to escape from the news, from politics. The rules are clear, there’s a winner and a loser, and everything is as fair as we can make it. Of course, sports are about everything in life, too, barely beneath the surface. Sports are about race and religion, class and poverty. Outside life squeezes in through the edges of field and climbs in under the ropes. Terrorism and genocide show up, like smoke drifting in through the cracks.

Prize-fighting is something more again. We create a life-and-death struggle on demand. And while watching my football team lose is one thing, it can’t compare with the empty lurch in my stomach when I see a friend, or a hero, losing a fight.

A fight, a prize-fight, has some elements of that sporting fairness, there is a winner and a loser. Rules, weight classes, referees and judges; we try to make a fair fight, as fair as human ingenuity can make it.

But we invite the real world in—we ask for damage. There is a savage price to be paid. Prize-fighting operates in a grey area, on the dark fringes of the sporting world. To watch men fight is like watching a bull-fight or a dog-fight, on some level, you stop judging and thinking and instead feel in your bones, and connect to an older, primordial sense of spectacle. Fighting is much greater than a sum of its parts, it is more than a sport, more than any other form of competition in modern society. It is about truth.

Fighting for money requires an understanding of identity—you have to know and exploit who you are. As Randy Couture, a multiple UFC Champion said, “No lies get told in [the cage]”. If your opponent is stronger than you, we’ll find out. If you’re not prepared, we’ll find out. And more than that—you have to know who you are, what kind of fighter you are, what are your strengths and weaknesses. They’ve been stuffed down your throat since the day you started training to fight. If you’re tall, fight tall. If you’re a big puncher, don’t screw around on the outside—get in and hurt him. If you’re a wizard at ground-fighting, don’t stand in front of the kick-boxer. Honest appraisal of your own abilities—that’s a big part of the mental game. But it goes much deeper.

Josh Waitzkin, a chess prodigy and martial artist, wrote a book called The Art of Learning, and in it he describes the different types of kids he was teaching to play chess. He discusses at length “entity” versus “incremental” forms of learning, so classified by developmental psychologists. “Entity” kids think their chess skill is born of natural and innate ability, a pure talent; while “incremental” kids think they learned chess incrementally, step-by-step, and that hard work pays off.

Josh would give his students impossible problems, well beyond their level—that no one in the class could solve. So all the kids would fail that problem. But then, when he gave them other, manageable problems afterwards, the “entity” kids would struggle; they had broken mentally, and were unsure of themselves. The “incremental” kids would just go back to work, slogging away. “Entity” kids were “brittle;” when they lost, their faith in their talent was shaken. They struggled with accepting defeat. The “incremental” kids, who believed the power of labor, would keep digging in the trenches, even faced with insurmountable problems.

One of the old boxing truisms is “Frustrate a puncher and he’ll fall apart.” A ‘puncher’ is a fighter who hits really hard, with a big punch. It’s a natural gift that coaching can help—but you can’t teach power. The puncher relies on his big punching. He hits guys, and they go down. As he works his way up through the boxing ranks, this is the law of the land—he hits them and they disappear. Now, he gets to his first title fight, his first big fight, and he hits his opponent—boom—and the guy is still there. This guy can handle his punch, and keeps coming. So the puncher hits him again, but the other guy is still there. Now comes the crucible for the puncher—does he go to pieces? Or does he buckle down and keep fighting? Can he find another way to win? Mike Tyson, one of the greatest punchers of all time, rarely fought past six rounds. If he hit you and you were still there, he’d mentally break. He’d bite your ear off, foul himself out of the fight, or not answer the bell.

Good trainers know to take raw talent and season it, teach it to handle frustration. Fighters and trainers walk the line between understanding defeat and immersive self-belief. Successful fighters have things that work for them, and work incredibly well—but the great champions are those that can accept, internalize, and understand defeat. Waitzkin’s Tai Chi teacher, the renowned William C.C. Chen (whom I studied with briefly) called this “investing in loss,” and it means to study your defeat without ego, to let defeats happen in practice without reverting to your old habits, and to grow from it. It’s an essential skill, for even during a fight the fighter needs to be able to understand—and accept—when he is losing, and change his game plan. In order to win.

Ricardo Liborio, one of the great MMA and jiu-jitsu coaches in the world, made the same point, in his heavy Brazilian accent: “You have to unnerstan’ you CAN lose. Somebody can beat your ass; but you can overcome, don’t get frustrated. You can’t be a quitter, you have to understand it’s not your time, it’s not your day. Just because you lose doesn’t make you a loser. It’s not the same fight every time. Be humble enough to understand—losing is part of the game. It doesn’t mean to let yourself get conquered, but to know that you can win again, at the right time you can be great. The key to doing well in competition is to accept.” Liborio holds the word reverentially in his mouth, emphasizing with his whole face and body. “Accept you can lose, you can not perform. Take this big bag of rocks out of you backpack.”

Barbara Ehrenreich’s recent book “Bright-Sided” is a continual revelation about the dangers and industry of positive thinking in America, and she remains probably the most important writer we have. Positive, magnetic, “magical” thinking are dangerous illusions, particularly in investing and managing companies. But for fighting, positive, pro-active thought—thought that leads to positive action—play a critical role. And in fighting, illusions don’t last long.

Before Randy Couture was a multiple UFC Champion, he was a Greco-Roman wrestler who tried out and failed to make the number one Olympic spot three times (TK). He spent almost a decade chasing Olympic dreams, and came to MMA late, at the ripe age of 33. He wasn’t expected to do much.

“One of the things about being an underdog, there’s no pressure,” Randy told me. “Nobody expects you to win. It frees you up to go out and compete. We often complicate things with fear of failure, all that baggage of winning and losing. Being an underdog is freedom.”

“I realized I get way more nervous for wrestling than for fights. Way more keyed up. When I realized that, I thought, that’s odd. This guy could kick my head off, but I’m not worried about that at all. I’m having fun, I’m enjoying learning all this new stuff. I stopped and thought why the hell am I so nervous for the wrestling matches? I’d lost perspective, I was putting all this pressure on myself. It came down to one match, everything hinged on it, so I’d forgotten that I loved to wrestle and why I started wrestling—because it’s fun.”

Randy had been dealing with the endemic, systemic pressure that elite athletes face, the overwhelming pressure to succeed. The Olympics is particularly grueling in that respect—there are no seasons, no multiple game series, not many chances to fail. When you’ve worked every day for four years (or a lifetime) for a goal, and all that work comes down to the next ten minutes, it’s hard not to feel pressure—shattering pressure. But it is precisely how you deal with that pressure that dictates your chances of success. It is the Catch-22 vise for Olympic athletes.

Randy has found his way through; he’s regarded as the strongest mental competitor in MMA. He develops uncanny game-plans and sticks to them.

“The first thing is perspective—I frame things in a positive way, and stay reflective. It’s almost a cliché, but in the grand scheme of my life, if the worst thing that happens to me is I lose a wrestling match, even if it’s the Olympic finals, then I’m doing pretty damn good.

“Right away that takes some of the pressure off. I know I’ll survive it, it’s not the end of the world. I won’t like it; I don’t like to lose, but the people who really care about me, don’t care about me because I win. I think this helps me overcome the classic fear of failure that most athletes set themselves up for. They’re so worried about looking stupid, or making a mistake, they don’t do what they’ve trained to do, they get in their own way.

“You have to put a positive frame on things. In wrestling, in a heated match, sometimes the difference in the match is that you got called for “passivity,” or your opponent did. You know you’re working your ass off, and then referee decides for whatever reason that you are more passive than your opponent, so the ref gives him the choice, and your opponent sticks you in the disadvantaged position. And it would get to me, because no one was as active as I was in matches. It would really mess with me when I got called for passivity.” He shakes his head in remembered frustration.

“Then I figured it out, with my coaches, that it was OK, it was a coin-toss, the ref was going to call it on somebody. So why am I getting upset? It was taking me out of my game, and I was losing matches because everyone would put you in the disadvantaged position, and I’d get turned and scored on because I was pissed off.

“So I started framing it as ‘out of my control,’ what the referee does; it’s no big deal, this is just another thing to beat. Now my opponent will put me at a disadvantage, but he’s still not going to score on me. So psychologically that will have a big effect on him, it’s one more place where I can break this guy. Who gives a shit what the ref thinks? It’s all about my opponent.

“Once I wrapped my head around that, I started savoring those situations, not that I ever stalled; but when the passivity call came, I looked at it as a positive. Here’s a place where he can’t turn me, another place for me to attack him, wear him down. By creating a different perspective on the same situation, then technically things went a lot better. I thought better, my defense was better, and I had more success.”

When Yagyu Munenori, a legendary Japanese sword instructor of the Shogun in feudal Japan, wrote that ‘another man’s sword is your sword,’ he meant just that. If your understanding is deeper, his weapons can be your weapons. His own sword is more dangerous to him than to you.

For more information on Sam and his book “The Fighter’s Mind” go to: www.worldismadeoffire.com

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