Stereotyping the Fighter

Most of us started fighting out of fear.

Did I choke him unconscious? Almost. But that wasn’t my intention. My intention was to save myself. I was scared as hell. If I could choke him and leave him lifeless that would mean he couldn’t hurt me.

There has forever been a natural stereotype around fighting and fighters. I say “natural” because it is human nature to try to understand things we don’t know based on things we do know. Few people know what it feels like to hear the bolt click, to hear an audience so loud it sounds like silence, to look across and see a man staring you right in the eyes, a man who has trained for years so that now, in this moment, he can kick your ass.

I see how the image above could be understood by outsiders. It’s grotesque. It’s testosterone. To some it’s even criminal. The violence they’ve heard or experienced in real life would shape their view. It could conjure up stories of robberies gone awry and someone being choked to death. But who would guess that the person on bottom would likely be the more scared of the two? Who would first see the image for the years of technique within it? Who would first see an athletic contest? Likely only the few who have done it. “It’s not about winning,” my former trainer Renzo Gracie told me.

“It’s about surviving. That’s it. All the training we do is simply to survive. If you ‘win’ it first means you stopped your opponent from attacking you, not because you attacked him. Offense makes the highlight reel but it’s actually a form of defense. An incapacitated opponent cannot hurt you.”

The sport of mixed martial arts (MMA) sure hasn’t done itself any favors in breaking stereotypes. Many new organizations still market themselves primarily with violence and sex. It’s a tried-and-true combination. Look at the ratings for American Horror Story. A few minutes after the photo above I found myself holding a trophy, free VIP tickets to a strip club and surrounded by two ring card girls. I didn’t want any of that. To be honest, I wanted the hell out of there. I wanted to cry (and later did) and I wanted to get in bed and sleep.

Post-fight celebrations often involve a fighter totally going berserk as I did here:

But there’s not often talk of why. The answer is relief. Total unadulterated relief. UFC fighter Chael Sonnen and UFC commentator Joe Rogan recently discussed this. It is not a celebration of violence. It is not a celebration of kicking ass or even of victory. It is, for anybody who has achieved any level of success in this sport, a celebration of everything coming to an end. The grueling training, the fear of losing and of getting seriously injured, the stress a few days prior that made it hard to sleep, in part, because of all the nerve-shits. It’s a celebration of being okay, alive.

The truer stereotype of fighters is this: most of us were scared of being men. We were scared that if a situation arose we wouldn’t be able to protect ourselves or our loved ones. Most of us came to the sport broken in some way—broken families, broken relationships, a broken sense of self and self-esteem and confidence. Most of us, through the grind of training and through the trust of our training partners and our coaches, were shaped into far better men than we previously were. Society can tout fighters as “the manliest of men” all they want. The truth is that most of us became fighters because we had scared little boys trapped inside of us.


Read more on Smashing Male Stereotypes on The Good Life.

Photo credit: Cameron Conaway by Extreme Fighting Challenge

About Cameron Conaway

Cameron Conaway is a former MMA fighter, an award-winning poet and the 2014 Emerging Writer-in-Residence at Penn State Altoona. He is the author of Caged: Memoirs of a Cage-Fighting Poet, Bonemeal: Poems, Until You Make the Shore and Malaria, Poems. Conaway is also on the Editorial Board at Slavery Today. Follow him on Google+ and on Twitter: @CameronConaway.


  1. Edwin Lyngar says:

    Quality article, and totally true.

  2. Dear Leia,

    Wow. So much to dissect here. Of course the alcohol had something to do with this, but I think it goes far beyond alcohol and perhaps this is because of the alcohol.

    Many Sensei’s take far too much pride in their ability to clean house. When you’re at the top of the food chain in your given martial art and in your particular community, it’s easy to become so complacent in your training that you actually aren’t equipped as you think you are. You teach moves in a vacuum and people ooh and aah (and this can elevate Sensei’s pedestal) but the speed and adrenaline and erratic nature of an actual fight is so different from this. I’ve lately been reflecting on the idea that athleticism in a way is its own martial art. Would I have a hard time in a scrap with Usain Bolt? You bet I would. This has nothing to do with his skill as a martial artist and everything to do with his elite physicality and his ability to control his own body….

    As Sensei’s age they tend to talk often about how technique is all that matters, but, unfortunately, this is often just a mask to cover their increasingly diminishing ability to move and move well. This mask is worn to hide the fear. Questions come: Does all the stuff I’ve been teaching actually work? Do I still have the physical tools to implement said techniques if need be?

    This could also have been Sensei’s way to establish a pack order (we are animals, after all) and it certainly could have been Sensei’s fear that if the fight was fair and he lost, well, he’d lose far more than the actual match: reputation, confidence, pride, yada, yada. That snotty spoiled kid has youth and size and those two things can make others envious.

    You painted such a short picture but it’s a dense one. Thanks for sharing! I’ll continue to ponder on it and it may even spark a future piece. Thank you!


  3. “Most of us came to the sport broken in some way….”

    Interesting observation….I watched my sensei wrestle with a 17 yo student (who was also a wrestler) once…Sensei was drunk and the teen had grown into a 6’1″ strong young man…they went at it, and Sensei didn’t even wait for the kid to pull off his sweatshirt zip-up jacket….it was frightening for me to watch….some of the gym members in the next room looked in nervously while I had to act like this was just part of judo/karate class….watching the kid put Sensei into a chokehold was the worst….

    I still can’t forget it…and I have been trying to dissect it and figure it all out….why would a grown man do that? What does he need to prove? What does a snotty, obnoxious, spoiled 17 yo kid have that makes a grown man want to take him down?

    Thanks for writing this….your description of martial arts really illuminates the complexities and contradictions inherent in modern masculinity….

  4. Powerful piece about your experiences as a fighter Cameron. Im also enjoying the wide range of articles you curate for your section

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