What does two men beating the living hell out of each other have to do with leading a successful life?
Cameron Conaway explains.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship seems to embrace traditional and typical ideas of masculinity. Physically powerful men fighting. An act that goes back to the beginning of time, an act captured in countless movies about gladiators and warriors and samurais and soldiers. A cage. Screaming fans. Sweat. Gorgeous ring card girls showing their bodies in between rounds. Porn stars in the audience and even dating the fighters. Grit. Blood. Loud rock or rap music. Things breaking: spirit and will, elbows and collarbones. But stereotypes often spray myths like mist.
You know how people ask for a Kleenex when they really mean tissue? Well, there’s a crazy term for this, proprietary eponym, and the UFC acronym has essentially become one because most people refer to or otherwise know the sport of mixed martial arts (MMA) as “UFC.” I’ve even heard people say: “Do you want to go UFC in the backyard” and “I was UFC’ing this morning.” It’s safe to say that most men know about the UFC these days. As it has exploded in worldwide appeal, especially from its underground days in the 90s, many men have also been educated both by and through the UFC’s progression from an unsanctioned spectacle that movie rental stores once placed near the porn section, to one of the most pure and primal sports in the world. When put under a microscope, the UFC and the sport of MMA can teach us lessons and shatter misconceptions.
Those who take the sport seriously – whether as fan or fighter – will tell you that being a mixed martial artist is rough. Fans can see the grueling training sessions, the highlight-reel knockouts, the black eyes and the deep lacerations that drip blood into the eyes and then down the face before staining the canvas. That stuff is sexy. But only the fighter can know the stress, the headaches from sparring, the mood swings from cutting weight, the constant joint and muscle aches. And this leads us into our first lesson: Being a mixed martial artist, even if (especially if!) you’re the best in the world like Georges St. Pierre, means you must become a jack-of-all-combatives – and to be a good jack-of-all-combatives means you’re going to get your ass kicked, often.
Even if you transitioned to being an MMA fighter after you were a D-1 All-American wrestler, you will need to work on your Muay Thai (where you’ll take beatings from better opponents at first) and your Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (same thing) and your wrestling will soon drop from the elite-level of a full-time wrestler to the elite-level of a full-time MMA fighter – and this can be a huge difference. I bring up St. Pierre not because he’s the first fighter in the modern-age of MMA to be plastered on billboards and sponsored by mass-recognized brands like Under Armour, nor because he’s the current UFC Welterweight Champion, but because he’s renowned for seeking carefully calculated beatdowns in myriad forms and creative ways all in an attempt to better himself.
Rather than surrounding himself or continuing to train only with other MMA fighters (few of whom can best him), he breaks MMA down into its many variants. He practices boxing with Manny Pacquiao’s coach, Freddie Roach, and spars with professional boxers who have a field day with him. He rolls on the mat with Jon Danaher and other elite grapplers who are good enough to always be two moves ahead of him in the game of mat-chess. For strength and conditioning, he’ll train with professional gymnasts who make him – an ultra-coordinated athlete – look clumsy and weak. He’ll do sprints with world-class champions who blow past him. He’ll lift weights with record-breakers.
The point: During his training camp he is rarely the best at anything besides getting beat. It’s not until he enters the cage that everything comes together, that the fans see him as the prototypical, sport-evolving MMA athlete. They don’t see the sixteen weeks prior to that moment where he exposed his weaknesses and subjected himself to constant criticism—where no matter what he attempted or how hard he tried there were those on a level impossible for him to reach watching, guiding and thoroughly outclassing him.
We see his lean, muscular body grace magazine covers and commercials. But it’s his mind-fitness that allows him to willingly and consistently train in areas where he’s not top dog. If you’re a researcher of genetics, go see what’s happening in the malaria lab down the hall. If you’re a poet, study science. If you own a business, spend your vacation as a Buddhist monk.
When I interviewed UFC and MMA legend Frank Shamrock for the website Sherdog he said, “When you look at all the components of fitness, MMA fighters are the world’s most conditioned athletes.” This further develops the idea of well-roundedness, but at a more acute level. We can be well-rounded in the larger scheme of life, but we can also apply this mindset to more specific things. How can I be a well-rounded worker, father, husband, friend? This is a fight good men fight. Men can learn from the UFC to strive for diversity, not to be lumped into the pigeonholes society encourages, to pursue passions outside of their field and discover the unexpected benefits of doing so.
Think of something in your work that you feel confident about, and then break it down into chunks. Then, seek out and learn from someone who is best at that chunk. Bring that knowledge back to your game, your cage.
2. What’s Your Fight?
When I asked Frank if his MMA mind was tied to his spirituality he said, “I don’t go to church; I go to martial arts school six days a week. This is my temple. It’s all spiritual.” He continued, “I have to brush my teeth before I fight because you breathe better when your teeth are clean. I have to take a warm shower before every fight because it relaxes and loosens muscles and helps them work better. Everything is for fighting. Fighting is life.”
Daryn Clark is known as the CEO of MMA. He runs a holistic health and fitness website called WhatsYourFight? and is a lifelong martial artist and marriage counselor. He’s also a successful businessman after founding Southern Ingenuity, a Louisiana-based program that helps the elderly as well as children and adults with developmental disabilities gain access to the most updated health information and hometown services available. His basic premise is that everybody has a fight of some sort – whether brought on by marital problems or difficulties with addiction, high cholesterol or work-related stress – and that if we attack our personal battles with the smart intensity of a martial artist we can win. At the heart of Daryn’s belief is the recognition that we are all connected because we have one common fight – the fight for our health – and that through consistently striving to win this fight we can experience a spillover effect that helps us handle any other problem that comes our way.
It makes sense. If through nutrition and fitness we are able to regulate our hormones, have more energy, maintain a healthy body weight, get sick less and recover from sickness faster, we free up more time, mental energy, and quality mindfulness to pour into the other elements of our lives. Studies and the success of businesses like Daryn’s continue to support the interconnectedness of body and mind. Some studies show that school-aged children with learning disabilities develop better socialization skills and higher confidence levels if they are active and exercising, while some businesses are willing to pay for their employees’ gym memberships because they know it may increase productivity and well-being.
The UFC certainly showcases this mind/body fusion. Contrary to what those still on the fence about supporting MMA might think (Dear New York: Are you reading this?), MMA is not synonymous with uneducated, brash dudes wearing skull-and-dragon t-shirts, though those fighters are often the ones that make the news because the media equates what is loud with what is interesting. (See Why A-holes Trump Good Men for more on this.) Aside from how UFC fighters need to view the fight game like a science in order to be successful, most are actually college graduates as well. Some, like Rich Franklin and Charlie Brenneman, are actually former high school teachers.
As much as we try to escape through pleasure and leisure, we are trapped in our bodies and our bodies are constantly in a battle with external environmental factors (food availability, illnesses, work, movement, weather, pollution, allergies, etc.). Through following the UFC’s training segments – and the men like Daryn Clark and Frank Shamrock who use and help others use the fighter mindset – we can check in with ourselves and ask what our own fight is. It may be to be a better husband or father or brother, it may be to get through the first round of chemotherapy. Every man has a fight, it’s why underdog fight movies like Rocky, Gladiator, Braveheart, Bloodsport and Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story inspire us. As men, we often frame our life situations with the border of battle. We love watching others get knocked down just so we can see them get back up. Even Marc Ratner, Vice President of Regulatory Affairs with the UFC, told me: “There are all kinds of life lessons that one can learn from combat sports. I believe one that is most important would be that in life, sometimes you get knocked down, all of us have been down, but the true measure of a man is to get up and keep fighting. To me that is a very important part of life, and one very positive life lesson.” The intro video to UFC pay-per-view events is a gladiator putting on armor. There’s a reason the UFC has kept this for so many years.
To fight smart presumes a clearly articulated goal. When I asked Frank Shamrock what his goals were, there was no hesitation in his voice: “To build global awareness and a brand of martial arts that can help the world. I have one goal. That’s what I’m doing this business for. The breast cancer awareness, the Shamrock Way, the mentoring, the coaching – they are all tentacles leading to this one goal, to change the world for the better and to do it through MMA.”
He knew where he came from, and he knew others must come from a similar place. He sought to, as Gandhi would be proud of, “Be the change.”
“I grew up on the streets,” Frank said. “I was locked up most of my young life until I found this sport. I’d have been in prison or dead. I know exactly where I’m going. This sport can and will change the world. It will change how we workout – Mickey Rourke even trained in MMA with me. It will put a dent in the obesity epidemic. MMA will change how people think. It will help people around the world. It’ll build a sense of community. It’ll build ethics.”
In just a few sentences, Frank was able to answer two difficult but necessary human questions:
What is my goal in life?
How is it benefitting society?
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Photos courtesy of Cameron Conaway.