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, just temporarily, 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.
Photo credit: Cameron Conaway by Extreme Fighting Challenge