On December 30th, as I watched Holly Holm skip to the Octagon, a ball of nervous energy, the words of CT Fletcher, the ‘strongest man that (up until recently) you’ve never heard of’, came back to me.
“People don’t understand how much it takes to just…actually get in that cage and face another man who’s trying to take your f*cking head off.” He told the listeners of The Joe Rogan Experience podcast. “I remember how much it took (for me) fighting at the long beach arena…that crowd makes a big f*cking difference Joe, I got so f*cking nervous. Everything that I had learned, I f*cking forgot.”
Upon entering the cage at UFC 219, Holm paced back and forth, standing semi still only when referee Herb Dean signalled for her and her opponent, the powerful and aggressive Cris Cyborg, to meet in the centre of The Octagon.
‘The Preachers Daughter’, who would ultimately be defeated by unanimous decision, articulated the emotion behind these moments in the run up to UFC 219.
“Walking to The Octagon (to face Rousey) was very heavy, very nerve – racking. There’s never been a feeling like that. It’s such an intense feeling, close to being unbearable. Every fight I’m in the locker room thinking ‘why do I do this?’ I hate fight day.
“The Octagon is the most vulnerable place,” She continued, “They lock it up and it’s just you and this person. Millions of witnesses, and you’re totally exposed, and what you do is either going to be laughed at by millions, mocked by millions or praised by millions. You just don’t know.”
Taking into account not only the physical dangers, but the claustrophobic nature of the cage, it is not surprising that Holm is not the only fighter to feel fear before entering the Octagon.
Back in 2009, Pat Barry spoke to MMA Heat about the anxiety that he was feeling in the hours previous to his fight with fellow heavyweight Anthony Hardonk at UFC 104.
“The reality of it is that after the weigh ins there’s pretty much no turning back…” He told Karen Bryant. “…that’s just scary, not as scary as getting your hands taped – then you know you’re really in the middle of a fight. But I see my guy and every day I see him, he’s getting taller …he’s getting bigger and hairier…he looks like a monster now and I know that’s all like, my imagination…this is the kind of thing where you have to ask yourself ‘what am I doing?’
Barry, current trainer and partner to Strawweight Champion Rose Namajunas, also spoke about the inherent difference between a fighter’s mentality, and that of the average Joe.
“There are millions of people who claim to be fighters…but the ones of us who are? We’re different, we’re mutants. We’re just a totally different breed of person because you have to be ‘off’ in order to do this…to choosingly say ‘I’m goina go in and possibly hurt myself…or hurt someone else’…”
Two – time Welterweight Champion George St-Pierre, a fighter who in his trademark walkout attire of gi and headband exudes confidence, spoke to Jay Glazer on FUEL TV about the fear that he feels en route to the cage.
“I’m afraid when I go to fight.” He confessed, “Even though I’m scared and I’m afraid to fail, when I walk to the Octagon…I look very confident…but the truth is, deep down inside, I’m scared as hell.”
Donald ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone and Vitor Belfort are amongst a litany of fighters who have also struggled to handle pre-fight nerves
Prior to his fight with Randy Couture at UFC 15 in 1997, Belfort initially refused to leave his dressing room, citing stomach problems as the cause.
So, the million-dollar question is, how do these fighters not only deal on a consistent bases with the stress that fight day brings, but time and time again enter the Octagon and perform?
Speaking in his New York Times Bestseller, ‘The Way Of The Fight’, GSP talks about a story which changed his view of fear itself.
“I remember hearing a story about soldiers going into battle and showing no fear, and the guy said it was really simple. ‘There are two kinds of men: those who want to go out and fight – the crazy ones – and the ones who are afraid to go, but they go anyway.’ They’re the courageous ones. I realised at that moment that it takes fear to make a person courageous. The result is that, after a while, you get practice at being courageous. You understand how to move forward against fear, how to react in certain situations. It doesn’t mean you stop feeling fear – that would be careless – but it means you have earned the right to feel confident in the battle against fear.”
GSP has also been known to credit fear with an increase in his focus, which in turn helps him to perform better.
For relative newcomer to the amateur MMA scene, Irish fighter Danni Neilan, self-talk lessons from a sports psychologist have been key in helping her to overpower the anxiety that coincides with competing at a high – level.
Neilan, who trains under Mc Gregor’s Coach John Kavanagh at SBG, has also experienced anxiety outside of fighting, meaning that the nerves that fight day bring can be extra tough to control.
“Fight day is like a big thing…” She told The Ryan Tubridy Show, “Even if it hasn’t kicked in I’m saying to myself ‘oh it’s going to kick in now in a minute…’ When it comes it could be when you’re walking (to the cage)…imagine if when I walked I ran away…ran out an exit…I’m imagining the worst way I could react on front of people.”
Placing second this November in the International Mixed Martial Arts Federation Amateur World Championships however, it is clear that the Roscommon native now has a firm grasp on her nerves.
It is her MMA training in fact that the flyweight credits for helping her to overcome her battle with anxiety.
“There were massive chunks of my day were I was busy and focused on learning a new skill rather than overthinking things that are most likely not in my control, “She said. “It’s the ultimate challenge for my anxiety competing in this sport and I guess I get a kick off it, I know if I can survive fight day, the fight itself is like a reward because I love fighting.”
Unfortunately, not all fighters can overcome the anxiety that competitive MMA brings.
Karo Parisyan, an Armenian American mixed martial artist who most recently competed in Bellator’s Welterweight division, had his career derailed when he began suffering full blown panic attacks before his fights.
“The physical panic attack is the one that hits and brings you to your knees” Parisyan told MMA weekly in 2012. “And whoever’s had a panic attack, I want them to, for a second, realise that when they were having a panic attack, the worst one, when they thought they were going to die, I had to walk out in front of 20,000 people and fight.”
While Parisyan has not yet officially retired, it has been three years since his last fight.
Earlier in this piece I referred to the ‘average Joe.’
It would therefore be a disservice not to give public kudos to MMA Sucka Journalist and Radio Host, Trevor Dueck, a father and husband based in Canada, who with only seven months of training, competed in his first amateur MMA fight as part of his documentary ‘Fighting Average.’
Acknowledging throughout the process that he was ‘scared sh*tless’, Dueck persevered with his training at Westcoast BJJ and MMA under the expert guidance of Don Whitefield, and stepped into the cage to face Tony Hnuyeh under the Battle Fight League amateur umbrella.
Though ultimately defeated by guillotine choke, his experience gifted him an invaluable and rare insight into a fighter’s mind, a perspective that can only benefit his journalistic skills. In terms of his mental health, his participation in the sport of MMA relieved symptoms of depression that had been impacting his quality of life.
While I am in no way suggesting that every MMA fight fan or journalist should enter an Octagon in order to appreciate what the fighters that we rely on for our Saturday night entertainment go through, I do believe that we should acknowledge the internal strength that it takes for some of our favourite athletes to enter the cage – in particular before we publicly criticise their performance.