Kierkegaard's Philosophy and Fighting: The Dizziness of Decision

Fightland Blog

By Pedro Olavarria

Photo by Hjorth Danie

It has been said many different ways: every fighter has two opponents, the one they signed up to fight and themselves. Well documented are the manifestations of pre-fight anxiety, from nervous conversations with an opponent’s ex-sparring partners, to vomiting and even tears. Many of the reasons for this anxiety are obvious. MMA is a sport where anything can happen. When I say anything, I mean it in the most physical and objective sense of the word. Every year, the borders of what is considered impossible in MMA are pushed further back. We live in a time when a heavyweight, like Junior Dos Santos, can KO a K-1 Grand Prix tournament champion, like Mark Hunt, with a spinning hook kick to the head. 

Every year, we have upsets that remind us that Dillashaw’s win over Barao wasn’t so much a surprise as much as it was a reminder of MMA’s relative unpredictability. In MMA, anyone can beat anyone, in any imaginable way. Truly, the first M in MMA should stand for Murphy(‘s law) for anything that can happen will happen. The certain uncertainty of what awaits a fighter is paralleled by the uncertainty of life; man plans and the gods laugh. Because all things are possible in a fight, the uncertainty of what will happen also gives the MMA fighter options to train and fight in ways more varied than in other combat sports. This freedom might be a cause of anxiety that can be mitigated by good coaching. But there is another factor, an unspoken realization of the relationship between freedom and responsibility, which I think is even more pertinent in describing the source of an MMA fighter’s anxiety and for that we turn to Kierkegaard. 

Soren Kierkegaard was a Danish philosopher who helped establish the foundations of existentialism. He was a forerunner of such existentialist philosophers as Nietzsche, Beauvoir and Sartre. Kierkegaard disagreed with German philosophers who claimed an individual’s actions are largely the product of history and environment. Kierkegaard agreed with them in that we are often left to make choices between what is ethical and what is pleasurable but Kierkegaard insisted that we, as rational beings, have a freedom of choice. “To be or not to be,” said Shakespeare in the mouth of Hamlet, “that is the question.” For Kierkegaard, and later existentialists, the decision to rise up and be, speak, think and act, are matters of personal decision and responsibility. For Kierkegaard, the freedom to choose is precisely the cause of so much anxiety in life; because life is a fight, the same might be true in MMA.  

In The Concept of Anxiety, Kierkegaard uses the following thought experiment: imagine a man standing at the edge of a cliff. As he stands at the edge of the cliff, his anxiety is caused by two things: 1) the fear of falling to his death, and 2) the fear of his own impulse to jump off the cliff. This man is free to choose life or death and the result is entirely up to him, hence the dizziness of decision. This is arguably part of the anxiety faced by every MMA fighter. Unlike boxing, surrender in MMA is not disgraceful; tapping out will not have you branded No Mas. Yet each fighter has to make a choice between two equally enticing opposites. They can choose bravery, to fight against their flight instinct, or they can choose surrender, at the first chance they get. If they are mounted and getting pummeled against the cage, will they do everything they can to defend, as Hughes did in his second outing against Trigg, or will they succumb to the temptation of rolling to the side and sticking that arm in the air, hoping their opponent will take the arm bar? In all combat sports, this question begins to be answered in the training room, were one less rep, one less sparring session and a well-deserved day off are easily justified. The same is true in everyday life.  

In a free society, each of us is confronted by the options inherent in liberty. We are free to choose whether or not to watch that extra YouTube video, despite an impending deadline, whether or not to get a shake and fries to expand our waist line; when the time “to be” has come, the time for preparation has passed. For those conscious enough to realize that what they do is a matter of individual choice and that what they choose will be a determining factor in their future, some degree of despair is par for the course. In fact, anxiety has been linked to higher intelligence. Kierkegaard reminds us that this realization of our freedom, and the inherent perils of choice, can also save us from wondering through life on pure impulse and without thought. Truly, the unexamined life is not worth living. Regardless if we are talking about someone making their pro-mma debut, fighting for a championship or simply starting a business or marrying that special someone, fear is a sign of intelligence and intelligence is required to effectively weigh the myriad of options placed before us. In the cage and in living room, Freedom is the conjoined twin of Responsibility, the scary 14 letter word. 


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