The Fight of the Mind

Fightland Blog

By Peter Rugg

A man curls his arm around your throat and squeezes. That light-headed feeling is the sensation of carotid arteries and jugular veins collapsing. In five minutes your brain cells will start to die.

You flail, you scream, but you don’t think. That’s your fight-flight response kicking in, and despite millions of years of evolution it isn’t going to do you any good against a well-locked rear naked choke. Actually, there’s a good chance it’s helping the man who’s cutting off the oxygen to your brain. Panicking is normal.

Fighters, however, are not normal. The best have learned to ignore what their instincts are telling them, because they know that sometimes their instincts don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s ok, the fighter thinks, even as his vision begins to blur. His arms are going to get tired. I know there is a solution to this. I know he’s going to get tired, and when he does there’ll be an opening.

“That’s why MMA is different than every other sport,” says Dr. Ted Butryn. “Being good at MMA includes learning to defy the things almost anyone else would do in a similar situation.”

For the last few years Butryn, a professor of sports psychology and sociology at San Jose State University, has been interviewing fighters to learn what combination of mental and emotional factors goes into making a champion. His only stipulation for subjects is that they’ve been in a minimum of three professional fights. Butryn hopes to have a full research paper on the psychology of the MMA fighter published this year. When he does, it will be one of the first studies of its kind.

“We’ve got 200 research papers on how to be a better soccer player,” he says. “We’ve got maybe five on how to be a better MMA fighter.”

As you’d expect, there’s a lot of disagreement on what works best when it comes to preparing for the cage. Former UFC light heavyweight champion Forrest Griffin needs to be hit in the face a few times before he wakes up. Other guys read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Some fighters just quietly die of anxiety.

What does hold true from fighter to fighter, and one of the ways MMA separates itself from other sports, is that the best trainers are the ones who keep their fighters steady and calm, rather than trying to pump them up. Most of the best fight preparation is about finding balance, Butryn says. If a fighter is fighting at the MGM Grand, a good trainer will find a way to shrink the arena down in that fighter's head until it’s nothing bigger than the high school gymnasium he fought his first fight in.

Once the bell rings, there’s an intimacy to MMA that athletes in other sports can't really understand. Football has contact but it also has padding. Fighters have told Butryn of how conscious they were during fights of the feeling of their opponent’s body, how they could feel muscles getting weak, grips loosening. Fighters can tell if the man across from them is afraid or frustrated or losing his grip.

But the real mystery of MMA psychology, the thing no one has been able to figure out, is how fighters can fight on autopilot -- that moment in a fight where a fighter has been hit hard enough that he gets a concussion but still keeps going, and sometimes even wins.

MMA supporters have long argued that the sport is actually safer than boxing; a knockout in MMA means then end of the fight, whereas boxers are usually given 10 seconds’ grace in which to gather their wits and fight another round. Still, Butryn says there’s no way to really know how dangerous MMA is and there likely won’t be for years, until today’s crop of athletes starts to age.

“Being on a balance beam is a stressor. But being hit and not knowing where you are until you’re in your corner at the end of round one, that’s a different kind of coping,” he says. “The easy answer is muscle memory. Really we have no idea. There just isn’t enough data out there.”

While the NFL gets most of the attention in popular media when it comes to the issue of permanent neurological damage, part of that is because there’s simply more information available. Few other sports have three decades worth of research, and the football players now suing the NFL over brain injuries have been retired for as many as 15 years. MMA is still too young.

“I followed UFC fighters for over 13 months and interviewed them after every fight, and they’d tell me they didn’t remember anything about those last rounds,” Butryn says. “From a psychology perspective, to be on the attack and not even remember anything about it later or how you won, that’s interesting.”

Even fighters who get to the last round relatively unscathed start to draw into themselves, Butryn says. Their surroundings get blocked out. This is where their corner men become really important, particularly when those corner men are good friends.

“They have to have one person for technical advice and one for trust,” Butryn says. “If they’re exhausted after two rounds and their coach can’t communicate with them, that’s when they need their boy. It’s the total opposite of the NFL, where you have people screaming on the sidelines. A lot depends on how well they can absorb information in those moments.”