Fear of fighting in MMA and boxing

A couple days after I wrote my How to conquer your fear of fighting post, I saw this video of Mike Tyson and Ronda Rousey on Good Day LA. They discuss fear of fighting in MMA and boxing. This ties in well with what I wrote in that post so I wanted to share it with you here.

Here’ the interview:

The hosts weren’t all that great in my opinion. They could have gotten an awesome interview out of both champions but they stuck to pre-chewed questions. Regardless, the answers they got were pretty interesting. Some of the things I’d like to highlight:

  • Fear of pain is a big part of the stress you feel before a fight. Mike corrects the interviewer and states he does indeed feel pain during a fight. But pain becomes a part of your life if you are a professional fighter. So you learn to compartmentalize and work with it. What worked best for me was looking at pain as input, just another bit of information to steer the fight in the direction I wanted it to go. E.g.: If I got hit with a leg kick, it of course hurt like hell. But I always tried to hide the pain and just file it away for further reference. I’d then try to use some footwork to “walk it off” while remaining out of range and also follow up with techniques that would prevent my opponent from using that kick again. So pain became just another part of the equation that helped me make tactical decisions.
  • Tyson mentions having illusions of grandeur. He explains the way he handled fear of fighting: by pretending to be bigger and better than he actually was. He saw himself as a god, as unbeatable. This is a classic strategy to handle fear of fighting when you compete: you pump up your ego until it almost bursts. This is a part of the “mental triggers” method I explained in my post. The good thing about it is that it works. The downside is that it can change your personality for the worse, with long-term negative consequences. As in, believing your own hype and eventually training less hard because you’re convinced your awesome anyway.
  • Tyson admits to being scared. Mad props to Mike for saying this. It’s the ugly little secret fighters usually refuse to talk about: they all feel fear. However, it’s easy for him to do so now he’s retired. I didn’t hear anything like that while he was still fighting… Later on he admits that he wanted people to be afraid of him. I can only agree with that as it sure helps to win fights if your opponent is peeing his pants just to step into the ring with you. Some fighters go to great lengths to instill fear in their opponents, Others just exude a “I’m gonna hurt you bad” vibe with their presence alone. Both approaches work well enough, providing you mean it. Faking this stuff is the best possible way to give your opponent a boost in confidence as they’ll spot that in a heartbeat.
  • Rousey doesn’t admit to being afraid. She says she doesn’t get angry or afraid, that it’s all just observation. She admits to feeling a little afraid a few weeks before the fight but that’s about it. Once the fight is on she just stops feeling emotions and files everything as data. That’s the method I mentioned in the first bullet. Having watched all her fights in the cage, I think she’s telling the truth. She looks very methodical and seems to have the “cold” fighting mindset. Only two caveats I’d like to mention about this method:
    • She’s still competing and literally says she wants to beat her opponents in a way that she’s already beaten them in any following fights as well. So of course she won’t admit to being afraid. Keep in mind that she has a rep as a brutal fighter: she’s submitted all her opponents in the first round with an arm bar, sometimes even breaking her opponent’s elbow. So everybody is afraid of going to the ground with her (even though they claim not to be, of course…) Why would she undermine such a fearsome reputation by publicly admitting to being afraid?
    • Ronda has beaten most of her opponents in under one minute. In the other fights, she took her opponent quickly to the ground (as an Olympic-level Judo champ, that’s where she’s most comfortable) before beating them. It’s easy to control your fear of fighting if you can always stay in your comfort zone (she knows she’s a much better grappler than anybody else). But just like Tyson had psychological problems against fighters that lasted the full 12 rounds, I’d like to see what happens when Ronda gets tagged good a couple of times and can’t take it to the ground. That’s when we’ll see if her “cold” fighting mindset is strong or brittle. Don’t get me wrong; I like her. I’m not saying I want to see her loose. Only that she hasn’t been placed into the crucible of fighting an opponent that can handle her ground game.
  • Trying to win a match vs. defeating your opponent. Ronda touches upon a crucial point: she wants to win in such a way that her opponents are afraid to fight her ever again. This is not only a good way to psyche yourself up and intimidate your opponent, it also helps you focus on the right things: I always tell my fighters that winning is never your goal. The goal is to beat your opponent. Winning is just a by-product of reaching that goal. This is especially true in tournaments when you have to fight several times a day. If you focus too much on getting to the finals, you aren’t focused on the guy in front of you. Focus instead on every opponent who gets in front of you and when you beat those, you automatically get to the finals. So don’t focus on the wrong thing.
Fear of fighting in MMA and boxing

Fear of fighting in MMA and boxing

I’d like to wrap this post up with a story from my competitive days:

In 1995, I participated in the World Wushu Championships in Baltimore as a Sanshou fighter. During dinner, me and the two other sanshou guys were talking about all sorts of stuff when they mentioned how tough the Dutch fighters looked. I asked “Which fighters?” because having talked to the Dutch team already, I knew that couldn’t be right.

They replied “Those guys over there.” and pointed them out while commenting on how though they looked.

I smiled (mostly on the inside) and said: “The Dutch don’t have any fighters this year. Those are the tai chi chuan forms competitors…”

My fellow team members couldn’t believe it.

They were convinced those Dutch athletes were fighters. Because of the way they looked (tall and big), walked and moved. As a result, we had a good laugh the next day when I pointed them out during the forms competition in the stadium.


The point is this:

My team members were intimidated by the mere look and feel of those guys. The fear they felt was completely unnecessary and unfounded.

Don’t let that happen to you.

Don’t feel afraid of the things that aren’t worth it. It only robs you of energy you’ll very much need during the fight. Your fear of fighting in MMA and boxing or any other combat sport is already more than enough of a challenge without adding useless worries to it.

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  1. Paul Harper says

    On a bigger scale of warfare this post reminds me of the story of US Civil War General Ulysses S. Grant. “[General] Grant is ordered to proceed from the Salt River against [Confederate] Colonel Thomas Harris, some 25 miles south at Florida, Missouri. Quote from Grant, “As we approached the brow of the hill from which it was expected we could see Harris’ camp, and possibly find his men ready formed to meet us, my heart kept getting higher and higher until it felt to me as though it was in my throat. I would have given anything then to have been back in Illinois, but I had not the moral courage to halt and consider what to do; I kept right on. When we reached a point from which the valley below was in full view I halted. The place where Harris had been encamped a few days before was still there and the marks of a recent encampment were plainly visible, but the troops were gone. My heart resumed its place. It occurred to me at once that Harris had been as much afraid of me as I had been of him. This was a view of the question I had never taken before; but it was one I never forgot afterwards.”


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