Training and competing regularly from ages nineteen to twenty-four, having mixed success in ten amateur and professional bouts, and now on a hiatus in order to pursue education and travel writing, I made plenty of mistakes training, competing, marketing and managing. This is what the average fan doesn’t know and what a rookie competitor like myself learned the hard way through experience firsthand – these are the hard truths of competing in mixed martial arts.
What is the most terrifying moment for a fighter? In the locker room, waiting for your name to be called knowing you’re up and it’s time to put everything all on the line. This is where the mental game occurs, you begin to doubt and second guess yourself, you question everything from your first training session two months ago to your strategy now. You’re stuck in the locker room now where all you can do is wait. Your family is in the audience, your co-workers, your teammates, everyone is watching you and everyone expects you to perform and win. No one can help you and how you perform dictates if you can pay your rent this month, the chances you have for a title shot or opportunity to make it to the big show, and most importantly if you have a place in this sport or are you just wasting your time?
Every fighter gets a lesson in humility eventually. Mixed martial arts is an unforgiving sport. It’s not uncommon to see a loss where one fighter is winning or seems to be in control of the fight only to get caught because he wasn’t respecting his opponent’s abilities. This lesson was taught to me in my professional debut. I was the heavy favorite, one-hundred percent of the voters from a popular media outlet known as Tapology predicated me as the winner. In the second round I came out knowing that the fight was leaning in my favor and that it was just a matter of time before I caught my opponent in a submission. Instead, I was caught with a head kick that stunned me and instead of shooting for a takedown or clinching up I did one of the worst things you can do in a fight – I smiled. Smiling in a fight nine times out of ten is telling your opponent “you caught me” and is identical to putting blood in the water. My opponent swung wildly knowing I was stunned and after a few seconds of bobbing and weaving I tried to answer back with a straight left cross and was countered with a left hook that dropped me to a knee. I ate a couple of punches and the referee was forced to stop the fight and labeled it as a TKO (technical knockout) loss for myself.
You’re as good as your work ethic. Very few people can afford to train full-time, even some of the top ranked fighters in the world suffer heavy financial burdens. Almost every fighter will have two full-time jobs, one working to pay their bills and the other training full-time. Most competitors in a proper training camp will have their lives revolving around nothing but work, training, and dieting – everything else such as family and friends must be put on the wayside.
Heartpower always prevails in the last round. Few people know what it feels like to be losing two rounds in a row and be entering the third and final round knowing you have a few minutes to put your opponent away or go home empty-handed. The thought that plagues a lot of fighters’ minds is that our hard work has been done for nothing. We sacrificed and still came up empty-handed. This hardship has occurred for me several times because I was never the most technical fighter but I compensated by being plain and simple tougher and grittier. I was a grinder who just had to bite down on my mouthpiece and go for broke.
“I’m sorry” is the first thing a fighter says to his cornermen, family, and friends when he or she loses. It’s just human nature, the feeling of letting your team and fans down is crushing.
Marketing is everything. Sponsors pay a fighter based off of how much advertisement they can bring. Fighters also get a cut of the money from the tickets that they sell. If no one knows who you are then why are fans going to spend their hard-earned money buying your tickets? Trash talk, be goofy, be creative, sell yourself as an entertainer because that’s what you are!
Weight cutting is a living hell. By that I mean what a hell of a life it is naturally shrinking your body down to nothing but muscles, skin, and bones. How does cutting weight work you might ask? Weighing out and prepping small portions of four to six ounces of lean, white proteins such as fish and eggs as well as leafy green vegetables such as spinach or green beans, eating a very select amount of fruit before workouts for the simple sugars which ultimately turn into carbohydrates for small energy boosts, and meal replacing or substituting foods and fluids such as cow milk with unsweetened almond milk. Eventually many food pyramid categories such as pastas, grains, and other dairy products must be completely cut out. This is essential because they are filled with a heavy ratio of carbohydrates. The whole point is to strip your body of everything excess.
The sauna breaks everyone. The most common method of shedding the last few pounds of water weight before weighing-in for a fight is sweating the fluids out in the sauna. Time spent in the sauna is not supposed to exceed more than fifteen minutes at a time but most fighters such as myself can spend as many as 3 hours broken up in the sauna in order to shed out the water weight. We even go to the extent of putting on a make-up remover called Albolene all over our bodies, as if it were a lotion, because it opens up our pours and increases how much sweating will occur. A gallon of water weighs eight pounds. Imagine sweating out a pound of sweat while your brain itself cooks in the sauna’s heat.
Most fighters lose money competing. Amateurs make zero money from the actual fight because they aren’t legally allowed to receive purses as amateur competitors, the only income they’ll see is from sponsors or a percentage cut from the value of the tickets they personally sold for a live event. Professionals will make between $200/$200-$500/$500 to show up and win for their first couple of fights and will gradually be in the early thousands depending on how successful they are. Training will be your job and then you’ll work another job to pay your bills and these bills will also include paying for training, required medical exams, training gear, and money lost spent training instead of working and driving to and from gyms and events.
Many fighters are on illegal substances. This is the sad truth that many fighters have at least dabbled in sports enhancing drugs, recreational narcotics, or at the very least hundreds of dollars worth of over the counter supplements. How do they get away with it? Aside from the UFC very few organizations drug test their fighters.
Put your team and your coaches first. They are the ones who have your best interest at heart from training to getting fights to cutting weight. They protect you from shady promoters, are your only voice in the cage, and simply want to see you succeed. A sponsor wants you to wear their t-shirt for some free supplements? Forget that. You represent your gym because they’re the ones who got you where you’re at.
Some fighters will never make it to the big show. This truth is indefinitely harder to accept but some fighters are plagued by injuries requiring surgery and sustain heavy financial burdens as a result, some take bad fights and destroy their record, and others simply get caught up with life and never get back on track. It’s the reality some, such as myself, have to face and accept sooner or later.
Fighters fight injured all the time. It is a seldom occurrence for any fighter to go into a fight being one-hundred percent healthy. Concussions, sprains, and even broken bones are a regular thing for a fighter to have going into a bout. Aside from the UFC most organizations ask for a bare minimum of medical exams to be done, primarily bloodwork and a dilated eye exam while the majority of ring doctors will simply check only your reflexes and vitals. We keep it a secret because pulling out of a fight damages our reputations, because we don’t want to lose the income, and most of all because we don’t want to lose all the time, effort, and hard work we’ve put into our training camp just to say “sorry, I can’t fight”. We don’t want to let anyone down.
Everybody loses: There is not one single world champion in the history of mixed martial arts who has remained undefeated throughout his or her entire career. Royce Gracie, Chuck Liddell, Anderson Silva, Georges St-Pierre, Jose Aldo, the list goes on and on. If you’re fighting top ranked competitors eventually you will lose and that is where you really see what kind of character and willpower a fighter has, when they are coming back from their first defeat. When you lose you question everything including the million dollar question “am I still cut out for this sport?”