the courage to challenge yourself

The crowd is so loud that you can barely make out the clapper marking the last ten seconds of the fight. All eyes are on the octagon. Cameramen perched on all eight corners follow the fighters’ every feint and jab with religious precision. I am watching with my entire body, white-knuckled and riveted, as two fighters take their last powerhouse swings. The horn sounds and the crowd explodes, rising and cheering like a single animal. There is nothing more raw or real than this.
This is MMA.

Far from the pageantry of world-wide wrestling, MMA draws real warriors. They might razz each other during weigh-ins or interviews to amp up ratings, but when it comes to the ring, nothing is a performance. These are the most conditioned athletes in the world, masters of martial arts ranging from Muay Thai and Kung Fu to boxing and wrestling, all disciplines necessary to survive in the octagon. You might throw the strongest punches in the world, but if you can’t get out of full guard, you’ll lose. These are not thugs beating each other up for money; these are the last gladiators, all of them fighting for the love of the sport.

Unlike football or basketball where the salaries are sky-high, the majority of MMA fighters train all year for relatively low pay. Unless you’re a top contender, you might only make $25,000-$50,000 a fight, you’ll only fight twice a year, and you’ll pay for the training camps yourself. It takes a scrapper to learn how to scrap. And even after you win a belt, you’ll have to fight to keep it. On any given day, someone could take you and your title down. Underdog wins are rare in other sports, but in MMA, the upstarts always have a shot. On the flipside, you always have the ability to come back, no matter how badly you’re losing. Cheick Kongo defeated Pat Berry in one of the greatest comebacks in the history of fighting. The will to get up and keep slugging when you get your bell rung like Kongo did takes so much more than physical strength. In MMA, its always too little, but its never too late.

What I love most about this sport is the fighters themselves. They are all just regular people with boot-strapped stories of self-made success: one is a firefighter on his time off, another is a former drug addict, and most come from impoverished beginnings. Francis Ngannou came from Africa, moved to Paris where he was homeless, and within five years competed for the heavyweight championship belt. And the level of training they have to do just to compete is hard to comprehend: seven days a week in a city far from their families, they grapple and weight lift in the morning, box and wrestle in the afternoons. If you’re not inspired by the herculean effort it takes to be a successful fighter, you don’t deserve to be a fan.

I love taking new people to MMA events because, once you actually experience it, it hooks you. No matter how uninterested you are in televised fighting, something inside you that you didn’t know existed—something primal and raw— comes out when you watch a fight live. The energy of the crowd carries you into the ring, blood racing and adrenaline rushing. In the octagon, its just one person against another, and its all on the line. There are no teammates; there is no place to hide. And when you’re watching a fight in the flesh, so close you can see sweat bead and blood fly, you can’t help but imagine yourself in their place. In that moment, no matter how strong you think you are or how bold you think you would be, you have to bow to the fighters’ greater grit with respect. Their courage and dedication challenge you to be a better version of yourself.