I begin writing this article on Monday morning, less than 48 hours after suffering a loss at BAMMA, one of the UK’s most recognised MMA organisations.
I use the word suffering, because in many ways, that is what losing feels like for a fighter, and likely all sports people. The culmination of your sheer effort, sacrifices and dedication, all amounting to nothing. Not to mention the feeling of negative emotion relating to self worth, pride and inner belief. The extra element that a fighter has to contend with though, in a physical sense, is the up close and personal aspect of your competitor taking that win away from you.
For me, these feelings are magnified when my performance falls way short of the high standards I set for myself. It is much easier to accept a loss when you have given your all. Conversely, a defeat is so much harder to stomach when you know you had so much more to give. This was the stark difference between my last two fights, polar opposites in terms of how I felt, how I performed and what I gave of myself.
On introspection, while trying to understand the differences, I considered the feelings experienced in the build up to my last two fights. Firstly, against Ben Smith just over two months ago and then against Max Nunes, last Saturday.
Both fight camps went well, I was fit, strong and my training in all areas had gone to plan. Physically, I was in tip-top shape for both fights. I didn’t take any notable damage to the body, but I now realise it was the mental aspect which proved my undoing in each of these fights.
With Ben, the feelings were of healthy fear and trepidation. I had seen him handle 20 stone men with relative ease at heavyweight, proving his physical strength and undoubted toughness as a fighter. Ben also has the demeanour of a no-nonsense type of individual, a high-energy fighter, often looking like he wants to maul you and smash your face in. In my opinion, all are factors to have a healthy fear of and respect for.
As a result, I entered into that fight with adrenaline coursing through my veins, I felt alive and ignited, ready for battle with a man who looked like he wanted to physically hurt me. Everything felt perfect, because the fire these feelings ignited inside, fueled every aspect of my performance.
The build up I felt with Max was completely different. I had only seen a little footage of him, knew very little about him, other than he was great prospect on his way up, and that he had beat some worthy opposition. He looked skilled but not vicious in his fighting style, and his manner and outlook seemed warm and amiable.
This impression was confirmed when I met him at the weigh in, he was very much like me, lighthearted, cheery, warm and friendly. So as much as I tried to manufacture an image of him in my mind as someone out to do me harm, I was unable to fake feelings that I did not genuinely feel.
Even stepping into the cage on Saturday, trying to conjure up feelings to get me into the zone of fear, I could not. Scowling and rejecting Max’s offer of a glove touch was not me showing him disrespect, just a last ditch attempt of me trying to ignite the same feelings I felt during my fight with Ben Smith.
Alas, it was not to be, and rather than the flames of fear awakening every nerve-end in my body, the spark of a lighter failing to ignite is a more accurate analogy. Flat and going through the motions is the best way I can describe how I felt.
This is not to take anything away from the very skillful fighter Max is, nor is it meant to imply that I don’t believe he has the power to hurt, or cause me damage with his strikes. It is simply an honest reflection on how two performances can be so different in terms of output, because of the personal belief systems and psychology I adhere to.
I consider myself a formidable striker, willing and able to stand, trade and tough it out with the best of them. Coupled with the fact that up to now in my MMA career, in a purely stand-up sense, I have not felt very threatened (except maybe for when I have sparred with Rampage Jackson) and it gives me insight, rightly or wrongly, into what makes me tick as a fighter. Arrogance in my approach and methodology is something I must now consider.
Ground and pound is another element of MMA. There are many skilled fighters who can do this very well, causing opponents some nasty damage. This creates a healthy fear in me also, especially because my ground skills are not as good as my stand up game. After 14 fights and finding myself on the bottom a few times, I have yet to be struck even once effectively or caused any damage while in this position.
But this is MMA, skills are varied and different with each fighter. Some do not fight aggressively, just very skillfully, safe in the knowledge their ground skills can nullify the best of strikers.
But there I have realised another error of mine, in that I dissect the different elements of MMA, instead of taking them as a whole, having a healthy respect of some and a healthy fear of others.
This tells me much in terms of how, at this point of my fight career, I have entered into a heightened awareness, one that we all crave in our performances – a state of utopia known as the ‘Zone’.
The contradiction for me, and maybe for many others, is that to enter this state of fighting excellence, I must first feel very threatened by my opponent and his ability to damage me physically. It creates feelings that are less comfortable to deal with in the build up, but has always brought the desired result in my performance.
On reflection, I have been aware of this in the past, and in pinpointing every excellent performance throughout my many years as a fighter in many disciplines, it has been as a result of what I have already described. A healthy fear of my opponent, combined with his ability to cause me damage and affect my long term health, has always inspired me to fight to the best of my abilities.
I realise my mental tactics need to be made redundant. Quite simply, I am allowing an outside influence to be the deciding factor on how I perform. I am handing myself and my performances over to how I react to my opponent, and the type of fighter/person he is, or seems to be in my mind.
I am also, due to some MMA fighters not being strong in the striking department, wrongly and quite arrogantly ignoring the fact that a snapped limb should create just as much fear in me as a knockout blow.
In saying this, I have also experienced the same feelings as both a boxer and kickboxer. Entering into contests with fighters not known for inflicting much damage, usually sees me ending up in the same state of mind and grinding out wins, while taking unnecessary punishment from much less skilled fighters.
MMA is different, there are far more skilled practitioners on the ground than I, and Max Nunes was one of them on Saturday night. He also had serious belief in these skills and executed them without the need to become aggressive in his outward demeanour. He was relaxed and skillful from the outset and I believe he has a very promising future ahead of him, probably because he has found his own way to deal with pressure, which inevitably leads to better performance.
Maybe this is a natural benefit that Max enjoys, part of his makeup that requires little effort psychologically, or perhaps he works hard on the mental side of his game. Either way, the young, polite and talented fighter has found a better way than me to compliment his skills.
There are countless statements made about learning from a loss and moving forward with a better understanding of yourself, and this is where I am right now, learning from my mistakes.
Essentially, I have to change my view of what a fight is, trying to put aside the macho element that becomes either my friend or foe, depending on who my opponent turns out to be.
Much rather, I need to enter into fights without projecting anything other than a healthy respect of my opponent, regardless of the type of fighter they may be and simply have faith in my own abilities to deal with whatever they bring.
If I fail to find a way to do this and continue to place my belief in factors outside of my control, not only will I be doing my hard earned skills as a fighter a massive disservice, but I will never realise the lofty ambitions I have set for myself within the sport.
Why it has took me so long to fully accept this truth I don’t truly know, but it is my personal acceptance and one that I must and shall conquer.
Like most things in life and sports, a notion became entrenched in my psyche early doors and throughout my time, I have continued to place too much faith in it. So when things don’t occur just how I like, it becomes my personal performance choking trigger.
I do not believe for a moment that I am the only fighter with these exact same psychological triggers and there will be a variety of ways that other fighters get their juices flowing.
For now, my aim is to use no inspiration, other than my own hard-earned skills, dedication and desire to compete at my best potential. Reason enough to want to excel, don’t you think?
I will allow natural aggression to come to the fore without trying to influence my performance through mind games or falsehoods, while continuing to take the experience seriously. I will learn to enjoy what it is that I do everyday, enjoy what I work so hard at. Surely, there is zero point continuing to put precious hours of sacrifice and hard effort into my life in this sport, if I don’t take heed of the lessons.