Recently Alexander Volkanovski gave an interview after his recent loss, there he exposes the human element of a sport that many on the outside do not understand. For much of the fanbase, athletes are a collection of statistics, highlight reels and avatars to adore and despise. They are creatures of a sport that they can become defined by, or help to build. Among the greats, those memorable names of a sports history are thousands who linger close to the sun or who orbit far in greatness’s distance. Volkanovski will no doubt go down as one of the sports greats, though his path and feelings are very much universally felt.
There is a fatalist element to fighting, a sense of nihilism that can steer a fighter to a certain course. They will often take fights on short notice or that they may not be ready for, whether that is due to injuries, personal moments or the fact that they may be underdone in their career, or heaven forbid over the hill. Regardless, many will take these fights where a loss or poor showing may send them into an oblivion or find them having to explain to outsiders why they did not perform at optimal levels. Those asking such questions are usually virgins, naive of any experience, so they look at events with a voyeurs disregard.
In the beginning, regardless of reasons to become a fighter, the young has a twinge of optimistic zeal. They may see what they are doing with romance, perhaps it is an extension of manhood or at the very least an expression of it. It is competition, maybe it can help them overcome trauma or extend from the overall need for self defence. There can be a sweetness, it’s exciting. It can stay this way as well. Though, it is not always beautiful even when you love the sport. It can take its toll and despite the bitterness and wary words of veterans, the new bloods will press on regardless, either knowing better, ignoring the warnings or because within them is a reason that is personal, a motivation that may steer them into a place where ones best interest is not served. Maybe, that is where glory is found? A slither between fatalism, isolation, suicide, ruination, poverty and admiration, fame, celebrity and greatness?
Sometimes, the loser can present excuses, the real and invented, or they can simply state, “I was unable to pull the trigger.” Most fighters understand this. We have all been in situations, where the implementation, the trigger pull is harder than it should be. Human error or fragility, the imperfect reality that exists. It is also a reminder why those very few greats, really earn that title, “GREAT”. They are exceptional, consistently good, despite any setbacks they return, overcome. That is rare. It should be understood to be rare. Yet, those who dare to risk are often expected to validate their failure, to know with articulate coherence in the moments after defeat, the why to voyeuristic strangers.
Those who are drawn to fighting as a sport are usually not motivated to make money, there are plenty of other ways to make it. Some may have something inside of them that aligns with the mercenary desire for wealth and, we have seen them become ‘greats’ or at the very least successful. Others are drawn by a darkness, they feel a pull into the arena to prove themselves, to be challenged, to beat another person and perhaps to beat themselves as they chase glory and victory. The investment can consume their real life, become their personality. In the social media age we can see people who have yet to play the sport define themselves by it online, those fighters who aspire or were once, embrace the imagery.
I say this as someone who still has one of my fighter photos as a social media picture, perhaps as a point of contradiction or as a conflation between two realms that have never been separated by me, but by others seems unnatural That of writing, intellect and the fighter, supposedly a physical spectre of brutal violence. To be a polymath or have different abilities is alien in a world where we are ever using multi-tool devices for our day to day. Yet, Leonardo Da Vinci, even a Winston Churchill to a Gene Tunney were people who did more than one thing at a certain level. In the case of Tunney, it was a point of resentment, how dare a prize fighter be well read and enjoy the company of intellects, while the public understood the visceral violent presence of his great foe, Jack Dempsey. These are realities, known human nuances they themselves understand that a fighter must face before the mob of onlookers.
The compulsion to compete can be a reckless and dangerous thing for an individual. It also profits others. Those who really make the money from the sport. A fighter is a perishable commodity, they have a limited shelf life and are only of value in so far how much money they can bring in. This requires fighters to cultivate a personality that may be anti-thesis to who they truly are. They need to continue to get fights, support themselves and family so they do what the fans want, and act accordingly. Then others may be blessed to have a nature and character that is fan friendly. Those who stay true to themselves, may struggle. Inactivity, low pay and frustration culminating with the darkness that may already reside within.
Then one can be reminded that they are in the entertainment business, that it is to be more about entertaining an audience rather than winning or even fighting. Should a fighter be too good then they are despised, prime Roy Jones Jr for example suffered this, even Anderson Silva was accused of winning ‘safe’ at times. The mob of the crowd apparently desiring reckless bravado and risk taking for the sake of it, then when a fighter becomes a broken asset, they will cry crocodile tears. An intelligent fight fan understands the subtle nature of combat, those who want a meme of a fight will have those moments also. A fighters job should be to win fights, the entertainment factor of such a victory is subjective. The ‘boring’ fights will occur, they should emphasise those that are exciting, where fighters have a certain chemistry. Rather than demanding every fight should be a barn burner or that each fighter should reduce themselves to tough men contestants sprinting to win or lose fast, maybe fans should know that which they claim to love a bit more.
Perhaps a fans understanding and what they want from the sport should be called into question, if they would rather watch Don Fry vs Takayama and consider that a great fight as an example. To place it above the culmination of Frye’s rivalry with Ken Shamrock or his two bouts versus Mark Coleman. What one derives pleasure from should reflect upon their own lusts and interests, it’s about them. Not about the performers who are competing, sacrificing and risking. Some fighters may feel an incentive to simply bang, to lock horns. Entertaining for many, even at times career defining. To what end though?
A sport that fetishises what substances an athlete is allowed to have to keep training, one that passes judgement if a fighter struggles with a weight cut, one that ignores the fighters once they leave the arena. What do these people owe the mob watching them? Is it not enough that they are doing the sport? Victory often never feels as good as losing hurts. There can be a lack of sweetness to some, if not all victories. More a sense of relief that you did not fail, that you did not let down others, were not a loser. You worked hard for the fight, trained and sacrificed, sometimes you even get paid. The feeling after your hand is raised can vary from person to person, for some, its nothing. It is perhaps what should have happened, we did after all work very hard for it. We took risks, did things at the right moment and won. Though, what if some fighters are doing it for other reasons to? Reasons they themselves can’t communicate, even to themselves, rather they have an instinct to simply fight.
A fighter can even suffer a post event depression, where a funk of darkness or sadness can hit, once the match is over. The hard work and anticipation of the event all culminated into a moment that is now over. Suddenly you are back to the day to day, you have nothing booked ahead of you. Nothing to work towards, questions may run through your mind. I suspect this is why some athletes have an unhealthy relationship with party culture and recreational drugs. Discipline suddenly becomes a word, escapism takes over. It is why philosophy was invented, though in the moments of the darkness where self control and introspection is most important, that is when some fighters truly fail.
Losing on the other hand is a disappointment, a dark feeling of failure. Not only do you feel that you have let down those who helped you, the fans who look to you but every other person you have ever known, even those who don’t care about your sport. You feel as though you are inferior, another person has defeated you, even if you have an excuse or a reason in your mind that may very well have genuinely played into that loss. It does not matter. History has recorded the ‘L’ next to your name and the jackals that make up the fan base do not care. To them it is proof that you may never have been good, or that you are a flawed specimen.
None of that takes into account injuries. Those which will linger and change how a fighter lives the rest of their life, let alone how they train and compete. Fighters adapt their game plans and techniques based on what they no longer can do. What is an excuse for most people to be lazy, the fighter has to over come and endure. Then the little injuries that keep them up at night, that hurt all the time or for a time and impose on training sessions, leading to or after a fight. It does not matter, one has to go on. Oftentimes they are forbidden from taking basic supplements and pain killers that the average person relies upon to work an office job. And should a fighter try something that is suddenly banned, their legacy is ruined. So instead, they are forced to suffer without any such aids. Injuries hit harder for those who push themselves than what is experienced by those who have never ever known what hard work and practice brings. That can erode the mind and spirit as well for a fighter. It sucks to lose a fight because your own body fails you, this I know personally. It causes you to doubt yourself long after.
Fighters are human beings, it may only be a fight or a series of weeks that separates one from being an unknown to a viral star. The instant fame is somehow supposed to mean that their personal life, everything they have ever said or done comes into question. Suddenly outsiders become experts on their career and “style” and they are meant to become ‘packageable’ otherwise they will no longer get fights. Then, as we saw with Volk when they do lose, in those moments after such a loss they are expected to answer to a world of outsiders. Suddenly a ‘normal person’ is expected to be called names, hated, sent insulting messages or to be stalked, to have their image as a tattoo on a strangers body to being the most important icon in someones life all because of the celebrity created by their climb over the bodies of their fellow combatants. One victory at a time and they are suddenly fair game to the world.
Despite the inhuman lust to see these human beings as avatars of a sport, icons and a collection of statistics they are human beings. Ever flawed. They hurt, doubt, experience sadness. Training and experience will only help them better navigate those factors, but it does not lessen them. That is likely why one of the most important aspects of fighting is mindset. The mentality. That which can’t be truly appreciated without a body of work behind a fighter or even unless one has been around a person who continues to put in the work, to show up, to help others and who they are when frustrated or under pressure. The real pressure tends to be outside the arena, that will also bleed inside. That is where mentality and mindset is most apparent.
This was not intended to be a long piece and I could cover a lot more on the topic. I feel that, for what it’s worth, as someone who played the sport and has been around those who were more successful at it, that I could share a snippet of insight. Like most things it is complicated and nuanced. Though often the very things that drive a fighter can also be those which tend to exploit them in the end. That does not mean promotions are evil, it’s maybe more about the fans themselves and their disconnected relationship to the sport, to the fighters. Maybe, despite loving something, at times they don’t know it as maybe they should. On the weekend, two talented human beings fought, one won, one lost. We have a glimmer recorded for all time the words of a man who is likely an avatar to many, behind it, lurks the beating heart of a person. Maybe we should listen to people who do and have done rather than only hear them, the sport and life itself would be better for it.