Religion and MMA: What Is the Function of Religious Faith in Mixed Martial Arts?

James MacDonald@@JimMacDonaldMMAFeatured ColumnistAugust 25, 2013

It is an occasionally-lamented fact that religion and mixed martial arts—and sport generally—are seemingly intertwined. Wherever there is a sanctioned fist fight, expressions of religiosity are sure to be found.

To some fans these declarations of faith are no doubt inspirational, but just as many are uncomfortable witnessing fighters preach a version of religious faith that could be perceived as self-serving.

Viewed from that perspective, it is easy to sympathise with those who seethe whenever God’s will is invoked in victory.

When Jon Jones thanks God for helping him strangle an opponent into an unconscious heap, some significant percentage of even the most devout must cringe.

Given the suffering that is routinely visited upon much of the world’s population, such self-centred professions of faith should sound like nails on a chalkboard to anyone with a rational bone in their body.

Is God really sitting up in the clouds rigging the outcomes of sporting contests, like some sort of celestial match-fixer, while waving his foam finger and chugging from a beer helmet?

This is the caricatured vision of those who grow weary of listening to countless celebratory declarations of faith.

Then again, perhaps my impatience in this context is a reflection of my own bias as a non-believer. To assume that all athletes pray for victory via divine intervention would be a little uncharitable of me.

Put another way, athletes like Tim Tebow and Jon Jones may be more the exception than the rule. Some, like Benson Henderson, are more modest with their prayer wishes.

Speaking in 2010, the UFC’s current lightweight king stated simply: “Before my fights I pray for strength and honour.”

Other religious mixed martial artists are at pains to further minimise the role their faith plays when the cage door shuts.

In a 2012 interview with Ben Fowlkes, Chael Sonnen expressed disdain for the notion that his God would ever intervene in the outcome of a cage fight:

"You know, these guys want to talk about God. 'Oh, I want to thank God. I want to thank God.' Listen, I'm a God-fearing man, go to church every Sunday and have since I was a boy. But if I ever found out that God cared one way or another about a borderline illegal fist-fight on Saturday night, I would be so greatly disappointed that it would make me rethink my entire belief system."

With such divergent views, the function of faith in MMA seems entirely dependent on one’s perspective.

If God really is treating mixed martial artists like his own personal collection of action figures, I would argue that issues like Testosterone Replacement Therapy are the least of our worries.

I can scarcely imagine a more potent performance enhancer than having an omnipotent deity on one’s side—all without having to worry about elevated levels of Yahweh, traces of Jesus metabolites or being granted God exemptions from the NSAC.

In truth, we needn’t even broach questions of ontology. The MMA section of Bleacher Report is hardly the place to examine religion’s truth claims, anyway.

With that in mind, it’s probably best to focus on terrestrial explanations for the role occupied by religious faith in MMA.

The issue of whether some otherworldly entity is on the other end of the line listening to one’s prayers isn’t necessarily relevant.

Held with sufficient conviction, simply believing in the efficacy of prayer may be beneficial in and of itself, even if one’s wishes are ultimately being relayed to a dial tone.

A belief doesn’t have to map neatly onto reality in order for it to confer certain benefits. Rather, faith could function much like a placebo, positively altering one’s state of mind, even if the belief itself isn’t objectively true.

A 2000 study by Jeong-Keun Park of Seoul University apparently demonstrated the positive effects of religious faith in Korean athletes, including reducing anxiety and aiding peak performance.

As one study participant pointed out:

"I always prepared my game with prayer. I committed all things to God, without worry. These prayers make me calmer and more secure and I forget the fear of losing. It resulted in good play."

Jonathan Edwards, generally considered the greatest triple jumper of all time, was a famously devout Christian who lost his faith upon retiring from athletics.

In a 2007 interview about his de-conversion, the former Olympic champion echoed the findings of Park’s study:

"Looking back now, I can see that my faith was not only pivotal to my decision to take up sport but also my success…I was always dismissive of sports psychology when I was competing, but I now realise that my belief in God was sports psychology in all but name."

It’s difficult for a non-believer—or perhaps even a moderate—to understand how empowering that kind of faith can be.

Those of us who can’t relate to that category of belief can only really speculate, which makes it easy for us to casually dismiss public expressions of faith as self-indulgent or narcissistic—they sometimes may indeed cross that line.

One might expect career setbacks to undermine a fighter’s belief system and expose the illusory nature of the placebo effect, but religious faith tends to be surprisingly resilient.

Muhammad Ali once asked rhetorically: “How can I lose when I have Allah on my side?”

But almost all fighters lose, no matter how religious they are.

You might think that a televised beatdown would provoke pause for doubt, but adversity often reinforces faith, as though the robustness of one’s belief system is being tested.

As Matthew Syed points out in his book Bounce, which examines the psychology and neuroscience behind sporting success, it isn’t a coincidence that so many religious athletes are so self-assured, boasting the kind of self-belief that often appears unshakeable.

Possessing tunnel vision isn’t a positive attribute in life generally, but it has obvious benefits in the context of mixed martial arts, where a premium is placed on mental strength and single-mindedness.

Some of us may roll our eyes and tut whenever God is mentioned in a post-fight interview with Joe Rogan, but there is no doubt that religion plays a significant role in the success of many mixed martial artists.

We don’t have to like it, but it’s probably time to accept it.



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