There are two other parts to this article: physical aptitude and skill set. While those two are extremely crucial ingredients to making a great fighter, I feel that someone’s mental aptitude can make the difference.
One of the many things Martial Arts teaches you is that the mind is your most powerful weapon. Often enough, despite a fighter having great skills and physical tools to win the fight, he loses it in his mind before he steps into the ring.
I am splitting this topic up into three categories: Confidence, Determination, and Fight IQ.
Being a confident fighter is very important. When you are confident about yourself and your abilities, then you will end up executing a better game plan during your fight. When a fighter doubts either himself or his capabilities, he tends to hesitate in his fight. A split second hesitation is all that is needed to lose a fight.
Another thing about confidence is that when you truly believe that you will win a fight, you will not be scared to try something new that you were working on. Confidence will lead to an increased aggression that might earn you a knockout. It will also prevent you from becoming unraveled if your opponent gets a successful flurry or exchange.
We have seen a lot of fighters fight better fights when they earn their confidence during the fight. Rashad Evans and Forrest Griffin had confidence issues while fighting Tito Ortiz. Midway through the fight they saw that they deserved to be in the ring with their opponent, and can actually do some major damage. Both fighters then showed a huge improvement and almost won their fights.
Georges St. Pierre was not feeling very confident when he fought Matt Hughes for the first time. This resulted in a slight mistake which cost him the fight. Since then, he worked on that issue and walks into the ring every single time knowing he is going to win. Chuck Liddell once said “I don’t go into every fight planning to knock the other guy out. I just know that it’s going to end that way.”
Those examples from a few great fighters show that confidence is an important thing to have when you are a fighter.
It is not very hard to motivate yourself on fight night. The fight is already there, and it is not very hard to fight in front of many fans and on television. It is very hard to motivate yourself to go train. No one is there to watch you and no one cheers for you. Most fighters deal out a lot of punishment when fighting. While training, however, they end up taking a lot of it.
You need to be mentally strong so that you actually show up for training. Besides actually showing up, you need to be able to push yourself harder, faster and longer than the other man. It is difficult to push yourself, but we have seen the difference work ethic makes in a fight. Georges St. Pierre Vs. BJ Penn II was a very good example. While BJ was taking a week off, St. Pierre was in the gym working hard so that he could win. You can’t train that.
Besides pushing yourself in training, you must be mentally strong enough to be able to push yourself in a fight. When you lost the first two rounds and are too tired to even breathe coming out for the third round, it's a hard thing to do.
Having the determination to come out for that third round and fight your fight might get you the knockout win. George St Pierre did that after taking a beating in the first round of his first fight with BJ Penn. Although he did not knock him out, he ended up winning by a split decision.
After a loss it is even more important to be determined enough to get back into the gym and keep training so that you can win your next fight. After a loss your confidence suffers a lot and it is twice as hard to do it. But only the truly great ones have the inner strength to keep working hard so that you may win your next fight.
This is something that can be trained. Although it takes a lot of time to work certain techniques into your instincts, it has been done before. A great fighter knows where his strengths are, and knows which techniques will win him the fight. He knows when to do what and how to avoid his opponent’s strengths and attacks.
Lyoto Machida is a very good example of this. He knows that striking is his strength and he will not hesitate to use his advantage against his opponents. He will prevent take downs because being on his back may be his weak point.
George St. Pierre is also a very good example. He utilizes his fight IQ to negate his opponent's advantages and impose his will. He prevented Matt Hughes from taking him down, took Matt Serra down right away, and clinched BJ Penn till his arms were too tired to be effective.
In conclusion, these three criteria will differentiate an average fighter from a great one. Hopefully some of the people reading my series of articles will appreciate the great ones a little bit more for the hard work they put in to entertain us.