Where fighting may seem like a foreign concept to most, those who embrace and attempt to master such a violent thing have tapped into something that has always existed.
Since the dawn of mankind, it has always been. Before bronze and iron, man handled things with their hands. Thousands of years passed, those instincts remained, and fighting for survival gave way to various sports. From the Coliseum in Rome, to the overcast countrysides of Europe, hand-to-hand combat became entertainment and those who excelled—or lived to tell—became the biggest stars of the stage.
While the severity of potential danger and circumstances have changed in the 21st Century, the men and women who compete in combat sports still battle to control the unique beast that is fear. Particularly in mixed martial arts where multiple disciplines have to be repeatedly drilled, forged and sharpened over a span of many years, the inability to take control of the primal impulse can be the determining factor between success and failure.
Every athlete deals with it differently, but their ability to "summon the beast" or "calm the storm" is directly tied to the performance they are about to display. The only tried-and-true method of developing a system to deal with fear is to fight it over and over again. And this makes experience the most efficient weapon in the battle.
Ryan Bader was only seven fights into his professional career when he joined the cast on the eighth season of The Ultimate Fighter. After a standout career on the wrestling mats of Arizona State University, Bader took aim at making a run in MMA. The decision to do so produced immediate results as Bader stormed out of the gates to win his first seven showings on the regional circuit, all in the span of one year.
While he was racking up victories left and right, Bader was fully aware of how "green" his overall game was. He was finishing the opponents he faced, but athleticism and brute strength were his two primary weapons. As Bader made his way into UFC waters in 2008, he was fully aware of how quickly he was going to have to develop the technical aspects of his game, and the TUF winner immediately set about expanding his skill set.
Nevertheless, the internal struggle against his pre-fight nerves and emotions was very much front and center, and proved overwhelming in those early fights inside the Octagon.
"I would black out in there as soon as the fight got going," Bader told Bleacher Report. "You don't know what happened. There would be large portions of the fight I didn't remember. I would be closing in, they would start swinging at me, and I would just react. I would let my instincts take over and start launching hard punches back at them. It is a different mentality and it's very different with wrestlers because we are all so green when we come in. We've been training wrestling most of our lives, but only working on stand up and striking for maybe a year or two. That means you are developing your stand-up skills as you go and you are doing so at the highest level possible in the UFC.
"That can create confidence issues and that will only stoke that fight or flight response. To deal with it, at least how it was for me, I relied on that freak-out, blackout intensity where you are going full throttle in reaction mode. Eventually, you get more experience inside the cage, get comfortable and your striking skills have developed to a place where you are less brute force and more finesse.
"When wrestlers are first getting started, a lot of the fights are boring, and people want to see two guys exchanging punches in there," he added. "That creates this push that you have to start slinging shots and get away from your bread and butter, which can also throw a huge wrinkle in your mental game. Hopefully everything catches up skill wise as you are progressing, but it's a tough road to travel and a lot of fighters—wrestlers in particular—have a lot of trouble finding that balance between instinct and finesse."
Mixed martial arts by its nature is a diverse sport and the fighters competing at the top of the food chain are a direct reflection of versatility. Where some competitors find success on raw power and athleticism, the large majority of fighters working near the top of divisional hierarchies have reached that status based on technical skill. That said, there are those who incorporate technical precision all the while keeping their primal "killer instinct" razor sharp.
Of that collective, Carlos Condit is certainly a member. The former WEC welterweight champion and former interim welterweight title holder under the UFC banner, Condit has made a successful career out of putting his opposition away in brutal fashion. While "The Natural Born Killer" doesn't possess overwhelming physical size or the brand of pre-fight trash talk that evokes intimidation, when the cage door closes Condit is as dangerous as they come at 170 pounds.
Yet, despite his proven ability to level dangerous men inside the Octagon, dealing with the uncertainty of what could unfold once combat begins is absolutely a battle the Albuquerque native faces before ever stepping foot in the cage.
“I think it is an instinctual thing,” Condit told Bleacher Report back in 2013. “When I step into the cage, beneath all the fire and the technique there is some fear. There is fear that this person standing across from you is going to hurt you. It’s basic human instinct. It’s that fight or flight thing. In my mind, the quicker I put this guy out, the quicker I f****** end him, the quicker I am out of danger. That is really what it comes down to.
“You can train a guy who wants to stand in the pocket. You can train him to fight longer, to fight smarter, but it doesn’t work the other way around. A guy who doesn’t like to get on the fire line, you can’t train him to get in there to trade and take the risks. Being willing to fight where it is the most dangerous is something that comes from natural instinct—at least that is what I believe.”
The rise of the wrestler in mixed martial arts has been well-documented, and Team Alpha Male is one of the of the premier transitional squads in the sport. The Sacramento-based team's roster is filled with former NCAA Div. I All-Americans and athletes who spent years grinding it out in wrestling rooms before they ever stepped foot inside the cage, and now host a divisional champion, multiple contenders and numerous rising prospects to their credit.
In that group, Joseph Benavidez and Danny Castillo are two of the most visible members of the crew. Benavidez has challenged for a title in two different divisions and is currently recognized as one of the elite 125-pound fighters in the sport. While "Last Call" has never been faced with a championship opportunity inside the cage, Castillo has been a staple in the ranks of the lightweight division of both the UFC and the now-defunct WEC organizations.
Team Alpha Male is undoubtedly one of the top MMA gyms on the planet with the fighters involved being a tight-knit unit, yet, every fighter is their own individual, and their difference of perspective shows through where the topic of fear is concerned.
Where Bader explained the attempt to balance fear and instinct, new skills and proven weapons, Benavidez sees the process a bit differently. Although he acknowledges the tendencies of his wrestling brethren turning back to grappling when the landscape becomes questionable, Benavidez goes into the contest with fear with a different mindset.
Rather than fight with the emotions and nerves that arise, he takes a more finesse approach. Benavidez attempts to ride the ride like a wave, and is confident the end result of that process will land him in the winner's circle.
"I don't want to sound too tough or anything, but I honestly don't get too nervous or scared before a fight," Benavidez said. "I get my confidence up before a fight in what I do every single day inside the gym, and it's there when I step in on fight night. I have close to 30 fights now, but it's been this way since the beginning. Obviously, I get excited to a point where I'm motivated, focused and ready to do it, but it is more excitement than fear with me. That's not something I have to really keep in check. Yeah, there have been times where maybe I went in too excited and tried to force things too much, but that is just how I fight.
"I'm going to leave my balls out there every time and fight for the finish. Maybe that is something I need to keep in check but I feed off that energy and excitement. I just turn whatever would be fear and nerves into excitement and go out there confident. The way I see it, I'm training every day—and that sucks—when the fight is finally there I'm ready to go. I maybe had some nerves in my first few fights, but I even remember then that I was waiting for this big swell of nerves to hit me. And they never came. I've always been able to keep my emotions in check.
"The only time where my emotions maybe got the best of me was in the first fight with Demetrious Johnson," he added. "But it was the exact opposite. I got too excited because I wanted the belt too much and wanted that win so bad that I went out there and forced everything. But it wasn't necessarily a fear or nerve thing.
"At the end of the day, winning is the most important thing. Guys shouldn't steer away from their wrestling. But if you are one-dimensional in that aspect, you better be pretty damned good at it and not lose, because they can't cut you if you are winning. Once you put on a few boring performances—even if you win in those fights—you put yourself in a bad position because all it is going to take is that one loss to put you out. You have to be well-rounded and put on exciting fights, but you aren't going to find many fighters who won't tell you winning is the most important thing to them. I know it is to me."
Where his teammate calls the energy pulsing through his body on fight night excitement, Castillo not only has a different view on the matter, but also travels a different route in order to combat it. The seasoned veteran has parlayed years of experience in the wrestling realm into success inside the cage, and along that journey, the pre-competition jitters took on a much different meaning.
While the issue was once a matter of winning or losing, having his livelihood at stake is the primary source of fear where Castillo is concerned. He's worked diligently for the past six years to establish himself in a highly competitive environment and he knows that can be taken away in an instant. Castillo has taken steps to condition his mind in a similar fashion as he prepares his body for the fight, and those efforts have started to pay dividends when the cage door closes.
"It's fear for me, but that fear comes from different places," Castillo said. "You have that classic interview where Mike Tyson was talking about how afraid he would get, but as he walks closer to the ring he could feel his knuckles piercing his gloves, and he could feel himself getting stronger as the fight approached. Mike Tyson is one of the f****** baddest boxers ever and he was scared.
"Every fighter gets scared in some way or another. Maybe some guys don't get worked up about the actual fight, but I guarantee there are things floating around in their minds. The UFC is so competitive and anything can happen, man. Every fighter on the UFC roster wants to keep their spot and losing will make that tough to do. I'm the kind of guy that does everything possible to prepare and I've been working with a hypnotherapist on this issue. I've done some amazing work with Elliot Roe and it's really helped me.
"It's nerves for sure. But the way I see it, any time you have thousands of dollars at stake, you are going to be afraid. I can't live on my show money alone. I created a lifestyle for myself and I work hard to keep it. I'm not out there rocking gold chains or have 26" rims on my car—I drive a Honda Civic by the way—but I want to keep living the way I do and the thought of losing that freaks me out. There is definitely a fear there, no doubt about it. But with the work I'm doing with my hypnotherapist, it is definitely changing. It has taken six years, but it is changing.
"Throughout my first 15 fights, I couldn't tell you a thing about what happened," he added. "You just kind of black out and don't remember anything. It's all so nerve-wracking. But now, I'm trying to be in the moment and enjoy this sh** because I don't know how many more fights I have left. The last couple fights have been better in that regard, but there is still a lot of work to do. I'm feeling better than I ever have and I'm taking in every moment of this journey."
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.
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