A Month To Go.
I’m currently one month out from an amateur four man tournament for a title belt. My life has become a mixture of emotion, effort and exercise as I float between my day job and training hard in the gym as well as cleaning up my diet. I’m already starting to daydream about my opponents at work, wondering what tools they might have or how my game plan and strategy will go. I’m starting to visualise it all positively – but I can’t stop the creeping sensation of nerves that blister across the back of my neck when I think of the day.
A fighter spends at least six weeks, sometimes months, in a fight camp. While they’re in one, life is mainly about one thing – training. You disregard the flashy moves, the wilder strategies. Instead you focus on what you’re good at and what you’re going to use to win. But if you’re anything like me, you also start to deal with the mental game.
I’m sure that UFC professionals who are used to the game still get nervous. I’m sure that no matter how battle hardened you are, you still fear the unknown. What if I lose? What if I can’t make this work? What if I can’t make weight? What if I get hurt? These are all questions that fly through our minds. As early as the fight being made official, I start to tackle my emotions and keep them for going haywire. This is often a fight in itself.
Fighters of all shapes and sizes carry these emotions with them through their camp, hanging over the toughest of them like some kind of sword of Damocles. They train in the hardest fashion imaginable, punishing themselves through shark tanks and cardio burners to get fit for their bout. They punish themselves to try to ensure they don’t get punished in the cage. But all the while, they’re thinking about the fight. It’s lingering there – a doubt in their mind. Whether you’re a positive or negative person, the fight is an unknown. You can’t stop wondering.
One Week Out.
A week away, these feelings grow more intense. For professionals, the water cut usually starts a week out. They tend to stop heavy training and focus on losing those last few pounds. This alone is a mentally draining exercise that pulls you a little bit out of reality. You struggle with work, with family, with friends. You become snarky and short tempered. Even at amateur level, you’re usually dieting and resisting all the good stuff in life. Most fighters become moody bastards around this point.
The fight is now close – so the nerves are stronger. But unlike a month away, where doubt is a big factor to deal with, you’re now close enough to envision it. You see yourself winning – getting back to eating junk and having a drink to celebrate. You see the good side (and the negative among us see the bad) because you’re prepared. You know there’s nothing else to be done now.
One week to go. Then it’s time to fight.
The Day Before.
One day out is a key date. For UFC fighters and professionals, it means weigh in day. Often this is what a fighter really struggles with. Fighting in a cage is often easier than cutting 10 pounds of weight in water. You’re a dehydrated skeleton who cares very little about tomorrow as much as you care about stepping on the scales and getting rehydrated. But you still wonder. You still doubt.
Then come the weigh ins and the relief that goes hand in hand with being allowed to eat and drink again. You suddenly come alive, and then you generally have to do a stare down with your opponent. He/she is the one responsible for making you doubt and worry yourself for weeks and months. To you, it’s their fault that you’ve had to do this. Then you’re stood in front of them for a stare down and you see that they are only human. You see the same fear and excitement in their eyes. Both of you have come to win. But who will?
Donald Cerrone recently featured in a video explaining fight day emotion. He was an excellent candidate, as many were surprised by the nerves he talks about. This is a man who’ll fight basically anyone, at any time. Yet he said how nervous he feels on fight day. After all – he’s only human. We all experience fight or flight.
On fight day, you’re ready. You know you can’t run off now – you can’t escape what you’ve started. Instead, you’re brimming with a nervous excitement. You’re itching to go, but also terrified of what might happen. You see yourself winning, but you feel an unknown factor lurking on your mind. Most of the time, you’re at the venue early. You can hear the crowd forming. You’ve spent the day unsuccessfully trying to keep your mind off the evening, but all it’s managed to do is keep you sharp and focused. The fight is consuming your thought pattern.
Then you’re in the locker room warming up. You’re surrounded by coaches and team-mates. These are the people who have done their best to get you here and to armour you against your foe. You begin to consider, not for the first time, how important it is for them too. You realise the same thing you’ve realised every fight previously – these people want you to win. So you’re going to do your best to make that happen.
Warming-up is hell. You feel gassed immediately. You feel terrible on the pads. You can’t grapple to save your life. One minute you’re having your hands wrapped and the next you’re trying your best to hit combinations. And then, with all of the fear and doubt of the upcoming bout rushing through you – you hear your name being called.
A stone weight drops in your stomach.
This is it.
Your entrance music plays. You step into the cage. You face the same man you saw the day before, or maybe earlier in the venue. He looks at you and your fear seems ultimate, but you stare back and see the same emotion in his eyes.
Then, like sweet relief, the nerves vanish as the door closes. It’s time – you’re ready.