Making your debut in a sport at a higher level of competition can be a daunting endeavor. Nervousness and the thought of not performing at the level you're capable of inundate your thoughts, and the entire situation can turn into a battle against your mind rather than an opponent who is physically standing in front of you.
This can happen at all levels of competition. High school baseball players making the jump to college or minor league summer ball, middle school boys entering the competitive high school basketball scene, or young women trying out for the college volleyball team. All of these yearly sports competitions involve the "jitters" and the pressure to perform at your highest ability to impress fans, scouts, supporters, Mom & Dad, and yourself.
Mixed martial arts is no different. We've heard countless stories about the "UFC jitters". Kenny Florian spoke about "freezing up" in his bout with Diego Sanchez at The Ultimate Fighter Season 1 Finale. Rashad Evans talked about how thinking too much about what he wanted to do before fighting Sam Hoger mentally drained him. Patrick Barry admitted to having doubts before his debut and shaking uncontrollably. Xavier Foupa-Pokam claimed he was short of breath and tense during his debut at UFC 97.
The "UFC jitters" could be only one of many problems that can occur for debuting fighters. Lack of preparation, conditioning, and a small set of skills can all attribute to a poor performance. Unfortunately, one fighter on the UFC 109 fight card seemed to suffer from every possible reason why he was a failure.
Second-degree Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Rolles Gracie made his heavyweight debut on Saturday night against the uniquely-nicknamed Joey "The Mexicutioner" Beltran in preliminary action. Gracie's poor level of conditioning, lack of striking ability, and look of carelessness climaxed at the 1:31 mark of the second round as the referee pulled Beltran off of Gracie. The fight was a complete disaster for Rolles, and it's worth exploring whether Rolles felt the immense pressure of living up to the Gracie family name in the moments before the fight.
Was Rolles perhaps rushed too quickly into the UFC? It's possible, but having Renzo Gracie and Greg Jackson in his stable of trainers should have produced a much better performance.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, 2008 NCAA Division I wrestling champion Phil Davis was successful in his debut against former WEC light heavyweight champion Brian Stann. Davis completely dominated Stann on his way to an unanimous decision that saw two judges give him 30-26 scores. It was a very impressive performance, and it should be a testament to the mental strength that Davis has to be unaffected by the "jitters".
The major difference in the two performances could come down to Davis' pedigree as a champion wrestler. It's been stated numerous times by the wrestling elite in this sport that wrestling was the ultimate preparation tool for not only the physical demands of MMA, but for the mental game as well. Wrestlers like Josh Koscheck, Cain Velasquez, Jon Fitch, Chael Sonnen, and Randy Couture all continue to be rock solid mentally in preparation for their fights. Has wrestling truly been able to mold these fighters into mental fortresses, unaffected by the nervousness of an upcoming fight?
It's possible. After all, these events are very similar to what they've done their whole life. Wrestling programs also seem to breed confidence in their wrestlers with mental tests in the form of exhausting preparation. If these guys were able to hack it in the collegiate wrestling scene and become champions, those skills would easily translate to success in mixed martial arts.
For a guy like Rolles Gracie, it may take a considerable amount of time to breed that sort of confidence and mental preparation. A loss against Joey Beltran may be exactly what he needs to pick up his training, gain a considerable amount of confidence, and become a mentally tougher fighter for the future. Sometimes, a loss is exactly what a fighter needs.