(Does Lesnar have enough Fighter in him?)
When it comes to Mixed Martial Artists, I have found there are three distinct types of identities, or "profiles" MMA competitors tend to cultivate or gravitate towards ;
The first profile is The Fighter -
This is one of the most common profiles for Mixed Martial Artists. Competitors like Quinton "Rampage" Jackson and Nick Diaz typify this urban, street tough image. They're not into to "compete" or "for honor" they're quite literally in there looking for "gangster fucking warfare" as Nick Diaz once put it, or simply to "whoop somebody ass" as Rampage and Nate Diaz are oft quoted saying. BJ, another mixed martial arts competitor who could easily be classified as a fighter. He noted this difference once by stating "there are too many athletes and not enough fighters...". Competition is immaterial, the belt is an accessory, it's about the fighting spirit. These types of MMAists are often the most beloved. The fans love the blood thirsty malice of a Wanderlei Silva stomping his opponent's head in. And once maturity comes and takes that hatred(and maybe some ability) away, Fighters often then become "entertainers" where winning and losing is second to the quality of the show. Wandy and Rampage echo these sentiments.
(You know what you're getting with Rampage. Whomp or be whomped)
The second profile is that of an Athlete -
No one better represents this style more than Randy Couture. As someone who came into the sport of MMA already in his 30s, Couture's main drive has always been a love of competition. It would have to be for him to continue to compete at the international level in wrestling long after his college days. Unlike Diaz, there is no risk of Couture entering the cage to face his challenger eye to eye as he did with Gonzaga. Instead of taunting his opponent, Couture treats them with with the utmost respect. For every nasty word or utterance of "homie" from Rampage or Diaz, Randy Couture's buzz word is "compete". This attitude is reflected in Xtreme Couture's outlook on fighting team mates. It's a competition, nothing more. As such, fighting never takes on the deadly serious nature it does in the gyms of martial artists or Fighters.
(Couture ; "Have I ever mentioned that I love to compete before?")
The third profile is one of a Martial Artist -
The names that best exemplify best are Lyoto "The Dragon" Machida and GSP. It is no surprise that these two come from Karate, and that background deeply shapes the way they approach martial arts. The martial way they approach MMA is further reflected in both of their camps - Blackhouse and Jackson's. The training there is more intimate and secretive, and the bonds between these martial artists run deeper. It is no surprise that, AKA not withstanding, these are the two gyms that drive Dana White the most nuts by their refusal to fight each other. It is also no surprise that again Fitch and AKA not withstanding that their gyms have been known to produce fights that can be considered boring with game plans and mentalities that adhere to the idea that a martial artist take the least amount of damage as possible. Of all the styles, they value honor the most.
(From the time he was very young, Machida has been trained in traditional Karate)
Often times, there is resentment between athletes and martial artists, and their so called "fighter" counterparts. In recent memory, there was the disconnect between Rampage and Lyoto Machida. And then there is the interesting case of GSP and Dan Hardy. Hardy presents himself as A Fighter first and foremost, echoing BJ Penn's statements ;
"The biggest difference between myself and GSP is I am a fighter, GSP is an athlete"
GSP took it a step further ;
"I am a martial artist. He is not. He probably doesn't understand the meaning of this. After the fight, I guarantee he will."
Problem is Dan Hardy is a martial artist and had actually spent significant time training many forms of martial arts, including Kung Fu at a Shaolin Temple in Northern China. But GSP without doing his diligence couldn't see that.
In the end, these profiles and identities are often aesthetic. Whether imposed for marketability or simply for the fighter's own mental benefit in preparation or to hype themselves up for a fight all the people under contract to the UFC or Strikeforce are professional athletes who use martial arts in competitive fighting. They're all fighters who compete athletically with martial arts. Take Nick Diaz for instance. In his spare time, he runs triathlons and in-spite of his admitted marijauana use, maintains a very strict diet that any responsible athlete would. On top of that, he began his MMA training in TMA's at the age of four. He has also recently said he'd rather run triathlons if he could make money doing that than fight at all. But for him, adopting the mentality of A Fighter, is what gets him up. You could say it's his socio-economic class, poor from Stockton and bullied as a child, and maybe that's true, but GSP was also poor and also bullied. Yet he is a polar opposite of Diaz. And while Rampage grew up in a rough neighborhood, BJ Penn is often criticized for being born with a silver spoon in his mouth.
Many may fit none of these profiles cleanly, or two or all of these at once. Take Chuck Liddell; He started in Kempo Karate, who wrestled in college, but as he told Mike Straka took up kickboxing to continue competing in athletics, but above all that, the one category he fits more than anything else, is that of The Fighter. Would it feel right to call him anything else? Looking back into history there was Tank Abbott, who portrayed himself as a pure fighter, with a contempt for martial arts and athletics. But look deeper and you'll find someone who wrestled in college and who had trained boxing significantly. Some competitors I think struggle with their identity. No one doubts Brock Lesnar is an athlete and competitor, but he just has never felt truly comfortable in his role as a fighter. I remember getting that sense in the build up to UFC 121 with some of the things he was said in promotional materials. It didn't feel genuine. I juxtapose that against another long time athlete and competitor in Chael Sonnen who often equates what he does to a fist fight on a Saturday night. Where as Chael embraces the role, Brock appears conflicted.
(not every athlete can be a fighter)
There have been pure examples of each in the history of our sport. Athletes like Jose Canseco and Johnnie Morton who attempt competition but soon find out that there is more to the sport than simply lifting weights and training and that being punched hurts. They tend not to last. There are pure fighters, like Kimbo, who soon find out there is more than simply showing up and punching guys in the face for a stack of rolled up 20s, who have trouble with everything that comes with being an athlete, and we all remember the days of the old fashioned, one dimensional McDojo blackbelts, who while they've learned plenty of "martial arts" have never trained athletically, nor done much actual real fight, eating elbows to the side of the face with nothing to show for it but a crushed eye socket. Although, an "advanced status blackbelt" in the art of "American Ninjitsu" probably doesn't do martial artists justice properly.
For discussion ; for fun, what are some fighters that may fit the various profiles, or hybrid profile types?
(note - I tried to minimize the usage of "fighter" in this when not referring to the profile type as much as possible, and capitalize and italicize the profile best I could. Thanks to Kid Nate and Matt Roth for hooking me up on some ideas to improve this piece)