What is it Dana White looks for in the eyes of fighters at the weigh-in? (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
There was a fascinating paper that ran in Social Psychology Quarterly titled "Managing Emotional Manhood: Fighting and Fostering Fear in Mixed Martial Arts." The paper focused on how deep fear runs in even such supposedly "manly" men as mixed martial artists and the social mandate that such emotional reactions be hidden.
A small sample from early in the paper:
While fighters in the locker room prepared for combat in the cage, two men from the previous fight staggered in. Juan1-the victor-had shiny contusions under both eyes and made it to a folding chair where he sat staring into space. As two paramedics tried to keep him conscious, he cracked a smile with swollen lips and tried unsuccessfully to communicate meaningfully. As the paramedics carried Juan off on a stretcher, Mike-his opponent-leaned against a wall and talked with his trainer. As blood flowed from his nose and mouth, Mike began to sob. His trainer handed him a towel, which he brought to his face with shaking hands. When asked if he was upset about Juan, he pulled away the bloodied towel and said, "I don't like losing."
Although MMA fighters' emotion management may appear unique, it reflects a long-lived cultural mandate that "real men" control their fear and other emotions (Kimmel 1996). Peers (Fine 1987), parents (McGuffey 2008), and coaches (Messner 1992) often ostracize boys who express fear, pain, empathy, and sadness. Boys learn that they are supposed to exhibit emotional restraint and "quiet control" (Messner 2009:96). As adults, men often face fear, whether at work (Haas 1977), on the street (Anderson 1999), or in leisure activities (Holyfield and Fine 1997). And not letting fear get the best of you-exhibiting bravery-is a culturally revered quality of manhood (see e.g., Connell 1995). But how do men control their emotions, and what does this have to with gender identity?
More after the jump...
The paper also talked about some of what motivated the fear that they faced:
MMA fighters most commonly talked about fearing injury and losing. Fighters understood how painful injuries were and that serious ones could end their fighting careers, or worse. There have been two well-publicized deaths of fighters resulting from brain injuries sustained in North American MMA fights since 2007. Although interviewees agreed that, as Rocky put it, "in most cases you're going to come out of it [and] you're going to live," death lurked in the shadows of the cage. When asked what he worried about before his fights, for example, Kenneth said, "You are wondering if they are thinking of this incredible move that is really going to kill you." Dominic said, "This sport is not golf; you can't get hurt or killed playing golf." The possibility of death elevated MMA's manhood quotient.
In addition to fearing injury, cage fighters also feared losing. Casey feared looking "like a chump in front of all these people . . . if you get knocked out at your first fight in three seconds, then that's all they will remember." Mike said, "You really don't want to let your family or teammates down," and Kenneth said, "The name of the [MMA] school is kind of riding on you. You have to represent for your school." Minutes after Dean lost a fight, he said, "I feel like shit! I came out in front of my hometown and I got tapped out in like under a minute." Buster said "the feeling of losing is the worst feeling in the world, especially when you sell 100 tickets and you have a lot of your friends and family there." Jimmy said that when a fight starts going bad: "You start getting down on yourself. Like, ‘Oh no, he's going to get the chicken wing-he got the chicken wing and it hurts. Ow! I look stupid out here. I'm losing.'" Echoing others, these men suggested that they feared losing because it made them feel embarrassed and ashamed-emotions that are antithetical to cultural definitions of manhood.
It's an interesting thing to have been around the sport in various capacities and hearing how often guys talk about "nerves" and such. I actually trained with a pro fighter with well over thirty fights for a period of time to whom I confessed that I felt some degree of nerves before heavy sparring sessions, even after having sparred in boxing gyms prior to training at an MMA gym.
He said that he felt the same thing even after fighting for over ten years. That the possibility of even being embarrassed in the gym never really faded for him. Even in this space that is meant to teach, where failure should provide room for improvement, the nerves still existed.
It's interesting how well they captured the backstage atmosphere of fights and give a readable (but still scientific) overview of the fear driven motivations of the fighter.