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MMA Psychology: The use of verbal aggression in combat sports

Combat sports embrace verbal aggression in a way that other sports don't. What leads fighters to interact in a manner that is antithetical to civil society? And why do fight fans accept behavior that would be intolerable in any other context?

Jason Silva-USA TODAY Sports

At the risk of stating the obvious, being a fan of combat sports necessitates embracing behaviors one would condemn in almost any other context. Violence is antithetical to civil society, so reconciling one's passion for sanctioned combat with one's social conscience can occasionally be something of a mental gymnastics routine. However, something we rarely reflect on is the verbal aggression of fighters relative to that of other athletes. The topic doesn't carry the same weight as the consequences of violence, but it's nevertheless interesting that we accept, and even encourage, a manner of interacting that would make even the most misanthropic sociopath cringe.

Conor McGregor's charming/entertaining/obnoxious performance -- depending on who you ask -- at the UFC's recent "Go Big" press conference perfectly illustrates this point. At said event, the Irishman excoriated and belittled his peers at every opportunity. It's the kind of display one is rarely going to witness outside the culture of combat sports. To emphasize this point, let's go ahead and recast a few characters from said presser while retaining the script. Replace McGregor with Roger Federer, Donald Cerrone with Rafael Nadal and Chad Mendes with Novak Djokovic, and then allow the scene to play out in your head. Congratulations, you've just created something approaching a Monty Python sketch.

If the above scenario isn't sufficiently absurd, try to picture a professional curler channeling Mike Tyson and informing members of the opposing team that their children look awfully appetizing, or a pool player suggesting the honor of playing him is a red panties-worthy occasion. None of this is to imply that all sport beyond fighting best exemplifies civil society. To be sure, one is likely to encounter more sledging at a soccer match than at the average dinner party. But for better or worse, combat sports embrace verbal aggression in a way that others don't.

"Sports vary greatly on a continuum from passive and ‘gentlemanly' to more aggressive," argues Dr. Chris Stankovich, founder of Advanced Human Performance Systems and expert in the field of sports culture. "Using this model as a reference point, it would seem that developing a verbally aggressive attitude wouldn't help the more passive sports. In fact, you could argue the adrenaline rush would actually be counter-productive to focus, composure, and would dramatically disrupt fine motor skill movement."

"A championship-caliber chess player wouldn't help his game by verbally taunting his opponent, and could actually end up performing below his abilities by doing so, as he would likely lose the cognitive abilities needed to be successful by staying calm and strategically thinking through situations."

Even in stereotypically "masculine" sports like Basketball and Football, verbal aggression outside the competitive arena is more the exception than the rule. No matter how nasty interactions on the court or field can get, there is at least the pretence of civility when players engage publicly. In contrast, combat sports like boxing and MMA are peculiar in the way their athletes verbally spar in full view of the media.

This perhaps isn't surprising given that violence is inherently uncivil. One could even argue, as Nick Diaz recently did while being interviewed about his four-year suspension, that combat sports are in fact nothing of the sort:

I can't even go - my brother has a fight coming up; are you going to tell me I can't even go corner my brother when he goes in? This isn't a sport, this is war; this is warfare. This is a war game. He's going in there to fight for his life and I can't even go stand next to him?

It's not difficult to see Diaz's point. To some, classifying fighting as sport must seem like an effort to civilize behavior society would otherwise denounce as barbaric. Even sanctioned, consensual violence at times feels like an anomaly within civil society. Conceptually, it straddles the line between sport and spectacle. In practice, what it produces can fall some distance either side of that line. Of course, there are some rather obvious differences between combat sports and real-world violence, yet we do seem to recognize that fighting, even when sanitized for mass consumption, is primal in a way that other sports can never be. This may partly explain our casual acceptance of otherwise egregious behavior.

The seemingly rampant egomania in combat sports is another element of verbal aggression we don't tend to see elsewhere. Unlike most athletes, fighters are comfortable expressing a kind of self-reverence that would be seen as almost pathological in most settings. Imagine your friend suddenly developed and displayed a caricaturish ego of this sort. Absent the requisite charm to complement his newfound swagger, chances are he would soon find it exceedingly difficult to get in contact with you.

The truth is most of us are socialized to suppress our ego. The value society places on humility means there is probably no accomplishment that would allow us to tolerate the conceit expressed by personalities like Floyd Mayweather and Adrian Broner. If the individual who discovers the cure for cancer decides to wax poetic about her talents like science's answer to Muhammad Ali, we will be thoroughly confused. We might even be offended by such brazen immodesty. But when a fighter stiffens his opponent and articulates a level of narcissism ordinarily reserved for comic book villains and WWE heels, this appears perfectly normal to us. Our intuitions, it seems, aren't particularly well calibrated in this context.

One variable that might help explain this fact about combat sports is the relatively light schedule of its elite competitors. UFC fighters are sometimes lucky if they get to compete three times per year. Consider the vast difference between this and the competitive itinerary of tennis players. Kelsey Anderson, the wife of tennis pro Kevin Anderson, recently published a piece in which she discussed some facts of life on the ATP tour:

Can I let you in on a little secret?

Tennis players are a bunch of ‘losers.' It might sound harsh, but it's true; most tennis players suffer a loss nearly every competitive week of their career. In every tennis competition there is only one victor. Just one man will hold up the trophy at the end of each tournament, while the rest of the field will suffer a defeat.

I was discussing this exact phenomenon a few years ago with tennis legend Wayne Ferreira at the Australian Open, when he told me something poignant that really resonated with me.

He said, ‘Look, I've had what most would consider a very long and successful tennis career. And guess what, the total number of weeks in my career where I didn't lose a single match? Only 15.

It's hard to imagine fighters, especially at the top level, being able to relate to such an ego-shattering schedule. While off-days at the gym are surely common, fighters rarely taste defeat when it matters most -- though the psychological cost is more severe. It's difficult to unfetter one's ego when professional loss is an almost-weekly reality. The existence of a character like "Money" Mayweather within the culture of tennis could only ever be a Chael Sonnen-esque piece of performance art.

To that point, there is undoubtedly a certain amount of bluster mixed in with the ego. Whether the boastful proclamations of combat sports athletes are genuine might be less important than their apparent utility—over and above self-promotion. Though counter-intuitive, a certain amount of self-deception can help preserve one's sense of self-efficacy. This is never more apparent than when a fighter rattles off a series of excuses to explain away a loss. Likewise, when combat sports athletes trash talk and/or offer an exaggerated account of their abilities, there is often a little psychological sophistry at work.

"I expect most athletes who engage in this behavior are firstly trying to convince themselves," argues Dr. Stankovich. "We have an abundance of research that tells us the greater the self-efficacy, the better the athlete will perform. [Verbal aggression] can work via the placebo effect, and in other cases some fighters do it as a self-fulfilling prophecy."

"I think in combat sports it's the norm for men and women to do everything they can to have their adrenaline at its highest level. An adrenaline rush can be a very good thing, as it tends to compensate -- and mask -- for nerves and anxiety. One way of doing this is through self-talk and/or shifting the adrenaline toward the opponent. In both cases the focus is turned away from internal worries about not succeeding and toward what the athlete is going to actually ‘do' to the opponent."

"It is important to note that our minds can only focus on one thought at a time, so if a fighter focuses on verbally intimidating an opponent it makes it virtually impossible for him to simultaneously think about his own worries and insecurities. Perhaps this reality is the single biggest reason why verbal aggression could prove to be useful for some fighters."

One's sense of self-efficacy doesn't exist in a vacuum, though. How the opponent behaves can significantly alter one's own mental state. Indeed, there can be something of an inverse relationship between the self-efficacy of two competing fighters, as undermining the opponent's state of mind can also have the effect of elevating one's own psychological well-being. Ali is the most celebrated purveyor of this style of mental gamesmanship. He was at times capable of winning fights weeks or months prior to even laying a glove on his foe.

"[Verbal aggression] can also be an effort to get inside the head of the opposing athlete," Dr. Stankovich continues. "The dynamic that often develops from that is the opponent is no longer fighting to win, but instead fighting to avoid losing. A fighter could help his own self-confidence by using verbal aggression, as it provides both a form of intimidation toward the opponent and a method for ‘draining out' his own thoughts of insecurity heading into the fight, meaning he could actually fool himself into more confident way of thinking, which would squash out the thoughts of insecurity."

Despite its psychological benefits within the context of fighting, is verbal aggression ultimately a good thing for combat sports? Boxing is deeply entrenched in popular culture, so how it is perceived by the public is largely fixed. On the other hand, MMA is a relatively young sport that hasn't yet fully shed a legacy of perceived barbarism. Would a dash of civility aid the sport's battle for legitimacy? Perhaps, but it would almost certainly be insincere. While a roster full of personalities like Brian Stann and Randy Couture might sound appealing, seeing that reality in such a violent context would look like an episode of The Twilight Zone. Fighting as a category of sport is an oddity, so maybe it's only right that many of its participants conduct themselves accordingly.

With that said, the sea of trash talk and braggadocio in combat sports doesn't mean there is an absence of personal and professional respect. As we witnessed in the aftermath of UFC 192's main event between Daniel Cormier and Alexander Gustafsson, there is no shortage of warmth and sentiment in fighting. Would we really trade such moving displays of sportsmanship for a pre-fight pantomime of false modesty and social propriety?